Saturday, 7 April 2012

Aspects of the Orthodox Monastic Vocation

We have received an email from Gordon Philips (not his real name) from London, UK (not his real address). The email reads:
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Just came across your blog this evening. Here is my question, please forgive my long-windedness!
My son expressed an interest in monasticism at a very young age and I laughed about it, thinking, “You don't know what a monk is...” However, one of my closest friends, a Serbian priest, who is quite a kidder himself, chastised me for laughing at this. I was taken aback at the time when he said, “You don't know what God has put into his heart, even at such a tender age! Never laugh at such things.” This having been said, my son is now 13 and we are looking at high school, preparing for college, etc. The other day, he told that he saw himself being part of the clergy. His mother and I are both professional musicians, so I had hoped that he would make the most of his talents; I also hoped he would be chanting with me in the strana more... however, each time he tells me he wants to visit the monastery, I remember the little boy saying, “I want to be a monk.” I know that the Lord calls whom He calls, but what would you recommend I do as a father to neither artificially promote this nor inhibit it?
To which we replied:
Our policy is only to discuss emails we receive publicly on the blog after removing all identifying information. Is this acceptable to you? Thank you very much.
Orthodox Monk
We received a positive reply.
Now we believe that Gordon is not a member of the Orthodox Church. So the first issue is, ‘How could your son become a Christian monk, or even a Christian priest, without first being a member of a Christian church which has a monastic or priestly order?’ And if you are not Orthodox, how will you prompt your son to become a monk or priest in the Orthodox Church? If it’s good enough for your son, isn’t it good enough for you and the rest of your family? Or is it all the same? A Christian cafeteria? The Orthodox Church makes claims about being the true Church founded by Jesus Christ on Pentecost; properly it does not treat all Christian denominations as being on the same dogmatic plane. Your Serbian Orthodox priest friend certainly knows this—if he is following the teachings of the Serbian hierarchy—and certainly can explain these matters to you and even to your son.
So the first issue is to clear up the confusion surrounding your present Church affiliation and your own dogmatic beliefs. And saying, ‘We don’t have any dogmatic beliefs; we only have Jesus’ is a dogmatic belief in itself, and indeed not one that the Orthodox Church holds. If this is your position, sending your son blithely to the Orthodox Church to become a monk while believing ‘It’s all the same whether he’s Protestant or Orthodox’ is going to be a personal disaster for you and the son and the rest of the family. Because it’s just not going to work and he’s going to wonder why you prompted him to go down such a treacherous and slippery path. Because when he wanders off to become a monk he’s ultimately going to encounter the teachings of the Orthodox Church and he’s going to be split between what you taught him and what he suddenly grasps is the historical dogmatic position of the Orthodox Church. This could cause serious damage to him, and in consequence of his distress, to the Orthodox Church. We could foresee an evolution where in his anger and despair the son ended up a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
So what’s the solution? After your Easter and after Orthodox Easter, have a serious conversation with your Serbian Orthodox priest friend about what it means to become Orthodox.
Would it make any sense to try to keep your son Protestant, avoiding discussion about monasticism and ridiculing his interest in monasticism or otherwise trying to keep him within the orbit of your own confession (which we understand to be anti-monastic in its historical origins)? This has never worked; it has only led to martyrdom and distress and family explosions.
Start with your position vis à vis the Orthodox Church.
