Western Rite Critic

A Balance to Contagious Enthusiasm

Monks are the Front Line

MonksAn ancient Orthodox saying: Angels are the lights of monks, and monks are the lights of men. We refer to them as our earthly angels, for they guide us, help us, keep our path, and fight things we cannot handle. They are our superheroes. As for us, our prayers are monastic prayer – just look at them. Our fasts are the monastic fasts. “The Orthodox rules for lenten fasting are the monastic rules.” from this The ascetic life of the church and of each individual Christian is that of monks, taught to us by monks, exampled by monks, explained by the behavior of monks.

The first great ascetic, is of course Our Lord. He engaged in prolongued fasts. He stood during prayer. He kept the feasts. He battled the world and the enemy. He kept at bay the passions. He prayed lengthy prayers (“could you not pray with me one hour?”). He is the ultimate example of the ordinary ascetic life of all we ordinary ascetics who are not monks, but follow the path they have hollowed through the world and hallowed through the piety. All the activities of our life have but the one ascetical purpose: theosis. The very union with God that all monastics seek, and all laypeople must, if they would be saved. Everything that is not an ascetical means, so to speak, a means of theosis, is a weight.

For instance, take the contemporary attitudes toward theology, even among many Orthoox. This approach to theology as something learned through academics is relatively recent and has never been our tradition. Theology, in the teaching of the fathers, is a gift, like repentance is a gift, and theology is given only at the farthest levels of theosis, almost exclusively to monastics. We might discuss theology, but we cannot do theology, except as union with God. Ours is not a belief system but an ascetical journey.

It is sometimes claimed that we cannot confuse monastic life with the life of laymen, but this dichotomy is disturbing, and could only come about as a recent phenomenon and mostly in the West. To speak as though they are distant, unknown, separated, as though the Parrish or parochial Church is the fullness of the Church, is not Orthodox. There is not only no church w/o the ascetics, there is no Faith, no theology, no salvation, and indeed there is no such thing as a “parish” in that case. Apart from the path of union, we are engaged in a ridiculous enterprise, most absurd and tragic, deluding ourselves as religious people. In such a case, it is better at least to pour oneself out to the poor.

No, our tradition is that we look to the monks as lights. It is they that inform our direction, our thinking, our deepest understanding of our own faith. Without what they give us, without a healthy and thriving monastic life, which America does not yet have – not in the way the old country does, and without the parochial – instead of separating his life from monastics – participating in the life we all share, we can only spin ever farther away from our center. Theosis is all. All else, done w/o that as the goal, is heresy, is foolhardy, is impiety, and cannot save.

We do all things for our salvation, marrying or remaining celibate, whether seeking holy orders or remaining the lay-part of the priesthood, whether loving the poor and giving alms or giving tithe to the Church. An old man used to say, “if it is not for your salvation, don’t do any of these things, because they will possess you and cause you to fall into the pit.” Does Christ tell us to give alms because he needs us to give to the poor? Never; he tells us to give alms that WE might be saved. It is good for us. So it is with all things – the communion in his body and blood, prayer, fasting, spiritual combat, and all the ordinary things that all the fathers and apostles call us to.

We are all, every one of us, called to be either celibate or married. We must find and follow the one that is for our salvation, which is always and ever unique to the individual, but there is no dividing wall. It is one Faith, with the same body of prayers, the same goal, the same meaning, the same combat, the same attitude. Why else do we crown those who are being united in Holy Matrimony. The crowns have many meanings, but they are crowns of martyrs. Anyone who has been married a while will attest that that union, pursued according to Christian teaching, is one of constantly pouring oneself out, of laying down one’s life for another. It is every bit as ascetic as the celibate life, and without the teachings of the monks and fathers of the desert, most of us would not be able to learn the meaning of the mystery. In marriage, the cares of the world weigh a person down, but we are to overcome the world.

Without the things demonstrated by the monks, there would be no words of God to preach. Israel wandered in the desert. And struggled, and stumbled, and struggled to find the land of promise. So do the monks. Moses, before giving the Law, was cast into a river, and grew up in Pharoah’s house, but when he turned from he pomp and he splendor, and led the people to the wilderness, then God parted the waters. The first ascetic command god gave man was “Rule the world, fill the earth, enjoy its fruit, but fast. Do not eat of this tree. That is the fast I give you.” Adam and Eve were a couple whose union with God depended upon an asceticism, and when they broke the fast, they broke the union, and all we died, and all the world, all the trees, and all things. Christ came, as one married to us, the Bride being the Church, and he fasted, and prayed in the night, and endured sufferings in his flesh, deprivation, want, for he had no home, no welcome in his home, and he lived his life to rise by dying.

