Word Magazine October 1980 Page 5-8
A FREEDOM CALLED MONASTICISM
by George Benjamin Gapen
Holy Trinity Monastery Jordanville, New York
Holy Trinity Monastery Jordanville, New York
Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.
For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. Colossians 3.2-3
Christ’s death and Resurrection have become your death and resurrection. You were buried in the waters of Baptism with Christ, and arose from them in Him. You were Sealed into Pentecost with Holy Chrism, and have received the Gift of the Holy Spirit. Now you are no longer simply a natural child or natural parents, you are no longer defined by any ethnic group — for God Himself has become your Father, the Holy Catholic (Universal) Church your Mother, and Heaven itself your native land.
You are potentially a Saint, just as a larva is potentially a butterfly. But potential, devoid of opportunity, is not free to know fulfillment. As a larva is free to become a butterfly only within its chrysalis, so you are meant to realize your potential within a particular religious “vocation” or calling. Find that vocation, be faithful to its opportunities, and the God who permits a “worm” to fly on jeweled wings will make you a Saint.
Your Sainthood and the Monastic Vocation
Religious vocation, for most, centers about a parish and the establishment of a “domestic Church” (i.e.: Christian family). This means serving God in the world without becoming part of it — an honourable and difficult task. From the earliest days of the Church, however, God has chosen others to choose another path. It is a path which entails the same uncompromising commitment and the same radical © George Benjamin Gapen 1980
renunciation required of other Christians. But the potential entrusted to such souls necessitates another kind of chrysalis, another freedom — a freedom called monasticism.
It is not freedom to do as one likes — that is not freedom, it is license. It is something much more important. It is freedom to become, through the consecration of one’s will and the concentration of one’s efforts, the person one has been made in Baptism/Chrismation. Those called to the monastic life do not find it joyless or depriving — they find freedom and opportunity to live the New Life with which they have been invested. For them, such freedom and opportunity simply do not exist elsewhere. God may have chosen you to share their joy and adventure.
– Does your love of God demand expression beyond the possibilities of a present situation?
– Be joyful — for the monastic exists, like incense, to be consumed to the praise and glory of Almighty God.
– Does temptation corrode your holy resolves?
– Be joyful — for monasticism offers the stabilizing life of a community of faith, and constructive reliance upon the Grace of God.
– Are you appalled by your sins and by the prospect of death?
– Be joyful — for monasticism is redemptive repentance, not debilitating remorse. It is healing balm applied by the Physician of Life to the festering, putrid sores of sin — and so removes the sting of death.
– Do you seek a way to fulfill Christ’s New Law:
that you love others as He first loved you?
– Rejoice and be exceedingly glad — for God’s holy transfiguring love will touch others through you,1 and He will teach you to sing with joy:
Thanks he to God, who continually leads us about, captives in Christ’s triumphal procession, and everywhere uses us to reveal and spread abroad the fragrance of the knowledge of Himself! We are indeed the incense offered by Christ to God . . . a fragrance that brings life.
2 Corinthians 2:14-16
‘That this is evident to the faith-filled is seen in the origin of the word “monk” which derives from monachos —“the unique one”. The ancient Syrian equivalent, ihidaja, also means “the perfect one” and “the only begotten”. Surely he who does not recognize himself as unworthy of such love, and is not in awe of those holy ascetics who inspired it, seems incapable of following in their footsteps.
The fragrance of the knowledge of God — perfuming the temple of the heart, converting life itself into spiritual incense offered by Christ to God, giving us a share in His life-bringing mission — its bouquet lingers in Holy Relics, and its joys shame all the pleasures earth can boast.
Responsibility is Part of Your Freedom
Christ came to seek and to save the lost. Christ came that we might be united with God, might share in the Divine Life, might become like Him. But man cannot be saved against his will. Salvation cannot be imposed — for man cannot be free to say “yes” to God, unless he is also free to say “no”. And so Christ, having done all that is necessary to save all that shall ever live, waits — and knocks upon the door of your heart.
Every second of your life you actively serve God or Satan. You choose your master and your destiny. Insofar as you choose wisely, “you have been set free from sin and are the slaves of God; your gain is a life fully dedicated to Him, and the result is eternal life” Romans 6.22. Will you experience the coming of Our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, with exultant joy or inconsolable regret — as Heaven or as Hell?