Let us now continue with an email from John Collins (not his real name) from Paris, France (not his real address). The email reads [material in square brackets added by Orthodox Monk]:
Hello Orthodox Monk,
I honestly stumbled upon your blog and have read a few of your entries. Last April, I entered into the Roman Catholic Church and arrived there from Reformed Protestantism from Atheism. During that time, I have tried to find a spiritual director and have found it to be a challenging endeavor because of my desire for doctrinal orthodoxy. I suffer from OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorder] and as I became more committed to Christ and the Church, I found this to have manifestations of scrupulosity [in Roman Catholic spiritual theology, scrupulosity is an over-attention to minor details, something clearly related to OCD]. I eventually acknowledged this as being unhealthy and began seeing a Catholic psychologist who would be able to help me through psychotherapy to navigate these manifestations. Several months ago, I was encouraged by a dear friend (who I consider to be of solid doctrinal mooring) to speak with a priest at my local parish because she understood him to be doctrinally sound. I did so, and explained to him my mental state and the recent manifestations of my OCD, after which he recommended a book to me, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. In this book, Fr. Laird seeks to reconcile the concept of contemplative prayer with the spirituality of Western mystics and the Hesychastic tradition. His emphasis is on silence coupled with a detachment from the recursive “videos” we play in our heads. I have taken the advice of my priest and the book and have attempted to daily practice this silence while utilizing breathing techniques and repetition of the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ.” I have experienced profound peace of mind and have had experiences of profound pleasure while doing this. I am concerned, however, that because much is made in your posts about the contradiction between Thomistic spirituality and the traditions of the Eastern Churches, that I am not faithfully honoring the Roman Catholic Church. I am also concerned that I have a sort of patchwork bastardization of The Jesus Prayer and Hesychasm and could be potentially causing myself serious spiritual damage. If you find you have the time at some point, your thoughts and insights would be much appreciated. May God bless you in your walk with Him.
To which we replied:
Our policy is only to reply to emails publicly on the blog after removing all identifying information and, perhaps, correcting for grammar, syntax, spelling and style. Is this acceptable to you?
Orthodox Monk
We received a positive reply.
Now we had never heard of Fr. Martin Laird, OSA, Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, Villanova PA, USA. This site seems to indicate that Professor Laird teaches a form of Centering Prayer, founded by Fr. Thomas Keating OCSO and related to the system of the late Dom John Main, OSB. We discussed the system of John Main in post 1, post 2, post 3, post 4, post 5, and post 6 in the order given.
From the little that John Collins writes and the little we’ve seen in the last few minutes browsing the Internet for information on Professor Laird and his system, we would think that what Professor Laird is teaching might or might not be good and might or might not be suitable for members of the Roman Catholic Church but it’s a bastardized form of Hesychasm if any claim is being made to a connection to the tradition of the Orthodox Church called Hesychasm.
So this brings us back to the email above from Gordon Philips, which discusses his son’s interest in monasticism. What is monasticism? What connection does it have to the things that Professor Laird is teaching? In other words, do we go to the monastery to practise a form of Centring Prayer with greater assiduity? Now, clearly, in his email John Collins has expressed no interest in becoming Orthodox and no interest in becoming a monk. So we’re not suggesting that that’s why he’s interested in Professor Laird’s system. Quite the contrary, he’s interested in it because of his problem with OCD.
But here’s the point. In America today there is such spiritual confusion that we don’t know why we go to a monastery. We don’t even understand what sound doctrine means as a concept—much less where we might find sound doctrine. And that extends right up to spiritual practice. We think that we can abstract a few key concepts from Evagrius and package them into a system for modern Americans thirsting for God.
John Collins writes: ‘I have experienced profound peace of mind and have had experiences of profound pleasure while doing this [i.e. practising Laird’s system of contemplative prayer].’ Now we’re not God and we can’t judge another person’s experience and we don’t doubt at all that John Collins has had those experiences. But we wonder whether they have anything to do with what the Orthodox understand to be the pursuit of God in the Hesychastic tradition.
In this we would suggest that John Collins very carefully read the Gnostic Chapters by St. Diadochos of Photiki together with our commentary (look for Diadochos under ‘Topics’ in the right margin of the blog.). We have passed our translation over to someone else and he has improved it, but John Collins will we hope be able to find something relevant in our own translation and commentary. The main thing is that St. Diadochos is very clear that spiritual experiences that involve the senses are suspect. This would take a long time to develop analytically and Professor Laird might object; however we would be willing to debate him on the matter.
There is something quite different going on with the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox Church than what we understand Professor Laird to be teaching.
