Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Looking at Orthodoxy

We have received another email, this time from John Smith in Cleveland, Ohio (name and location changed). John indicates that we can discuss his email on the blog. Here is the text of his email:
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Dear Orthodox Monk,
Thank you for your web log. It has become a source of great inspiration for me in my own spiritual struggles and striving towards God. I pray that you might be willing to offer some advice. I am 41 years old. Most of my life I have been seeking spiritual fulfillment, even from an early age. My home life was stable growing up. My family loved me and there were no major difficulties (no violence, no abuse, etc). Yet something that was missing was spiritual direction. My Father is completely secular. My Mother self identifies as Christian but has no religious practice with the exception of prayer (not a prayer rule, but her own private prayers). She does not participate in church services, does not study Holy Scripture, does not know about Holy Tradition, etc. So as a youth I began to explore on my own. I have searched far and wide, studied many different paths, both Christian and Non-Christian. I have a teenage son who lives with his mother and her husband. Until quite recently I have worked in the heart of “Corporate America”, the very antithesis of the desire and longing of my soul for a contemplative life. The greed, pride, selfishness, competition, deception – it is a miserable environment indeed. Satan is strong in the business world. I removed myself from that environment. I could no longer justify my being in the midst of such a situation for the “security” of a weekly paycheck. As our Lord has said, “You can not serve both God and Mammon.” (Matthew 6:24).
So now I find myself without a job. I am currently supporting myself from the modest savings gathered while I was working. This will not last and I need to make a decision about the direction of my life. I have no desire to return to the business world. It even pains me to consider it. While I was there I felt like all of my energy was being chewed up and spat back out. And for nothing. For an empty hollow illusion. And I knew all along it was an illusion. I knew all along that there was nothing of substance, nothing of value, nothing meaningful, yet I persisted as I felt it was my duty to do so. I needed to survive. I needed to pay the bills, to have shelter, to have food, to provide for my child, etc. I have lived a modest life (materially speaking). I don't own a house. I rent a small space. I don't have many material possessions, just some necessities – simple clothing, books for study, a computer to research and communicate. I don't have a TV. I own a phone which I use only when necessary. I spend a lot of time in silence, study and prayer. I am thankful for the extra time I have now that I am not employed. My current situation has allowed me to devote more time to things that really matter. But I know the end of this will come. I will run out of money and will have to seek employment. I don't want to go back to my previous life. I don't want to enter into the world of business. I was never one to buy into that lie. Even while I was in the midst of it, I knew “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15-17). I did what I did to survive, yet all along, I felt a call to a more contemplative life. Still, I waver. Sometimes I think perhaps I could do it, that I could embrace a life of renunciation, a life in utter and complete devotion to God. Other times I think that this a crazy idea, that there would be no way for me to do it, that I would fail, or that I would not be able to decisively take the next step.
About 7 years ago I began to study Orthodoxy. My studies have been private. I do not currently participate in a local parish although I have researched and found there are several Orthodox parishes in my area (Greek Orthodox, ROCOR, Antiochan Orthodox and others). I hesitate to visit as I am not sure that my calling is to parish life. And if it is, I am not sure which parish would be my spiritual home. Are these all Orthodox? Is there corruption in the Church? I read about different issues – this Metropolitan did such and such; this synod rejects that synod; this communion persecuted that communion; and so forth. It seems at times that the world itself has entered even into the very Church that Christ has built. No man is without sin. The devils assail us. What is one to do? Kyrie Eleision. Lord have mercy.
In part due to these misgivings, I have not joined a parish, which means I have not received any of the Mysteries of the Church. Monasticism might be the path for me, yet I am uncertain. Would I really be able to do it? Could I, who have been in the world for so long, really take that step? And if I did take that step, would I be able to follow through? These are questions I ask myself. These are questions I pray about. How do I discern what God wants?
Is there a spiritual practice I can do at home that would reflect the life of a monk? What I mean is, can I train – to a greater or lesser extent – to live a contemplative life, to see if this is something I would be able to do? Are there layman's vows I could take? Can you recommend anything for me at this stage of my life? I know historically (and I believe it still to be the case) that Orthodox monasticism has both cenobitic and ermetical paths. Perhaps my calling is one of a hermit? Any insight you feel led to share would be greatly appreciated.
