Monday, 31 May 2010

The Monastic Vocation

It seems to us that a good follow-on to the previous post, Questions about Orthodox Monasticism, would be a discussion of the nature of the monastic vocation from the point of view of those asking about becoming an Orthodox monk or an Orthodox nun.

Let us look at some of the scriptural citations of the last post in more detail. First, 1 Cor. 7, 36 – 38.

If someone thinks he is behaving badly towards his maiden, if he is of surpassing sexual vigour and thus it must happen, let him do what he wants; he does not sin; let them marry. However, if anyone has stood stably in his heart, not having necessity, and has authority over his own will, and has judged this in his heart, to keep himself a virgin, he does well. So that he who marries does well but he who does not marry does better.

This is St Paul discussing human psychology. What is he saying? If someone really cannot control his desires then let him get married; it is not a sin. If, however, a person can in fact control his desires and has decided in his own heart to keep himself a virgin, he does better. St Paul was writing in an era when people had the personal freedom to do whatever they wanted, much like today, and he is analyzing the monastic vocation from the point of view of the free existential choice for or against celibacy. There is no compulsion; there is no room for sexual guilt; there is no sense that what is involved in choosing celibacy is psychological immaturity or neurotic compulsion. Rather the young man (or woman) takes a look at himself (or herself) and makes a choice. And Paul is saying that that choice between celibacy and marriage hinges on the ability of the person willingly to keep himself or herself chaste. Recall that in 1 Cor. 7, 8 – 9 Paul has said this:

I say then to the unmarried and to the widows that it is good for them to remain even as I am [celibate] but if they do not keep continent then let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Let us now look again at what Our Lord said in Matthew 19, 9 – 12:

I say then to you that whoever dismisses his wife, if not for fornication, and marries another commits adultery and she who is dismissed commits adultery if she marries. His disciples said to him: If this is the basis of legal action for a man with the wife, it is not profitable to marry. He then said to them. Not all can receive this word, but those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb;[1] and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men;[2] and there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God; let he who is able to receive this word, receive it.

The Lord clearly states that ‘[n]ot all can receive this word, but those to whom it is given’. So there are really two criteria for celibacy: the person who is thinking of celibacy must not be dominated by his desires—in that case it is better for him to marry—but he must also be called by the Lord to the celibate life. This is consistent with what Paul is saying in 1 Cor. 7, 7:

For I wish that all men were as myself [celibate]. But everyone has his own gift from God, one this way and one that way.

It might be useful to compare this to other religions. In Sunni Islam the norm is quite different. A Kuwaiti once remarked to us that the ideal in (classical Sunni) Islam is a (lifelong) monogamous marriage and that the Koranic possibility of having up to four wives is a concession to human weakness (as evidently would be the man’s right to keep female slaves). The Kuwaiti found the Christian ideal of celibacy and the concession to human weakness of lifelong monogamous marriage really quite remarkable. It should also be understood that in classical Sunni Islam, divorce is easy for the man and difficult for the woman.

Now when Gospel says that getting married is not a sin it is to be understood that what is implied is a traditional Christian marriage. Marriage is not a sin if it is approached in a Christian way. You can even get remarried after your spouse dies, and in the Orthodox Church, remarried up to 2 more times. No one is forced to choose celibacy but the alternative is a traditional Christian marriage. Although Paul was writing in an age when anything went, just like today, he is not permitting just anything but positing a choice between celibacy and traditional Christian marriage. And this is implicit in what our Lord himself says in the four Gospels, as can be seen in the passage of Matthew quoted above and from an analysis of how Our Lord understood himself to be positioned in regard to the ethical teachings of the Judaic Law. See for example the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus came not to abolish the Judaic ethical law but to fulfil it.

Although traditional Christian marriage is not a sin, nowhere in the Gospel is there a provision for trial marriage: Despite what people think today, there is no provision in the Gospel for young men and women to test drive each other in bed before deciding whether to marry each other. Necessarily this aspect of the Gospel puts the decision to marry on a different plane: criteria other than raw sexual compatibility must form the decision of the man and woman to marry.

Is this wrong? Why wouldn’t God have put sexual compatibility high on the list of criteria for marriage? Possibly because it’s not the right criterion. Given divorce rates in the West, where such premarital bed-testing is now the societal norm, perhaps test-driving your fiancĂ©e or fiancĂ© just doesn’t really tell you anything about what’s it’s going to be like to live with that person the rest of your life. Moreover, God wants people to be ‘God-driven’ not ‘sex-driven’. So there must be other, more spiritual criteria for choosing a wife or husband. What might those other criteria be? While sexual attraction clearly plays a role in choosing a mate, in a devout Christian environment the emotional and spiritual maturity of each party is important and there is necessarily more emphasis on how the other person behaves in society, and on his or her ability to adopt an adult Christian role in the community. Moreover, it must be said that in the Gospel orientation it is assumed that both the man and the woman will receive advice from persons with more spiritual development and experience of life. We ignore here the issue of arranged marriages except for these remarks: those who defend arranged marriage sometimes comment that stable marriages are more a matter of the love that arises from commitment than the commitment that arises from romantic attraction; that the love that makes for a life-long stable marriage is not the same as the romantic sexual love that is test-driven in bed before marriage; and that outsiders who know both parties are often better able to judge the parties’ long-term compatibility than the parties themselves. While we are not encouraging arranged marriages here this is something to think about when meditating on the Gospel teaching concerning marriage and celibacy. Moreover, it also suggests that a defence of premarital sexual relations is really a defence of the passion of fornication. Of course, matters are never perfect and all kinds of things enter into the emotional life of men and women who wish to get married. If it were otherwise there would be no literature and no priests hearing confessions.