John Collins wants our advice what he should do. Well, he’s got a Roman Catholic priest; he’s got a Roman Catholic psychotherapist. Where’s Orthodox Monk going to fit into all of that? We’re not knocking it—John is being very prudent and very careful; we felicitate him—but how many advisors can a man have? That having been said, our own view is that if John Collins wants to be Roman Catholic he should stick to a traditional Roman Catholic method of prayer. There are Carmelite third orders; there are Cistercian monasteries; and so on and so forth. He should leave these syncretistic Roman Catholic systems based ultimately on a faulty understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Oriental religions (vis à vis contemplation) and stick to something Roman Catholic. But if he’s interested in the Jesus Prayer in and of itself, then he should start with a conversation with an Orthodox priest about what the Orthodox Church teaches. In other words, if he wants to be Roman Catholic he should leave this stuff alone but if he wants to get involved with the Orthodox aspects of it for their own sake then he should consider becoming Orthodox.
But this again returns us to Gordon Philip’s email. Let us look at what is implied by the above about the spiritual atmosphere of American Christianity. Religion among many American Christians has become experience-orientated. Whence Pentecostalism and the charismatic renewal; whence Centring Prayer and similar. Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong or even remarkable with this shift in cultural mood. But an over-emphasis on experience leads to an indifference to dogma—so-called cafeteria Catholicism extended to an experiential cafeteria Christianity. And it leads to an approach to religion and even monasticism as the pursuit of one more experience. But as Diadochos teaches, such a path is fraught with serious danger. The cultivation of spiritual experience received by the senses (and this is technical terminology in Diadochos) leads to opening oneself to false spiritual experience.
Much of what is happening on the Christian Right in America can be understood on this plane: spiritual experience that is not based in spiritual reality. To give an indication of just how serious this can get, before he announced his candidacy for President, Rick Perry was given a prophecy that seemed to say that he was called to be President of the United States of America, and his wife was later recorded on video as strongly encouraging other Christian candidates for President to drop out of the Presidential race because Rick had the true and real anointing to be President. Moreover, it seemed to us that Mrs. Perry was conflating ‘Christian’ with ‘conservative’—i.e. it seemed to us that the two words were synonymous in her mind. For better or for worse Rick ultimately dropped out of the 2012 Presidential campaign. The prophecy? Well, maybe it was misunderstood. This is the road of spiritual experience without discernment: fraught with serious and present danger.
To return to a more personal level, if Gordon Philip’s son is formed psychologically (i.e. raised by his parents) with this or a similar point of view and goes to an Orthodox monastery, two things are possible. One he won’t be able to hack it because they don’t pray in tongues (we’re being a little sarcastic but the point is valid); or two they will pray in tongues and the son will waste his life and soul in spiritual deception.
It is important to realize that in the Orthodox Church, monasticism and spiritual experience are grounded in Orthodox dogma and participation in the Orthodox mysteries (sacraments) starting with baptism. And there are two thousand years of the experience and teaching of Saints and Fathers of the Church that inform Orthodox monasticism’s understanding of these matters.
Let us now look at another email, from Ronald James (not his real name) from Ajax, Kansas (not his real address). The email reads:
I suppose all I want to ask is, How does someone know if they should become a monk?
I have had thoughts about it and mentioned it to my spiritual father and he advises me. I am obedient to him, is that all I can do? Will I know if it is what I am called to? Thoughts that go through my head are things such as if I'm not married by the time I'm 30 then that's when I should become a monk, or I shouldn't waste another moment and seek it out as soon as possible.
I suppose my mixed up thoughts are a sign that it is either not for me or I am not ready.
Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.Wishing you a glorious and fruitful Lent.
Ronald James
Ajax, Kansas
To which we replied:
Our policy is to answer emails only publicly on the blog after we have removed what we think are all identifying marks that would tie the email to a specific person, also correcting the email for what we think is good grammar and spelling. Is this acceptable?
Orthodox Monk
To which Ronald replied positively. So we put his email in the hopper for processing.
