We have received an email from someone who poses the question of the responsibility of the monastic towards their parents in the light of Mark, 7, 9 – 13. This person—let us call her Euthymia, after St Euthymius the Great—poses her question in the context of our post Is a Rasophore a Monk or a Novice? We received Euthymia’s permission to quote her email and discuss it. Here it is:
Dear Orthodox Monk,
I ask for your blessings and prayers. Thank you for maintaining such an interesting blog.
My question has to do with the penultimate paragraph of the post:
“Rasophore monk Seraphim raises the issue of possible legitimate reasons to return to the world—aged parents and so on. These things are pretexts since on the one hand they would have been discussed with the Abbot before the tonsure and directions given; and, on the other hand, the monk has no obligations to those in the world such as Rasophore Monk Seraphim describes. For example, when a married man becomes a monk, under canon law the marriage is automatically dissolved. So the monk is free of such worldly obligations; indeed they must be seen as temptations of the Devil to return him to the world.”
The Lord's teaching in Mark 7,9 – 13, in the situation of a monk or nun whose parents are in need, seems to imply that the monk or nun in question is required to do whatever is necessary to care for the parents. This principle might be stretched to cover other situations. How can one offer one's life as a sacrifice to the Lord via a sinful means—by neglecting love and responsibility to one’s family? I am curious to know how the Orthodox interpret such passages. Say, for the sake of argument, that the parents of the monk or nun fell into unforeseen need after their child was already tonsured. Is it true that “the monk has no obligations to those in the world” in such a case?
For the sake of disclosure, I am not dealing with such a situation; I’m just curious. This passage has always been fascinating and challenging to me.
Let us start with the passage in question:
And he said to them: Well you displace the commandment of God so as to keep your tradition. For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother;” and “He who speaks ill to father or mother, let him die by execution.” But you say, “If a man say to father or mother, that of mine which would benefit you is ‘Corban’ (which is to say ‘gift’),” then you no longer allow him to do anything for his father or mother, invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have transmitted; and many other such things do you do. (Mark 7, 9 – 13).
Let us clarify the basic meaning of the passage. The Pharisees maintained certain oral traditions in addition to the Mosaic Law. In the case at hand, the Pharisees have complained to the Lord that his disciples have eaten with unwashed hands, something according to the Pharisee’s tradition the disciples should not have done. The Lord replies by commenting on a particular tradition of the Pharisees. That tradition is that if someone says that some property or possession of his is dedicated to God (this is the meaning of ‘Corban’) then that person’s parents no longer have the right to be benefited by that property or possession in accordance with the commandment of Moses.
Euthymia’s question is how this passage bears on our remark to Seraphim that the Orthodox monastic leaves his parents behind. Let us turn to some basics on the monastic vocation.
First of all, a monastic vocation is a call from God. It is not human. It is not something I decide to do because I don’t want to get married, because I want to dissolve a marriage, because I want to evade my responsibilities in the world. The most basic passage concerning the monastic vocation is Matthew 19, 10 – 19:
But I say to you that he who dismisses his wife, except on the grounds of adultery, and marries another, commits adultery. And if she who has been dismissed marries, she commits adultery. His disciples said to him, If such is the cause of a man with his wife, it is not profitable to marry. But he said to them, Not all can contain this word but only those to whom it is given; and there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb and there are eunuchs who were castrated by men and there are eunuchs who have castrated themselves for the Kingdom of the Heavens. He who is able to contain this word, let him contain it.
We discuss the monastic vocation in greater detail in Questions about Orthodox Monasticism and The Monastic Vocation and we would recommend that Euthymia read those two posts before continuing.
Now there are other passages in the Gospel that discuss the relation of Jesus’ disciple to the disciple’s parents. In Luke, 18, 20 – 21, Jesus says that his mother and brothers are those that hear the word of God and do it. In Matthew 10, 37 – 38, Jesus says that he who loves father or mother more than him is not worthy of him and he who does not take up his cross and follow Jesus is not worthy of Jesus.
Part of the monastic calling is the renunciation of the world, including the family. In other words, in its classic form, monasticism is a radical renunciation in order to respond to Jesus’ call to love Jesus and him only, the monastic taking up their cross and following Jesus to the exclusion of all else. It is in this context that the Church has understood Matthew 19, 16 – 22 where Jesus counsels the rich young man, if he wishes to be perfect (and not just to be saved), to sell all that he has and give to the poor, and to come follow Jesus.
What can be inferred is that if someone has a divine calling to the monastic state, then that calling supersedes love of parents. This can be seen in the historical record. In the Pachomian monasteries, St Theodore the Sanctified refuses to see his mother who has come with a letter from the bishop. There are many other such cases.
In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John of Sinai discusses the temptation to the postulant arising from their love for (or attachment to) their family. John is clear that a fundamental part of the monastic vocation is renunciation of family. (In this, we would suggest that Euthymia read Steps 1 and 2 of the Ladder in the Lazarus Moore translation, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery.)
While Sinaite monasticism is not strictly the same as Egyptian monasticism, on this point the two traditions agree. This is important since to a very great extent Egyptian monasticism became the dominant form of monasticism in the Orthodox Church.
However, we would also suggest that Euthymia read all of the ascetical works of St Basil the Great, which constitute a somewhat different tradition in the Orthodox Church. We would think that the relations between the monastic and the monastic’s parents would have a somewhat different treatment in Basil’s ascetical works, especially the Short Rules.
Next, depending on the tradition within which Euthymia is situated ecclesiastically, there will have been different historical evolutions of these basic ascetical traditions. By which we mean that if Euthymia were to enter say a Russian monastery whether in Russia or outside Russia she would encounter a somewhat different attitude to renunciation of one’s family than in say a strict Greek monastery. In this regard it behooves Euthymia to study the historical evolution of monasticism in the jurisdiction in which she is situated. Two good ways to do this are the monastic typika (plural of typikon; the monastic typikon is not the liturgical rule but the organizational rule of the monastery) in her tradition and the lives of the saints in her tradition. Euthymia should consider, for the Byzantine tradition, looking at the complete collection of translated monastic typika in the Byzantine tradition published free online by Dumbarton Oaks. She should also seek out the best translations of the best texts of the lives of the saints—preferably those written by an immediate disciple. Dumbarton Oaks publishes online a free set of 10 lives of woman saints in the Byzantine Tradition and also free the very important life of St Lazaros of Mt Galesion. Also relevant would be the Sayings of the Desert Fathers but the offerings in English are minimal, the best work having been done by French Catholic scholars and published in Latin or Greek with French translation in Sources Chrétiennes.
We would also suggest that Euthymia spend some time in a good woman’s monastery in the home country of her jurisdiction in order to discuss these matters with the nuns and perhaps the Abbess, so that Euthymia can understand how her jurisdiction at its best understands these issues. In this regard we might remark that monasticism in the Orthodox diaspora is not always in its ideal condition.