MIGHT YOU CONSIDER BECOMING A MONASTIC?
SOME GUIDELINES TO HELP YOU DECIDE IF MONASTICISM IS RIGHT FOR YOU
Being called to the monastic life is one of the greatest blessings that the Lord can bestow on a person. Therefore, responding to the Lord’s call, and deciding whether or not to become a monastic is one of the most important decisions one might make in one’s life, akin to choosing a spouse, a profession, a college/university to attend, whether to move across country to take a job, whether to convert to the Orthodox Faith, and other major life-decisions. Of course, basic to all of these decisions for the faithful Orthodox Christian is: What is God’s will for you? What does the Lord — not you — want? Of course, only you can decide what the Lord is calling you to do with your life, as you ask Him to lead you and show you His will for you, and as you give yourself and your whole life over to God, with the heartfelt desire to love and serve Him above all else. This is the basic underlying principle for the Christian life, no matter what you do with your life. The essential questions are: what does the Lord want you to do with your life, and where and when. Hopefully what is written herein will aid you in understanding what Orthodox monasticism is, considering it as an option in life, and whether or not the Lord is calling you to the monastic life, now or perhaps at some time in the future.
Is the Lord calling you to be a monastic?
First of all, however, keep in mind that the purposes of the monastic life, the married life and the single life, are the same: to know God and to seek to draw closer and closer to Him throughout one’s life; to obey His commandments; to worship Him daily; to communicate with Him daily by prayer, and by reading the Bible and other spiritual works; to have as the center and goal of one’s life to love God, our fellow human beings and all his creatures; to serve Him above all else; and to desire to be united with Him ever more fully, serving Him as He wills. These are the purposes of life and should form the basis of how we live our lives. We are ‘successful’ in life insofar as we strive to achieve these things. We can work towards achieving these purposes of life no matter what our station in life is—monastic, married, single; no matter what type of work/job we do; no matter what our education; no matter what our income— according to where the Lord has placed us at any particular stage in our lives, although this can change at different times.
Also, it is important to recognize that if you believe that the Lord is indeed calling you to the monastic life, the next question is—which monastic community is best for you? Every community is different, and you need to find which one is the best ‘fit’ for you. If you try out a community and it doesn’t work, it might mean the Lord does not will for you to be a monastic, but on the other hand, it might mean that the Lord wants you someplace else, and/or the timing is not right.
So, you might ask, ‘if I can achieve the same goals as a monastic and still be married, have children, and work in the world, why should I become a monastic?’ Indeed, there are a number of saints and undoubtedly countless unknown other holy people who have been married, if this is where the Lord has chosen to place us, for there is a path of holy martyrdom in marriage—the crown of martyrdom wherein one dies to oneself and sacrifices one’s ego, one’s self-centeredness, for the good of the family. The essential answer to this basic question of why become a monastic, is—because it is far more difficult to achieve the spiritual goals of the Orthodox Christian life when, as St. Paul points out in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (7:32-34), one is focused on living a worldly life, and pleasing one’s spouse and children rather than pleasing Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom. Raising children and working in the world involves being surrounded with worldly pursuits and attractions, which usually sidetrack us from focusing on God first above all else, and makes it more difficult to achieve our spiritual goals. Let’s face it—family life is usually worldly, although it is possible to rise to the challenge and truly make our homes little churches, and raise children to be good, faithful and moral Orthodox Christians. (There are many saints and other holy people whose youthful Christian nurturing in faithful homes set their feet on the path of holiness.) There is also a long tradition in Orthodoxy for men and women to become monastics later in life, after their children are grown or their spouses die, or by mutual consent. However, it is much easier to start on the monastic path when younger, before getting so set in our ways and accustomed to indulging our egos and passions.
The single greatest impediment in growing in the spiritual life—that is, in growing closer and closer to God and being united with Him and being increasingly filled with His Holy Spirit and His love—is our self-centeredness, that is, our ego, our ‘self,’ that gets in the way. Since the world around us socializes us and daily inundates us with instructions to engage in self-indulgence, it is extremely difficult to overcome our self-centeredness while living in the world. This is one of the primary reasons to decide to become a monastic—to turn our backs on the world and worldly values. Precisely because monasticism recognizes that our self-centeredness is the primary impediment to our spiritual growth, therefore, monasticism attacks self-centeredness head-on. It does this especially through obedience. To enter a monastery is to decide to die to one’s ‘self,’ that is, to let our ego or ‘self’ die—to die to the way we have been doing things. This is just the first step though, because overcoming our ego is extremely difficult, and we have to keep working on it for the rest of our lives. All of the passions and sins that we must fight against, are basically manifestations of our ego-centeredness.