Has anyone noticed that monasticism in Russia, for example, peopled that vast area, and multipled, and made fruitful, by following exactly this path of Christ? Here is what happened: The area we now think of as Russia was a vast area with sparse population. Tribes had coalesced in three major areas. With the baptism of Russia, monasticism there was born. Men sought theosis, and some reached so far in the celibate state that they were a center of attention. So in their humility and embarrassment, some hid their humility under the mask of madness, becoming holy fools. You remember how Christ was said to be variously mad or possessed, and hid his life in parables. Others went to the wilderness, far out from the crowds, seeking only to pray. You remember how Christ did this, and the crowds followed him still, they would not go away. And he even had to feed them. The same thing happened to the Russian monastics. The crowds came, set up camp, waited, learned, watched, and stayed, and towns were founded around a monastic cell in the unknown wild. And others pursued the monastic state, while the laymen prayed too, seeking their theosis in the married state. There was such a close, interwoven connectedness between lay life and monastic life. And churches were raised up. And eventually these points in the wilderness were no longer wilderness – they were key trade routes, and so a monk again wished to go into the wilderness, away from the monastery and the town, and he ventured farther into the wild. And what do you think happened? Some people followed him. Sometimes more than before. And the process began again, until another monk would leave, and venture, and until the Russian territory was populated even to the remotest, harshest, most uninhabitable areas, where you would wonder that people can live and why they would want to and how they ever got there. That’s how. They followed the fathers of the wilderness, the desert, the cell, and the cave. And so Russian piety never lost its close connection to the asceticism of the monastics, until bolschevism, an imported western ideology on the heels of westernization under Peter and Catherine, destroyed it all.

Now, in an amazing, impious, and ironical twist, it is fashionable for people in the US to turn the story around, and claim that anything ascetical, or the ascetical life of ordinary Christians is a “Russian thing” – a fetish, a cultural baggage, and many many Orthodox have in the US and recently baptized countries and in post-communist countries never met a monk, let alone made pilgramage to stay a while at a monastery, receive spiritual counsel, confess there, and learn the way of theosis that they might have missed or misunderstood growing up in an emigre or convert culture. And so when one person here asks about “dwindling numbers”, it is not the numbers I say that matter, but rather the dwindling monasticism, dwindling piety, dwindling understanding, and so dwindling of our experience of the life of the Spirit to which we are called. But wherever anyone picks it up again, the Faith is born anew, while remaining timeless and changeless. Not either/or but both/and.

Christ taught us this life – the Russians are merely those who inherited it writ large from the older world of Byzantium, and conveyed it to us. Almost all North American saints are Russian – they founded Orthodoxy in America. Even the Antiochian Archdiocese here was born out of Arabic people leaving the Russian Church, splitting off from it, and appealing to Antioch to start a different jurisdiction. This is all well-known. We are the spiritual children of Russia, brethren. They are the mother. Without them, there was no Orthodox Faith in the US. And it is a principle of Orthodoxy that we pay homage to those who led us, nurtured us, as the apostle repeatedly says, who our our spiritual parents. And the life they taught us is not born out of contemporary emigre culture or convert culture, as good as emigres and converts are (no slamming those or saying anything is wrong w. them), but was born out of the fulness of a whole functioning single church in a faithful nation with a rich monastic tradition and an ordinary ascetic life of average Christians. We look now and say, audaciously, “it’s not orthodox!” because it doesn’t match the newer parochial attitudes. For shame. It is a much fuller expression of Orthodoxy. One hesitates to stand in the same room with someone who would speak against it, for fear the roof will fall in.


February 21, 2008 - Posted by | -- Asceticism & Monasticism, Western Rite Issues | , , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for the clarification. I knew that the first Western Rite jurisdiction in the US, of which the organizers were members of the SSB, had a Benedictine program, but it did surprise me that there would be any real monasticism in the WRV. I am aware of the ROCOR Benedictines, and it makes more sense that these are among them. Besides the fact of monasticism, there’s a genuine dignity to their site, despite our opinions about its weaknesses; it isn’t really an advocacy site that presents extensive runs of opinion and enthusiasm. As I say, they seem like genuine decent folk.

    Comment by tuD | February 26, 2008 | Reply

  2. For the sake of accuracy, upon a second reading, I noticed that the Benedictine Fellowship of Saint Laurence is connected with Christminster Monastery (ROCOR) and that these oblates are under the direction of Abbot James.

    My previous comments gave the impression that they had no ties to any monastic community observing the ancient Rule of St Benedict, but this is not true. My apologies!

