This article first appeared in the Adbook for the
1996 Midwest Region Parish Life Conference hosted by
St. Elias Orthodox Church in Sylvania, OH
The Monastic Influence as part of the Body of Christ
by Hieromonk Denis Lajoie
Monasticism is not inimical to the Body of Christ, contrary to what many would have us believe. It was and is a lay-movement with a different purpose and function within the context of the Church, the Body of Christ. Neither is the monastic life one that is separate or different from that of lay Christians. Rather is a more intensive form of the life in Christ, the life that all are called to live. It is a life based on the Gospel counsels which all Orthodox Christians must follow and exemplify in their own lives.
The best example of following the Gospel counsels occurs in the life of St. Anthony the Great (January 17), who is considered the father of monasticism. St. Anthony’s parents both died and left him great wealth while still a young man. One day, he was in church and he heard the following: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) Unlike the young man in the Gospel story, he did just that. He sold all his possessions, gave away all he had to the poor, and went into the desert and followed Christ. After many years of struggle, his reputation as a deeply holy and spiritual man attracted the attention of others who wished to join him in his life of ascetic struggle.
The development of monasticism coincides not only with the example of St. Anthony, but also with the end of persecution. In 312 AD, Constantine the Great (celebrated as a saint on May 23) recognized Christianity as a legitimate religion and ended the persecution of Christians. Many in the Church mourned the loss of martyrdom as the ultimate witness to Christ. So monasticism, then in its still early stage, was seen as a form of martyrdom – a replacement for the “red martyrdom,” that of shedding one’s blood, with the “white martyrdom,” that of pursuing a life of perfection and purity of heart.
What are some of the specific ways in which the monastics have had an impact on the faithful? In the time of St. Anthony, the initial impact was in the area of spiritual guidance. Many were looking for advice and guidance on how to live the Gospels in the world. So the faithful turned to those who had left the world completely, who struggled to live with their entire being the teachings of Christ as set forth in the Gospels. Soon the monks, both men and women, were acting as spiritual parents. Later in history, the monks contributed a great deal to the liturgical life of the Church..
In the Byzantine Empire, monasteries were often combined with hospitals. Christian doctors, understanding the unity of body and soul, as pointed out by the words and miracles of Christ, often sent patients for whom nothing more could be done medically to the monks for spiritual treatment. Confessing their sins to the spiritual fathers or mothers of the monastery, often located in the same building or on the same property as the hospital, and accepting anointing, many of these hopeless cases quickly recovered. Those who did not were assisted in preparing to die a truly Christian death.
Today we still experience the influence of monasticism. However, it is not always positive. Unfortunately, we have many monastics who take a super-Orthodox approach of unchristian judgment toward the rest of the Orthodox church. Their hyper-critical attitudes are in fact a betrayal of the original gospel counsel, to “come, follow me!” Instead of providing a quiet witness to the faith, and the challenge of living that faith in a world that is still under the influence of evil, they prefer to criticize their fellow Orthodox brethren, holding themselves up as the “true Orthodox.”
The need for the witness of monasticism in the Church is undeniable. But that witness must be one of charity. We must take seriously the need for monastic life and establish healthy monastic centers in our own archdiocese and in other dioceses as well. These monastic centers could then be what they have always been in their positive aspects – spiritual oases where the faithful can retreat from their constant battles with the world and its unhealthy temptations. Here, the faithful can seek and receive the guidance that the monastics, because of their own intense struggle and experience, can give. Here the faithful could find solace – a balanced approach to the challenge of living the gospel in the world, and soothing medicine for their wounded bodies, souls and spirits. Here the faithful could spend a few days in retreat every year to strengthen themselves in their constant battle with sin.