And here’s what we thought. Ronald writes: ‘Thoughts that go through my head are things such as if I'm not married by the time I'm 30 then that's when I should become a monk, or I shouldn't waste another moment and seek it out as soon as possible.’ Now this is a dead give-away that Ronald is being tempted. This is not the form of a vocation but the form of tempting thoughts (Evagrius again). This does not exclude a vocation but it is not how a vocation works. So the Devil is up to something in putting these ideas about monasticism into Ronald’s head. By definition the Devil is up to no good, so there’s something wrong here with this enticement to monasticism. As we said, this does not exclude a vocation but this is not it. Ronald should confess the thoughts to the confessor and be strictly obedient to the confessor. If the confessor makes a mistake, God will protect Ronald, especially if he does have an underlying vocation that the Devil is monkeying about with.
Then we got this second unexpected email from Ronald:
I am writing a second email regarding a separate topic. I feel that I am alone in my sin.
Last week I was off work for the whole week so that I could attend the daily services of my parish. First week of Lent is such a crucial time. The week went well and I did much reading. On Sunday on the way home from church I started having thoughts of monasticism. Yesterday was my first day back at work and in the “real” world. I work in a supermarket and I found myself looking at every single pretty woman that came into the store. I don't think I had an actual improper thought. Later that night I had to send an email to my brother using the family computer (my old computer from university) and I had a thought about some pornographic videos I had downloaded years and years ago. I did a search of the computer’s content and found them. I ended up committing the sin of self abuse and then I cried. My question is this. This sin, before I returned to my Father's house, was part of my every day life. This has made it very difficult for me to reject the thought of doing it. All this and the fact I even had thoughts of monasticism the day before make me very sad. I suppose I want advice on how to combat such a deep rooted passion that I was so mindlessly committing on a regular basis less than two years ago. Also I suppose I also want to know what would happen if a monk committed this sin? Is it something that would never happen? Please please please post this email.
First of all, one such instance of this particular sin does not preclude, exclude or forbid a subsequent monastic vocation, or even, for that matter, a priestly vocation. However, putting the two emails together we have the following remarks. Ronald is clearly going to have to spend some years stabilizing his moral life before he even considers a monastery. He is going to have to learn to live in chastity as a lay member of the Orthodox Church. We realize that this can be difficult, especially if there is a previous history of enslavement to a passion. However, we believe that with Christ’s help all things are possible and doable. Usually an isolated sin like this occurs—if we understand St John of Sinai in the Ladder of Divine Ascent correctly—because of pride. That of course would lead to the question of whether pride and vainglory entered into Ronald’s concentration on the spiritual in the first week of Lent. We don’t have an answer to this; this is something that he should discuss seriously with his confessor. In the years that Ronald will have to live as a maturing Orthodox layman, he will have to assess with his confessor how well he can control his urges. If he cannot control his urges, no visions or voices or dreams or whatever can constitute a vocation to the monastic life: he must get married. This is not something that should distress Ronald. He should in such a case have the humility to recognize that God has not called him to the monastic life and that he is called to marriage. Moreover, as we pointed out a single fall such as Ronald documents is not in itself a barrier to a monastic vocation. However, the question has to be raised—and will be raised in the monastery when he presents himself as a postulant—whether Ronald can control himself in a vocation to life-long chastity. Monks retain free will and can be tempted, although the consequences of a sin against chastity for a monk under vows can be dire, as St John of Sinai documents in the Ladder. As the service of tonsure itself says, better not to vow than to vow and not to fulfill. You’re better off being a moral married layman and going to Heaven than an immoral tonsured monk and going to Hell.
So let us go back again to Gordon Philip’s email about his son wanting to be a monk. We can see that becoming an Orthodox monk is a serious business, one not to be trifled with. Gordon and his son should think about what an Orthodox monastic vocation entails. It is not a matter of practising Centring Prayer with greater dedication. It is a matter of being an angel of God. It’s a serious business. As the Gospel says, you must count the cost.
Here is what we said on the topic some years ago; since we think it's very relevant to the emails we are discussing today we repeat it below in full:
The central problem of the monastic life is the nature of the passions, the nature of the battle against the passions and the nature of dispassion. This has nothing to do with the proper way to meditate.
When the modern reader reads the Ladder, he is ‘freaked out’ by the severity of the Prison. What we should understand is that the passions are very deeply rooted in the human person, that their eradication is very difficult and that the spiritual damage sin does to a Christian is greater than realized.