    Comment by occidentaltourist | February 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. Well, they seem like genuinely nice people. And some of what they offer is good reading, but not really helpful to new converts, which is what most WRV people are. I think it’s a bad idea even to have the Way of the Pilgrim up there, but you’re never going to cure that. The Francis of Assisi material should really be shown with qualifying remarks and separated from the Orthodox material by indication of the distinction. Indeed, they might link to the popular article at the Orthodox Christian Information Center that compares Francis of Assisi w. St. Seraphim of Sarov. [Screenshot]

    Comment by tuD | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  4. Oh, I think this stuff is a very bad idea indeed. We’re talking about the very kind of amalgam that already led a lot of ‘uncanonical’ Western Rite to simply become good old fashioned Uniates. The article coming on the 27th will address some of this, but indeed your description of the above site is the worst thing I’ve heard yet. This is a far cry from when the Orthodox Benedictines were established within Bishop Alexander’s SSB.

    Comment by tuD | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  5. While the inclusion of Francis of Assissi’s and Thomas a Kempis’ writings may be a little unusual, the fact that both they, and accepted Orthodox writings, and the old calendarist website, are all represented, at least speaks to an open-mindedness. I see here no anti-old calendarist over-zeal, for example. And it is not as if it is necessarily bad, to read the writings of non-Orthodox. One novice on Mt. Athos was given a penance to read David Copperfield. Could this be? he thought. Is this really Orthodox? He learned something, that day. May we have discernment and wisdom to put the tenth part of those writings into practice in our actual lives. That’s where we moderns fall down and fail. May the Lord save us.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  6. While only somewhat on the topic of Monasticism, the AWRV seems to have a Benedictine Oblate program. This is most fascinating, as there are no actual AWRV monastics observing the Rule of Saint Benedict. I was curious to visit their website, and was most disturbed when I did.


    Talk about spiritual schizophrenia! At the top of the page two of the resources are links to Francis of Assisi whom they refer to as a SAINT! Yes, I know. It’s Common enough occurrence in the AWRV and at New Skete. In the middle was a reference to the Imitation of Christ. At the very end was a link to True Orthodox Info maintained by EXTREMELY ULTRA conservative Archbishop Gregory of Buena Vista Colorado!

    This presents a confusing view of Orthodoxy to the novice.

    I have a personal admiration of Thomas Becket. His life is a witness of conversion and restoration. He’s not listed among the saints of the orthodox west as he was certainly post schism.

    Comment by occidentaltourist | February 25, 2008 | Reply

  7. Thank you, Father. Well said. By Fr. Seraphim’s and Fr. Herman’s prayers may we be saved.

    Comment by tuD | February 23, 2008 | Reply

  8. As I converted to Orthodoxy, I discovered the Patristic attitude towards monasticism, and noticed that monasticism is a pursuit of all the Gospel ideals to its full extent.

    As unpopular as it is, the theology of the Church holds that marriage, feasting, discursive thought, etc., are all good and blessed things – but they are all “plan B,” something God blessed for mankind’s salvation, whilst preferring that man press towards yet better things. “The stomach is for food, and food for the stomach, but God will do away with them both” and “in the Resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” I was genuinely surprised to learn the clarity of the scriptures and the Patristic Tradition on these topics.

    When I realized that the Fathers of the Church encouraged monasticism as the embodiment of Christianity’s fullest ideals (in both a practical and theological sense), I knew that I wanted to be a monk, or die trying.

    It is difficult for a monk to commend monasticism, obviously, because people think “well, of course a monk would say so.” But the fact is, I became a monk because I realized that the Tradition says so, and so do the Fathers. God forbid that monks should look down on anyone (this would be the inverse of their calling!) for not being a monk, or not pressing for the highest Christian ideals that monasticism embodies.

    Yet, despite the fact that monks must not hold themselves in too high a regard, and despite the fact that monks may not be in the best position to advocate for monasticism, the fact is: American Orthodoxy often takes a poor view of monasticism (especially the clergy). To be fair, this is because not many people have invested the time and effort into establishing stable monastic environments (in the USA) – and therefore, American monasteries have had problems with the type of men attracted to sometimes undisciplined and unstable environments.

    Thank God, that has begun to change in the past decades (and certainly, father Seraphim Rose of holy memory demonstrated that even American suburbanites can live a real monastic life of discipline and repentance; I’ve visited Platina and commend that brotherhood for their balance and righteous zeal). I hope the Church will do more to encourage monastic life and monastic vocations – and I hope those of us who are monks might live in such a way, so as not to shame our calling.

    Comment by fatheraugustine | February 23, 2008 | Reply

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