Please feel free to post this message on your blog, but please do not share my real name or email address. Thank you.
First of all we would like to point out that while we like responding to emails on the blog, there is a serious danger of inadvertently injuring the author of the email. Sometimes the author of the email is sensitive and misunderstands what we are saying. So we have to emphasize that we can only respond to the general issues that are raised in each email. We can’t respond on a personal level. So what we are going to say is for John in a general way and thus for all our readers generally; we don’t know John and can’t assess him spiritually to give him specific guidance. He is going to have to meet an Orthodox priest or Elder face to face to get Orthodox personal guidance. Moreover, we avoid making comparisons among the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States so we generally avoid giving specific instructions on the blog of the form: go to that jurisdiction.
That having been said there are serious issues that John is raising.
Before we look at the issues raised by John’s leaving his employment and living on his savings, let us look at the issue of Church membership.
John remarks that his mother has some sort of personal spirituality but nothing that is connected to any church at all. John, it seems to us, is at risk of repeating his mother’s mistake. We wonder in fact whether there is not a tendency in the family to a sort of asocial life: we all know the sort of person that doesn’t make friends easily and tends to live an isolated life. Indeed, we all know the image in American culture of the ‘hermit’ living in a shack in the woods, a little eccentric but largely harmless. We wouldn’t want John to end up as that sort of American folk icon.
As we remarked in our last post, from the Orthodox point of view, salvation begins with a social act: entry into the Church. Normally this is accomplished by baptism and we are of the view that baptism is the proper way to receive all converts to Orthodoxy. Baptism is formal entry into the society of believers, described by Paul the Apostle as the Body of Christ.
This is not just a matter of being enabled to receive the Mysteries (Sacraments) as acts of personal devotion to Christ. We don’t receive Holy Communion individually; we receive it with others in a social act during the social act of the Divine Liturgy. For all the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Orthodox Church are social in nature: there is always a priest present, and in most cases, such as in the Divine Liturgy, other lay members of the Church. However, while group confession was practised in the early Church it has fallen into disuse; only in rare cases is it used today. Notwithstanding that, in the Orthodox Church serious sins are to be confessed to the priest so there is a fundamental social dimension to repentance. Of course, to be baptized, or even to be received into the Orthodox Church by any other means, there must be a confession of previous sins to the priest. This confession cannot be avoided in any serious Orthodox setting.
Now the next thing to look at is the position of Christian monasticism in the above. From the Orthodox point of view, monasticism is both a calling from God to a member of the Orthodox Church and a personal election to adopt permanently a way of life (celibacy) by a member of the Orthodox Church. Hence, from the Orthodox point of view it is a basic error to consider that monasticism is an alternative to entering an Orthodox parish. Monasticism is an election by a member of the Orthodox parish to a life consecrated to God: the vows are given to God in a service in the Orthodox Church (again, a social act), normally in a monastery. As the service of tonsure makes clear, the monastic, whether male or female, is entering into a special category of members of the Orthodox Church, the ‘choir of those who live alone’. Because of these facts, monasticism is regulated by the canons of the Church. Moreover, from the Orthodox point of view the monk must be properly inserted somewhere in the Orthodox Church: he must be written into a recognized monastery somewhere in the Orthodox Church and that monastery must be under the immediate jurisdiction of some Orthodox Bishop.
For the service of tonsure, which John should read carefully for what it says about what monasticism is, including the above points, see here.
We will turn to the issue of cenobitic vs eremetical monasticism below. For now let us turn to the issue of work. John has had a very bad experience with his previous work and he has stopped working. However, he doesn’t tell us anything about what happened except that he was working at the heart of corporate America.
Now for better or for worse we do not think that the Gospel imposes the values of Republican economics espoused by the Tea Party, or the theories of Ronald Reagan; or the economic values espoused by the Democratic Party; or the economic values espoused by Karl Marx; or for the most part the economic values espoused by anyone. There are some values in the Gospel which constitute divinely instituted natural law—the right to private property for example—and we are not denying those basic values. However, we do not think the Gospel teaches either Keynesianism or Monetarism. We think that the Author of the Gospel is silent on these things and that it is possible to be a good Orthodox Christian without believing or disbelieving in these things. What the Orthodox Church teaches us that we must believe in order to become members of the Orthodox Church is the Nicene Creed, for which see our translation and discussion here. For a deeper understanding of the Gospel, many people recommend St John Chrysostom’s commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew, which addresses many social and economic issues from an Orthodox point of view in addition to providing a classic Orthodox interpretation of the Gospel.
