Wednesday, 8 August 2012

An American Vocation

We have received an email asking our advice.  The sender has given us permission to discuss his email here on the blog.  Here is the email, slightly edited to protect the identity of the sender, for style and to correct a few typos:
Dear Monk,
I am a 30 year old Greek Orthodox student in the United States. I have experienced a strange set of circumstances which have made me try to get closer to God and Christ. Lately I feel as if I am being called to live a monastic life, away from the evils of this world, which I forsake anyway. In truth I find no pleasure in life, not only because of the day-to-day struggle of the outside world but also because of the struggle inside myself. At times I feel as if I should be spending my days praising God and Christ for all they have done for me. Currently I am torn.  A big part of me wants to become a monk, to grow spiritually and to give up everything I have to follow Christ to try to obtain salvation and heaven. The other part of me, the one attached to things, is the part of me that wants to finish college, start a career and family and have lots of children. I guess that part of me doubts; it doubts that if I give everything up Christ will save me and allow me to go to Heaven (again, these past 2 years I have experienced bad things spiritually). It’s as if that part of me feels as if I am not loved by God or I wronged God so much that I am beyond forgiveness and repentance (I know it sounds weird). Furthermore, if I do become a monk, the question arises, am I doing it for his glory or for working towards my own salvation (a more selfish reason)? I know and understand that God knows us inside and out, our motives as well as everything else.
I was wondering if you could shed some light on what being and living as an orthodox monk is like. There is a monastery nearby that I was planning on visiting as well as talking to my priest about monasticism. Whatever I decide to do I just want to find some joy in it not only for myself but for God.
Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.
Yannis Papadopoulos (not a real name)
There are a number of issues here but the main issue is the nature of the monastic vocation, especially in the context of sin.
Yannis doesn’t tell us a lot about himself but he does have a priest that he can go to for confession and counselling.  He is not disconnected from the Greek Orthodox community in his home town.  He does seem to have had some unspecified spiritual problems in the last two years; we take this to mean that there have been some sins.  So, hoping that we are reading the situation right, let’s look at the monastic vocation.
First of all, in the Ladder of Divine Ascent St John of Sinai gives three possible reasons for someone to become a monastic.  These are the three possible legitimate reasons that God respects.  The first is love of God; the second is the reward in Heaven; and the third is fear of God because of sin.  St John accepts these three reasons and says that all other reasons are absurd.  St John says that a man who becomes a monk for love of God is like a runner who once he has warmed up runs even faster; whereas the man who becomes a monk for the reward is like the mule or donkey tethered to the pole and made to walk in a circle around the pole so as to separate the wheat from the chaff in the harvest under its feet; and whereas the man who becomes a monk because of fear (it is understood, because of previous sins) is like incense that starts out fragrant and ends as smoke: that is, such vocations peter out.
Now, so that Yannis can understand that sin per se does not either prevent a monastic vocation or impose the model of the man of fear who peters out like incense, he should read Elder Sophrony (Sakharov’s) book called St Silouan the Athonite.  Before he went to Mt Athos St Silouan fathered a child out of wedlock (God arranged that the child be taken care of so that Silouan could go to Mt Athos without any obligation to remain in the world to care for the child).  It is evident from his biography that although he had sinned St Silouan became a monk out of love for God.  It is also evident that after a vision of the risen Christ in the Russian Monastery of St Panteleimon (Mount Athos), St Silouan was seriously troubled by visitations from demons for 17 years—demons that were visible to him.  He was reduced to the edge of despair—and who wouldn’t be?  It was only through the Grace of God that he was able to survive spiritually.  This is a serious, serious struggle.
Elder Sophrony also records St Silouan’s own admission that after his vision of the Risen Christ, as the years went on St Silouan was twice deceived when he accepted false visions.  They’re batting big league on Mt Athos; we beginners can only look with awe on such titanic spiritual battles as St Silouan faced and experienced in his monastic career on Athos.
Let us now look at how we beginners have to understand our vocation.
The first thing to take is that we go to the monastery to work on our salvation.  It is a misreading of monasticism to think that the only legitimate monastic vocation is the one that is madly in love with God and wants to spend its whole earthly life praising God.  We go to the monastery baptized Orthodox, yes, but baptized Orthodox who bear the fruits of Adam’s sin so that we are not perfect.  We go to the monastery to join battle in the wrestling arena so as to become perfect.  It’s a struggle to put off the old man and put on the new.  It’s difficult in the world.  It’s far more difficult on Mt Athos and even in a milder monastery in the United States.
The primary means to accomplish the monastic struggle, for all monks but especially beginners, is obedience.  Obedience can be very difficult, although we suppose that an authoritarian personality might—for all the wrong reasons—find it easy.
We would suggest to Yannis the following.  Go to confession and admit to all your sins.  Discuss with the priest, whom you know and who knows you, your interest in monasticism.  See what he tells you.  He’ll probably have known you from birth—who knows, he might even have baptized you—and should be able to say something wise about whether you’re the type.  Afterwards, with your priest’s concurrence, visit Mt Athos.  You might or might not have a vocation; we don’t know.  However, on Mt Athos you will certainly see what monasticism is all about.  It might speak to you and it might not.  We don’t know.  But you will have a clearer idea of what your choices in life are.  We are not saying your choices are marriage or Mt Athos; you might fit in a monastery in America—we don’t know and are not telling you what to do.  However we are saying that a visit to Mt Athos will help you understand yourself and monasticism better.
Yannis says that thoughts come to him that God will never forgive him his sins.  These thoughts are temptations but they certainly cloud the view Yannis will have both of his possibilities of salvation in the world—we do not need to become monks in order to lead a spiritual life and to be saved—and of the possibility of his becoming a monk.  These thoughts ordinarily dissipate with confession.
Our personal view is that a person should finish their education before becoming a monk or nun but there are other points of view and much depends on discernment of the actual will of God in each case.  Greek Orthodox monasticism is not hostile to learning and there are many educated monks on Mt Athos.  So we would certainly suggest that Yannis continue with his education until such a time as he has made arrangements to enter a specific monastery whether in the United States or on Mount Athos, or indeed anywhere else.  A vocation is to a specific monastery and requires that Yannis be accepted by that monastery, including by the Abbot of that monastery.  That Abbot of that monastery will become Yannis’ guide and trainer in the monastic life.  So until such a time as Yannis has set a date for entry into a specific monastery and the Abbot concurs that he should stop his studies, Yannis should continue them.  Of course it may turn out that Yannis doesn’t have a vocation and therefore won’t find a monastery to enter.  In that case he won’t have damaged his worldly life by having stopped his studies unnecessarily.
May God bless Yannis.

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