However, the Gospel is saying that if the young man or woman is not under psychological compulsion but free in his or her choice, and if he or she is called, then he or she can elect to remain celibate. The Gospel is clear that this celibacy is not for the sake of a career, not because of a distaste for the opposite sex, not because of a previous disastrous marriage, not because of a fear of the adult responsibility that marriage entails, not because of arrested psychological development, but for the sake of the Kingdom, for the sake of paying attention to God instead of the world.

This is the monastic vocation. The Church has always treated the monastic vocation as applicable to men and women in every state of life, including marriage, and at any age including old age. (While there is historical evidence of children in monasteries, either for education or because they were orphans, they were never tonsured before adulthood, however adulthood might have been defined in the relevant period.) However, the baseline case is the case that we have just described of the young adult who is considering marriage or celibacy.

Moreover, as we pointed out in the previous post, the Church foresees that it will consecrate the decision to remain celibate with the monastic tonsure, which in its full form requires that the person make a vow of celibacy which is binding for life. This is parallel to marriage in the sense that the decision to marry is consecrated by the Church in the mystery of marriage and also in the sense that the Orthodox mystery of marriage foresees lifelong fidelity to the spouse.

Moreover, something to reflect on is the glass of wine in the Orthodox marriage service that the bride and groom share that symbolizes their sharing of the good and bad that their married life will encounter.

Concerning celibacy, the Lord calls him ‘who is able to receive this word, [to] receive it’. What is the import of there being, or not being, a divine calling to celibacy? Since there is a call involved, there is also grace. One of the things that non-believers in Christ do not grasp about Christianity is that it is a living religion wherein the believer can experience Grace perceptibly. In other words, one of the key issues in assessing a monastic vocation is this: if the person is called, he can expect the grace of God to help him live his calling (for God is not unjust); if he is not called there must be much less expectation that he will have divine assistance to live the celibate life.

The person who has elected celibacy remains a free individual able to make decisions; remains a free individual who will certainly, as the Gospel forewarns, have to face temptations against his decision to be celibate (‘temptations are sure to come’); remains a free individual who certainly might fall in the face of temptation. Supportive grace is very, very important in living the celibate life. You might sin whether or not you have been given the grace to help you to be celibate but it’s going to be a lot more difficult to avoid sin if you have elected to be celibate on your own without a divine calling and without the grace that that calling implies. Moreover, if you undertake a life-long vow of celibacy without a calling you are mad.

Here is what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 – 11:

Concerning, then, those things which you wrote to me, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. On account, however, of [the danger of] fornication let each [man] have his own wife, and each [woman] have her own husband. Let the man render to the wife the favour which is owed and likewise the wife to the husband. For the woman does not have authority over her own body but the husband; likewise the man does not have authority over his own body but the wife. Do not deny each other, unless it is by mutual agreement for a time so as to dedicate yourselves to fasting and to prayer and then to come together again, so that Satan not tempt you on account of your incontinence.

In other words, the proper thing to do if you don’t have a divine calling to the celibate life is to make a good Christian marriage in the expectation of life-long fidelity to your spouse.

How do we recognize a calling? This is very complicated. Let us again take the baseline case first. Let us suppose that the young man or young woman has grown up Orthodox in a pious Orthodox family. Then by rights they should have a prayer life and a life of attendance at the mysteries (or, sacraments). In other words, they should already have a spiritual relation to Christ. So if there is a calling, they should be able to sense it in some fashion—not with visions and so on, but in their own personal prayer and spiritual life. Of course, such a calling is always validated by the Church: if you have a calling to the monastic life, you have to find a monastery that believes it and accepts you to become a monk (or nun) there.

Now in the case of middle-aged Orthodox men and women who are either widowers or divorced, things are more complicated. They might have a vocation; they might not: the discernment of a vocation in such circumstances is necessarily a little more difficult and strict.

In the case of Orthodox who have not practised their religion but who turn to Christ and think then of becoming a monk or nun, the monastery is necessarily going to be much more circumspect. Such persons would necessarily have to go through a period of spiritual purification and growth in the world before they would be either psychologically or spiritually able to undertake life-long celibacy.

Finally, in the case of someone who converts to Orthodoxy, either from a devout life as a non-Orthodox Christian or from a worldly life of sin not practising any religion (or any of the other possibilities that one sees nowadays), there is necessarily going to be a great deal of circumspection about the genuineness of the vocation for the simple reason that the person requires a lot of work to find out what Orthodoxy is from the inside and to purify him- or herself from his or her previous life.

Now let us return to the baseline case of the young Orthodox man or woman who has grown up devoutly and let us suppose that the person has both the natural ability to remain chaste and a divine calling, and that the person elects to remain celibate. What happens then? The most important thing is that later in life as the person continues the celibate life for 10 or 20 or 30 years the person has an abiding inner spiritual assurance that he or she has chosen the right road, that he or she is on the right path. This is important. Time passes, temptations arise, even of a sexual nature, and the person must struggle. However, he or she is comforted with an inner spiritual assurance given by the Lord that he or she is on the right road. He has no children; his line will die out with him. But the Lord is with him, supporting him spiritually. And as St Paul says, he (or she) can wait for the Lord without distraction.

[1] This appears to take care of the issue of those born with genetic or epigenetic abnormalities that affect their sexuality.
[2] This covers the case where a man has been castrated by men.

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