We live in the dawn of the final day. Holy ascetics2 remind all to prepare. They embody the prophetic proclamation, “Behold, now iQ the acceptable time! Behold, now is the day of salvation!” That urgent message is marrow within the bones of those who made the desert bloom by watering it with their tears, those who perched atop pillars and so rose above the world, those who huddled in caves or tombs or within hollow trees rather than allow Satan room, those who received the Sacramental Tonsure secretly but confessed Christ openly, and those who ran from the wilderness of the world to a fortress of the Faith.
The glory of Christ’s imminent return is more than the climax of history — it sears His brand upon every 2The word “ascetic” comes to use from the Greek, and recalls the discipline of athletic training. Asceticism evidences affections set on things above, not on things of the earth — cf.: 1 Corinthians 9.23-27 and Hebrews 12.1-2.
day and every soul. “Thy Kingdom come” must be followed “Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”. Ascetics endure all things for Christ’s sake, and nothing (not in themselves and not in the world) which denies the unity between God’s revealed Will for the future and His saving/judging activity in the present.
A Life that Participates in its Goal
Your goal is to become holy as God Himself is ho
ly. You cannot become like God while listening to Satan (as Adam and Eve learned), nor can you storm Heaven’s portals (as the destruction of the Tower of Babel shows). But, because you are in Christ, His Holiness is already yours. Claim that holiness in the only possible way. God the Holy Spirit struggles with you — permit Him to abide in you, to transfigure you, to act through you. Do so and you will find that Heaven begins now.
Monasticism invites you to renounce personal property, claim no earthly spouse, and live by Holy Rule in union with the Christ you bear: Christ who became poor that you might become rich, who lived in perfect chastity, and who unfailingly conformed His Human Nature to the Will of the Father. Consider this holy vocation, this “angelic life”, prayerfully. You are not called to judge it, but to co-operate with the Grace of God. Weigh its cost against its value:
It is a rigorous school of perfection —but you must be purged, must be made pure in
heart if you are to see God and live.
You will feel the pain of separation as attempts to seek God confirm His unapproachable Holiness —but then you will realize that the pain of separation is really God’s pain, that He is permitting you to share it, that the infinite condescension of God embraces even you.
You will be confronted with your own wretchedness but you will outgrow every fear save one: the fear
that you may yet betray your long-suffering Master. You will weep over your own sins and the brutality of men —but you will know that you are a pilgrim and will
share God’s compassion for the sightseers around you who run the maze of life without knowing why. God will use you to battle demonic powers which attack the Church at large no less than they attack the citadel of your own soul —for you will know spiritual warfare. Everyday you make choices, each of which excludes alternatives. Goals, not convenience, should be your guide. Monasticism demands much. But if you love Him who first loved you — and gave Himself for love of your love — you may feel almost like a robber when you recall that He considers your “sacrifice” an investment in that field in which the pearl of great price lies hidden. Thus Christ, addressing those who had left all to follow Him, solemnly promised:
Anyone who leaves home or brother or sister or mother or father or children or fields for Me, and the Gospel, will receive much more in this
present age. He will receive a hundred times more houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields—and persecutions as well; and in the age to come he will receive eternal life.
Perhaps you are among these “anyones” whom God calls to invest his life as a monk or nun. He has been at work in your life. He has been trying to show you something of His compassion and Holy Will. It is He who is the Cause of your contrition. It is He who whispers in your melancholy and merriment alike, “There is but one sadness, that of not being a Saint”3. Take up your cross that you may know the secret joy Christ felt in shouldering His own. Struggle to extinguish the hard-dying embers of the old Adam, nurture the flame of the New — till His indwelling Presence becomes a blaze that illumines but does not consume, refines but does not burn.
Keep These Things in Your Heart and Ponder Them You need not be “holy” to become a monk or
nun. God sees your present in the light of your potential, not in the shadow of your past. The lives of monastic Saints bear poignant testimony to God’s ability to transform even the most debased. The monastery or convent is, among other things, an emergency room in the vestibule of eternity. To think that one must be “holy” before becoming a monk or nun is like thinking one must be well before becoming a patient in a hospital!