Why would anyone become a monk? After all, he could, presumably, repeat ‘Maranatha’ twice a day in the married state.
The angel is the light of the monk and the monk of the layman. The ideal of the monk is the angel; the ideal of the layman is the monk.
In the monk, the movement from passion to dispassion—in Western terminology, the ‘conversion of morals’: the passage of the soul through the purgative stage, then the illuminative stage, then into the unitive stage of the mystical life—is a passage, ideally, from an ordinary human condition to the condition of an angel. This is explicit both in Evagrius’ Monk and in St John’s of Sinai’s Ladder.
It is not by accident that in the late step of the Ladder that discusses Hesychasm, the Hesychast is described as ascending through the angels until he reaches the Seraphim.
Consider again St John’s definition of the monk:
1, 10 A monk is the order and condition of the bodiless powers accomplished in a material and sordid body. A monk is he who has only the commandments and words of God in every time, place and thing. A monk is continual violence to nature and a faultless guard of the senses. A monk is a purified body, a cleansed mouth and an enlightened mind. A monk is a soul full of pain that is occupied in the uninterrupted memory of death both awake and sleeping.
Contrast this to the instructions that St John gives to laymen:
1, 38 I heard some men who were settled in a negligent state in the world asking me: ‘How can we, living together with spouses and surrounded by public cares, follow the monastic state?’ I replied to them: ‘All things good that you can do, do. Revile no one. Steal from no one. Lie to no one. Be arrogant with no one. Hate no one. Do not separate yourselves from the services of the Church. Be sympathetic towards those in need. Cause scandal to no one. Do not approach the portion of another and be satisfied with the wages that your wives can give you. If you do thus, you are not far from the Kingdom of the Heavens.’
St John views the monastic state as violence to human nature so as to attain to what is above human nature, the angelic state. He views the lay state as a matter of attending Church and living a just life. This is very similar to Jesus’ advice to the rich young man: If you want to inherit eternal life, keep the commandments. You have done all these since your youth? Then if you want to be perfect, sell all that you have, give to the poor and come follow me. St John of Sinai is emphatic that it was not for the sake of baptism but for the sake of the monastic vocation that the rich young man was called upon to sell his possessions and give to the poor.
The monastic calling is a calling of perfection. The monk works at eradicating his passions so as to become angelic. Here we understand ‘passion’ to be an emotional tendency to sin founded on a pleasure of the senses. Our Episcopalian reader is right: it is our desires that are at the root of the passions; and we cure our passions by refusing desire. However, in the classic analysis of the Orthodox monastic Fathers (articulated originally by Evagrius but enunciated by many other Fathers, especially including St John of Sinai), it is the demons that excite the passion, awakening desire in us. In the practice of the Jesus Prayer, the inception of a tempting image in the mind is due to the demon that has approached and excited our passion, our desire. This is true of any of the eight passions. It would be impossible to understand the School of Sinai, especially St Hesychios, St John of Sinai’s disciple, without understanding this analysis.
The ‘fundamental theorem’ of this school, recapitulated by St Maximos the Confessor in his ascetical writings, is that you cannot see God before you have eradicated your passions. In the Monk, Evagrius says this:
61 The mind will not advance nor depart that good departure and come to be in the land of the bodiless [powers] if it has not corrected what is within. For the disturbance of the familiar [parts of the soul] is accustomed to return it to those things from which it has departed.1
What Evagrius is saying is that the monk will not be able to enter into the illuminative stage of the mystical life (here identified with ‘the land of the bodiless powers’, i.e. the condition of the angels) until he has passed from his impassioned state to a state of virtue. That is what it means to have ‘corrected what is within’. The ‘disturbance of the familiar parts of the soul’ is the disturbance the monk experiences in his consciousness due to passions that he has not yet eradicated. Evagrius is saying plainly that a person who enters into contemplation before he has got rid of his passions will be obliged to return to the earth, to his impassioned reality, because of disturbances of soul caused by his uneradicated passions.
It is not easy for us to eradicate the passions.
In the doctrine of St John of Sinai in the Ladder, the layman does not attempt to eradicate his passions; he attempts to live a just life. We might say a virtuous life.
