Saturday, 23 January 2010

Becoming an Orthodox Nun

Some time ago we received the following message that we have only now been able to turn our attention to:

Dear beloved Orthodox Monk:

As always I am praying for you every day. I am just a simple woman, so I have a simple question. Is there an age limit for people who are thinking of monasticism?

I am sure many people in the world today are attracted to it, simply because the world is, well...more evil than ever. I understand that it is a calling, and not just a "whim". I understand that God either calls us to life in family or life in monasticism. But I would just like to know about this - and also, although I love your commentaries, (thank you so much for the explanation of the Lords Prayer!! Glory to God for that!) I would love to someday see a monk or nun write something like "A Day In the life of ..." Ivan Ivanovitch is interesting, but not as interesting to me as our wonderful Orthodox nuns and monks.

God bless you!


PS: Please forgive my spelling. I am embarrassed because you are very educated. I have severe dyslexia and I struggle. Please forgive me.

Let us first take the question of whether there is an age limit for people thinking of monasticism. The answer is no, but there are factors which both the postulant and the monastery have to take into account.

First of all, let us look at the issue of a lower age limit. Let us look at the situation in a jurisdiction such as the United States. In the United States, the Orthodox Church is a minority church and cultural norms from the countries of origin of various Orthodox jurisdictions cannot be applied across the board in the United States without modification. There is a historical tradition of early vocations in Orthodox countries which would not be proper in the United States largely for legal, but also for social, reasons. In other words, it wouldn’t make sense for a postulant to be received into a monastery who was not legally an adult. It would cause too much trouble legally and socially—too much scandal. That is not to say that a person interested in monasticism who was still a minor could not visit a monastery with the permission of his or her parents.

In general, moreover, nowadays young men and women from urban settings do not have the emotional and spiritual maturity—despite being old beyond their years because of what they see on television—to become monks or nuns until they are nearing their thirties. They are simply incapable before that of living a monastic vocation. Of course there are exceptions.

Moreover, our own view is that before the person enters the monastery he or she should be as well-educated as is suitable given his or her abilities. This is necessary in part for psychological reasons, in part for social reasons. The psychological reasons are that a person who is undereducated is going to get fed up with his way of life in the monastery. He or she is going to get fed up with his or her underutilization of his or her ability—for example, assuming that he or she is able, at not being able to read Scripture in the original language, at not being able to read the Fathers of the Church, at not being able to understand the Services in the original language, at not understanding deeply the dogmas of the Church.

The social reasons are that everyone, even in the monastery, has a reference group (their ‘cohort’). If the members of a person’s cohort are well-educated, while it might seem romantically wonderful that the vocation has renounced all of that to lead a simple life in the monastery worshipping the one true Trinitarian God, still, there will be a temptation for the monk or nun when the initial enthusiasm wears off and the monk or nun sees visiting members of his or her cohort functioning at a much higher intellectual level than he or she. This might lead the monk or nun to try to compensate in various non-monastic ways for the disparity in educational level with members of his or her cohort, to the detriment of his or her vocation and to the detriment of the peace and good order of the monastic brotherhood.

While we have emphasized intellectual skills, this is true even of musical or artistic skill.

In all of these cases, however, there will be a delay in the entry of the vocation into the monastery because of the time spent in studies.

We are also of the view that there is a danger if the vocation has not lived an adult role in society before entering the monastery. This is hard to explain but what we have in mind is the danger of a vocation that is trying to escape an adult role in society, and the responsibility that it entails, by entering the monastery. It would be better for the person to have an adult role in society for a period of time—for example by holding gainful employment in his or her field of training—so that there would occur the psychological maturation necessary for the vocation not to remain in a dependent, child-like state in the monastery. Ultimately, you have to take responsibility, even in the monastery. While the monk or nun is committed to obedience, it is better to be obedient in a condition of psychological adulthood.

Let us turn to the more substantive issue being raised by ‘Blackincense’. Is there an upper age limit to the monastic vocation? No.

However, the younger a person is (despite what we have just said about legal adulthood and emotional and spiritual maturity) the more able that person is able to adapt to the demands of the monastic vocation.

With very late vocations, there is a danger that the vocation will not really grasp what monasticism is all about—the combat against the passions so as to attain to the love of Christ, both given by Christ to the monk or nun, and given by the monk or nun to Christ and to others.

This being said, one of the most remarkable saints in the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’ was an old man named Paul the Simple who went off to the desert to become a disciple of St Anthony when his wife cuckolded him. St Anthony refused him largely because of his age but Paul simply didn’t take no for an answer. St John of Sinai, the great theoretician of the monastic state, remarks that no one has ever made so much progress so quickly as Paul the Simple—exactly because of his simplicity.

As we age, there are greater difficulties in adapting to the monastery but we also have a clearer idea of who we are, and presumably our experience of life has given us the requisite psychological and spiritual maturity.

Now the next thing that is implicit in what ‘Blackincense’ is saying is whether there is an issue with her dyslexia. In general, cognitive difficulties that do not prevent one from leading a relatively normal life in the world do not prevent one from becoming a monk or nun. We ourselves, although we are by no means an expert, would tend to include dyslexia in this.

The problem arises when there are emotional or other disorders which prevent one from relating to other people normally or else are so debilitating as to prevent a normal life inside or outside the monastery.

We once saw a women’s monastery where the Abbess seemed to be collecting emotionally disturbed vocations. She was also a bit fanatical. This seemed to us to be a dead-end road. Eventually normal vocations will not be able to function in the fundamentally disturbed emotional environment of the monastery and they will leave either before or after their tonsure. Or they will themselves become disturbed as their own disturbed tendencies become exaggerated and reinforced within the disturbed society of the monastery.

In general terms, the only possible case in which a dysfunctional person can be successfully integrated into a monastery is if the Abbot or Abbess has the discernment and strength to handle the person spiritually, and if the monastery is otherwise large and healthy enough that the presence of the dysfunctional person does not distort the social fabric of the monastery so much as to make it a disturbed social system. Of course, dyslexia is not such a serious problem as this.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I was looking for some of these answers, and got a lot more.