Detractors suggest such a life is “unnatural”. And when Noah beat upon a board (semantron), as the final call to enter the Old Testament ark, people scoffed too. The Holy Church of God is the Ark of salvation. If your vocation is to the monastic life you dare not permit others to dissuade you. The world and its spokesmen remain at enmity with God. Actually, it is man’s fallen nature (and the consequent warping of his rightful mind and proper affections — the disfiguring of his soul) that is unnatural. Certainly, monastic values (Christian values) fly in the face of the world’s priorities and nominal commitment alike
— but “supernatural” and “unnatural” are drastically dissimilar!
If you suspect you may have a monastic vocation “tomorrow” you have an obligation today. REMEMBER that the summons to the monastic life originates with God. It is His to give as He knows best — not ours to take. PRAY for guidance, and ask your patron Saints to help you better see and more adequately comply with God’s Will. Cultivate the Jesus Prayer/Prayer of the Heart (“0 Lord Jesus Christ, Thou Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner”) . If possible SPEAK to a staretz, your spiritual father, or an experienced confessor — but understand first that the solicitation of opinions is almost always inappropriate. None can live your life, die your death, or stand before Christ in your stead. BE ASSURED that the Church will never try to force a commitment. She is only interested in helping you determine if the lyric
of monasticism harmonizes with the melody God has been playing in your heart. Not even the most promising of candidates is permitted to take vows before a trial period of indeterminate length.
Do not fear having little to offer, or allow ignorance of “proper” means to discourage you. God can use the loaves and fish you can offer. In a sense there is no way to Christ, much less a “proper” one. He Himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Perhaps you are familiar with the story of the three men who went to a deserted island in search of God and sanctity. For many years they fasted and prayed. One day a ship stopped at the island for minor repairs, and among the passengers who chose to go ashore was a bishop. The three men ran to him, fell upon their faces before him, and begged his blessing. After granting it, the bishop asked, “How do you men pray?” One of the three answered, “May the Three of You bless the three of us. Amen.” The bishop was horrified and said, “No, no, you can’t pray like that! Now repeat after me, ‘Our Father,. . .“ The monks were eager but slow to learn. But, by the time that the bishop had to return to the ship, he was satisfied that he had taught these ignorant recluses how to pray. He had been at sea for several hours when he was shocked to hear the voices of the three men. Turning, he saw them running to him on the water and heard them crying out, “Holy Bishop, how did that prayer go?” Those whom God commands He enables. He comes “though the doors were shut” — and opens others we do not suspect exist.
Transfiguration Church at New Skete
It isn’t helpful to worry about your motives. It isn’t even proper to worry about them. If monasticism is a “vocation”, a calling — it is God’s choice that matters. If He has chosen you, your “motives” are at best only intimations, may be completely wrong, and are irrelevant in either case. Does a larva demand self understanding or a degree in biology before changing into a chrysalis? If any ever did, it never flew! You will learn about God, yourself and monasticism only when all three are brought together. If you conclude then that this is not your vocation, you are free to
leave — and God will bless you for being willing to find out.
Willingness to follow the advice given Nathanael, “Come and see” (John 1.46) seems indispensible —and yet, God has shown that He is able to make monastic Saints even of those deaf to His call. For them, the angelic life is like a stealthily laid net, and God the Pursuer who drives them toward it. If a monastery or convent is WHERE God wants you, if it is where you NFED to be — it doesn’t matter WHY you think you are there, or HOW He gets you there!
You can turn to your bishop and diocese for help.
“God became Man that we might become God”. The Church, your diocese and your bishop do not exist for their own glory — they exist that this Christian hope
might be realized. It is your hope, and your bishop’s duty to offer you aid in the spirit of Christ.
Today, God Himself is opening a door into a freedom which may be your destiny. All worthy bishops of the Orthodox Catholic Church are dedicated to the best of ascetic tradition, and recognize it as God-provided incense which perfumes and revives the entire Church with the fragrance of sanctity. Permit your bishop to serve God by trying to assist you. Request general information, specific guidance, latest developments, and commemoration by your bishop in the Divine and Holy Liturgy.
Perhaps one day, as a worthy monastic, you will be free to come before God and say of your own life in Christ:
I offer to Thee,
what is already Thine, on behalf of all,