Because of these things, we think that it is possible to critique modern corporate America from any number of points of view. The person making the critique might be right; they might be wrong. We don’t think it is an Orthodox dogmatic issue. So we can well believe that John could legitimately be disgusted with his experience of corporate America.
However, when writing to the Thessalonians the Apostle Paul makes clear that Christian believers are expected to engage in some kind of fruitful labour—Paul says ‘ work with their hands’, which is interesting. Let us suppose that John enters an Orthodox parish. He’s going to have to work at something. At what? Is he required to return to the corporate world? No. If he doesn’t like it he can do something else. What? We don’t know. We don’t know what he was doing in the corporate world so we have no idea what he might do outside it. At an extreme, we suppose, John could use the remainder of his meager savings to open a truck garden and, getting a pickup truck, sell his produce at the local market. Perhaps he is trained as a lawyer and he could open a sole-practitioner office, doing a lot of pro bono work. We have no idea. But he has to do something; he has to work.
If John does have a vocation to prayer he might want to take up a manual trade that allows him to repeat the Jesus Prayer all day long while he works. This is possible but should only be done under the guidance of an expert in the Jesus Prayer. What manual trade? Maybe John could become a skilled furniture maker. A lute-maker. We don’t know, really.
But, John says, maybe he should become a monastic. This is not an alternative to the above scenario; it is a subsequent evolution of the above scenario. This is important to understand. First John enters an Orthodox parish. He works, simultaneously engaging in a spiritual way of life. He attends the Mysteries regularly, including Confession. He discusses with his Confessor how he is doing as a lay member of the parish living the Gospel. He discusses whether there are any indications that he might have a vocation to the monastic state.
At the same time, as a member of the Orthodox parish John sorts out his social obligations. This includes his legal responsibilities for the upbringing of his son. John is unclear about his legal responsibilities in this matter but his phrasing suggests that he was never married to the child’s mother. Such things happen; they are forgiven in confession; they are washed away in baptism. However that emphatically does not mean that we escape our social and legal responsibilities. Does John have a child support judgement outstanding against him? He is going to have to honour it. For a discussion of the Orthodox monk and the law, see here. For a discussion of whether a divorced man can become an Orthodox monk, see here. No one is going to accept John until this is sorted out, perhaps when the child reaches the age at which John is no longer obliged to support the child (or even the mother, as the case may be).
So let us suppose that John’s Confessor encourages the lay member of the parish John to consider monasticism. What happens next? John has to go to an existing Orthodox monastery and discuss with the Superior the possibility of becoming a monk. The Superior might be interested; he might not. If he refuses John but John and his Confessor believe that John has a vocation, then John has to keep knocking on monastic doors. Everyone is tested before being made a monk and one of the tests is being refused everywhere until we’re fed up. Then we understand whether we have a vocation.
Let’s suppose that John enters a monastery. Then he has to work cleaning toilets. For years, until the Abbot is impressed with his humility. Then the Abbot might let John put on an old habit as a habit-wearing novice

Here are three books that treat of Orthodox monasticism: Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, Wounded by Love and St. Silouan the Athonite. In these books, John, issues arise as to the nature of Orthodox eremeticism, usually understood as Hesychasm. You will see that in all these three cases of eminent Orthodox monks of Mount Athos—Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, Elder Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia and St Silouan of Panteleimon Monastery, all from the 20th Century—the monk experienced both incredible Grace and incredible trials but in no case did he really live as a hermit. The eremitical life is a very advanced stage of the monastic life, a calling only to a very few. The eremitical life presupposes considerable previous progress in the spiritual life as a regular cenobitic monk.

Here is a book about an Orthodox eremetical saint, St Seraphim of Sarov.

Elder Paisios (Eznipedes) was a 20th Century Athonite Elder whose life is very interesting; he lived for a time as a hermit. Information on obtaining the English translation of his life can be found here.
We think that is enough.

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