Monasticism and Us

Bishop Seraphim : Article
Monasticism and Us
[See the “Canadian Orthodox Messenger”,
Spring 1993 and Winter 1994/1995]

I have long been convinced that it will only be with the firmer establishment of monastic life in Canada that our Church will have a proper foundation and future possibility. Why ? I believe that we lack a sense of direction without the active presence of monks, both male and female. Without them, it is as if we are functioning without one lung (or perhaps more poignantly, without our conscience). Their presence constantly reminds us of the life to which we are all called : the life of repentance. Men and women in the monastic life are not “professional Christians” ; they are simply persons like us who have decided to turn their lives over to Christ Jesus our Lord in a serious and complete way. They have determined to try to live as fully as possible according to the Gospel. The result is that their lives singly and together reflect, as it were, the common community life of the Acts of the Apostles. They hold nothing back, and they try to avoid the duplicity of Ananias and Sapphira (see Acts 5:1-11).

They give up the selfishness of the fallen world, and try to live for Christ first and foremost. Monks, both male and female, dress alike, and serve Christ alike. The similarity in their appearance gives us a visible hint that the Christian life, the Christian way of repentance, minimises the distinctions between human beings. Race, colour, language and gender are not the major concerns. The way of living as repentant persons in the love and service of Christ is the priority. Our monks serve as visible signs of the struggle to which the Lord calls everyone of us : to live lives of repentance and conformity to His will. We need these signs for our own encouragement and strengthening, to help us to live our lives in Christ as devotedly as we possibly can, even if we do have to live in the world in whatever capacity. The male and female monks serve as a sort of conscience for us, because they remind us of our priorities. They also give us hope, because they have given themselves to a life of repentance – turning away from selfishness and self-serving, turning away from sin, and instead turning towards practicing love, obedience, and selfless service in Christ as we are all called to do. Perhaps most importantly, they offer their lives in prayer, even if their lives are quite active. This prayer gives much support to the rest of us.

Even when a monk or nun has all sorts of trouble in fulfilling the Gospel, this very struggle serves as an encouraging sign to us all that we must persevere. There is the famous anecdote about the monk who was asked what the monks are doing with their time in the monastery. His response was : “We fall, and we get up ; we fall, and we get up again”. We all need to see clearly and to understand that the monks are at least attempting to follow Christ and to reveal Him. As they are doing, so can we all be doing. Indeed, the only difference between a monk and any other Christian is that a monk has visibly forsaken everything in order to follow Christ and to live in and with Him.

We in the Archdiocese of Canada are blessed to have amongst us several monks. Some live alone, as hermits ; some live in small groups and more actively. One group in Montréal consists of missionary priests who live separately from each other, and who hold secular employment. However, they pray together on weekends and once during the week, and they have a common rule for their daily lives at home. Other monks belong to yet another brotherhood, and they likewise all live separately. There are also some seekers and attempters. There are people around them who, in one way or another, derive blessing from their witness, prayer and ministrations. Certainly, there are some persons who would criticise such a variety of ways of living. The criticism may well be made that all these monks should be living together under a single roof. This criticism is folly, because even from the beginning, Orthodox monks have not been forced to live in any particular community ; but rather, they find the community in which they feel they can live, and with monks who choose to accept the one asking to enter. We would do well to recall that before there were coenobitic communities, there were hermits and anchorites, and small groups of hermits.

In Canada, there was a time in the past when there were many communities throughout the country, some of which were of a reasonable size. However, that time was in the past. At present, monastic life and presence must be re-established and rebuilt. To do so, it is necessary to allow the Lord Himself to re-establish our Church’s life in Canada, and this means leaving room for the apparently unusual and irregular for the time being. We have no resources at this time with which to build anything else which might satisfy demands for the exterior appearance of an establishment. It is, therefore, crucially important that we all make way for the Lord to provide for our Church, His Church, in accordance with His will. Although we principally have hermits of some sort at this time, we are not asking the Lord for hermits only. We must be ready to embrace and to support whatever sort of monastic establishment the Lord gives to us. At least we do now have some persons who are bold enough to give up all for Christ and to follow Him. Some are openly monks, and some are not openly monks. By their prayers and examples, may the Lord bless the rest of us and bring us all into His Kingdom.

Nevertheless, some people still wonder why we should support monastics, and they ask what is their purpose. That we even ask this materialistic and utilitarian question is indicative of the fact that we live in a work-ethic poisoned environment. The Christian way is not the way of the world. The Christian way is concerned with who a person is, rather than what a person does for a living, whom a person knows, how much money the person makes, or what concrete contribution a person makes to society. The Christian way is concerned with factors much greater and much deeper than these shallow concerns. Monks, whether male or female, are persons who have decided clearly to live a life of repentance. That means turning away from self-will, and instead trying to do God’s will, and His will only. To do this, monks and nuns embrace poverty in every sense of the word. They try to minimise material needs, and they maximise their communion with the Lord. Human beings were created to worship God above all else, and it is for this reason that prayer is the main part of the monk’s life. (The nature and content of this prayer come in many forms, and the prayer of no two monks will be exactly the same.) The monk’s first concern is working out in Christ his or her own salvation with fear and trembling.

Monastics are the heart and soul of Church life. Saint Seraphim of Sarov said : “If you save your own soul, thousands will be saved with you ; and if you lose your soul, thousands will be lost with you”. We all need examples of people who are trying their best to do this very thing, so that we can have the courage to do so as well. We need people who recognise their sinfulness to remind us of our sinfulness. We need people who try to turn from this sinfulness and be re-conformed to the Lord’s will to help us to have courage to do the same. Even if they do not pray for us by name, their struggle creates a sort of wave which helps to pull us all along as well. Perhaps we could liken monks to the prow of a ship.

Our monks are truly visible signs of the struggle to which the Lord calls everyone of us : to live lives of repentance in love, lives of conformity to His life-giving will. The Lord’s life-giving love is what motivates us all. Therefore, as Saint Herman, the Elder and Wonder-worker of Alaska encourages us, let us always say : “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us love God above all, and do His holy will”.