But someone might object: well, that’s just what Evagrius says in the precondition for me to enter into contemplation.
Not quite.
Evagrius has a doctrine of purity from the passions, and of virtue, that goes far deeper than anything that could be expected of a layman. The virtuous layman continues to have a residue of the passions within. Indeed, in his married state he can work on a complete eradication of the passions only if he voluntarily accepts to live with his wife in chastity. But that is not a condition for his salvation and it is not imposed on him by the Church.
When we are discussing the eradication of the passions we must understand that the ideal is the monk who has become the equal of an angel: he no longer has any passions at all. He has a complete accession of virtue.
Most monks start off in the coenobium. The Ladder itself is intended for coenobites and not for Hesychasts, even though its author was a Hesychast for forty years. If we think that the Ladder is severe even though it is only for coenobites, we should consider the standard that St John of Sinai is setting for Hesychasts. Absolute purity, including in thought.
The steps of the Ladder are intended to purify the coenobite of his passions. They prescribe largely external means. By and large they do not enter into the issue of purifying the coenobite in his thoughts. That is reserved for the Hesychast.
Now it might be thought that St John of Sinai was ignorant. He didn’t know that with an oriental method of meditation with a Christian mantra he could enter into direct contact with God, surpassing self, in the married state.
However, poor old St John is the originator of the following remark: ‘The practice of stillness (hesychia) is the constraint of the immaterial mind in the material body, a most remarkable thing.’ He is the originator of this statement: ‘Let the Jesus Prayer cleave to your breath and you will know the benefits of stillness (hesychia).’ He has some very explicit instructions on the practice of Hesychasm. He was a Hesychast for forty years. But, strange thing, he doesn’t think that the Jesus Prayer is going to do everything in no time flat for the layman or for the monk in the coenobium. How could he be so deluded?
Eradicating our passions in our actions, which is the task of the coenobite, is hard. It requires ascesis. That is why a layman might choose to become a monk: he might decide he wants to become perfect and that he will take the hard road.
Eradicating our passions in our thoughts, which is the task of the hermit or Hesychast, is even harder. It is for those few monks who are able to carry through the Hesychast program.
Again let us quote this passage from Evagrius:
40 The mind would not be able to see the place of God in itself not having become higher than all [mental representations] which are in [sensible] objects. It will not become higher, however, if it does not unclothe itself of the passions, which are what, by means of the mental representations, bind it together with the sensible objects. And the passions it will lay aside by means of the virtues; the mere thoughts, then, by means of spiritual contemplation; and this [i.e. spiritual contemplation], again, when, during the time of prayer, that light shines upon the mind that works in relief the place which is of God.2
Starting from Evagrius and continuing with St John of Sinai and the other members of the School of Sinai, the precondition of having ‘that light shine upon the mind that works in relief the place which is of God’—of being divinely illuminated—is complete purification from the passions even in thought. Hence, normally in the Orthodox tradition, it is only the Hesychast who has this experience. This is at the heart of the Hesychast controversy on Mt Athos in the 14th Century.
Part of the Hesychast program in the Orthodox tradition is the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, but there is much more to the Orthodox tradition of Hesychasm than just the repetition of the Jesus Prayer. The tradition contains explicit instructions for combating the passions in thought so as to attain to that complete purification from the passions even in thought which is necessary for divine illumination. The end-result is called by St John of Sinai dispassion.
When he is addressing coenobites, St John of Sinai changes somewhat the traditional formulation of the goal of the monk. He makes the goal of the coenobite deep humility, not divine illumination. He leaves divine illumination to the Hesychast in the cave.
This should make us realize not only just how difficult the monastic vocation is, but just how difficult is the further vocation of the monk to Hesychasm.

1The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart, Fr Theophanes (Constantine), Vol. II, The Evagrian Ascetical System, p. 27. 2006. Mt Athos, Greece: Timios Prodromos.
2The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart, Fr Theophanes (Constantine), Vol. II, The Evagrian Ascetical System, p. 178. 2006. Mt Athos, Greece: Timios Prodromos.

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