The older we are when entering monastic life, the more years practice we have had in indulging our ‘self,’ and the more difficult it can be to change our life-patterns. We might then experience the monastic challenge as an assault on our ego. But this is precisely what it should be, if we are to make any spiritual progress. As long as we are focused on our ‘self,’ and getting our own way, the further away is our focus from God. So the monastic life is the struggle to stop focusing on ourselves and to change and focus on God instead.
However, if we are considering becoming a monastic, especially if we are older, or perhaps are even currently in a monastery, we probably think that we are marvelous Christians already, and already know and love God, and already are focused on God. Therefore requirements to be obedient and give up the ways we always have lived and acted and functioned in the world, can appear to be most unreasonable at the least, or even perhaps ‘mean.’ As long as we think that we are doing great, it is difficult to accept the assault on one’s ego that the monastic life entails. Learning to look at ourselves honestly is usually very difficult and painful, because we don’t like what we see. As long as we think we are great Christians because we love God and pray at length everyday, attend all the church Services, and perhaps even take pride in our ‘asceticism,’ we will have trouble with monasticism.
But the only way to be united with the Lord and acquire His holiness, is through humility. The most direct path to humility is overcoming our ego through obedience. The more readily we obey, the more we can acquire humility. The more contrary to our own wishes is what we obey, the greater can be our growth. In a monastery, when the abbess/abbot/superior/spiritual mother or father tells us to do or not do something, our response should be a simple ‘yes, Mother/Father’ and we immediately do or don’t do what we are told, without arguing, grumbling or complaining. This is similar to the way it is in the military—‘Yes, Sir!’, and if reprimanded—‘No excuse, Sir!’ If we absolutely can’t handle this and instead react with anger, and cannot at least recognize what we should do and try to fulfill the obedience, then perhaps we need to work out our salvation somewhere other than in a monastery. To enter upon the monastic life means to let go of life as we have lived it. It means that we can no longer react to things the way we always have. It means that we cannot expect, no less insist, on having our own way, because that is what we have gotten used to, especially if we have been living alone. We must submit ourselves to each other, and be obedient to the one who is in charge. This is precisely what St. Paul tells all Christians to do—to submit to one another: wives and husbands are to submit to one another; children to parents; employees to employers; citizens to just civil authorities (Ephesians 5 & 6). Similarly, we as Orthodox Christians are to submit to our spiritual fathers, our priests. And especially, monastics are to submit to one another, and especially to the one in charge. Implied in this submission to one another that St. Paul directs us to do, is to submit with peace and love, not begrudgingly, and to treat the others with respect at all times. In the ‘Instruction’ in the Rite of Tonsuring of a Monastic, the monastic is directed to acquire humility, to be obedient, and not to complain. This is necessary, not only for the salvation of the monastic, but for the peace, love, harmony and unity of the monastic community. To draw a parallel between monastic life and married life— what type of peace, love and harmony would exist in a marriage if the spouses always insist on having their own way, and argue if they don’t get it? Even more sad it is if those who are in a monastic community react with anger when they don’t get their own way—when their self-will is thwarted. The challenge of entering a monastery and not being allowed to live as one always has lived, and this consequent assault on one’s ego, is probably the single greatest difficulty in becoming a monastic, especially for older people.
Being head-strong and self-centered is a spiritual disease that can afflict anyone of any age, gender, race, nationality, socio-economic or educational level. In a monastic community people afflicted with this dreadful spiritual disease who refuse to try to change, can destroy the peace, unity, fellowship, love and harmony that should characterize a monastic community. “Behold how blessed it is when brothers/sisters dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).
What is a monastery?
In trying to decide whether you have a monastic calling from God, let us consider, ‘what is a monastery?’
✞ A monastery is a place where people live and pray and work together in order to serve God and those to whom He calls them to minister.
✞ A monastery is a community of people who have abandoned the world and its ways; who seek to serve and love God above all else, while working out their salvation in a life of prayer; who live together in community, where their ‘rough edges’ can be smoothed out by interacting with the other monastics; where they worship, fast, eat and work together in community; where they work together in a bond of love, unity, peace and harmony for the good of the community as a whole; and where they readily fulfill their assigned obediences.
✞ A monastery is a community where people accept to live under obedience to the rules of the monastic community and to the monastic in charge (e.g. abbess, abbot, superior, etc., and occasionally, under a priest assigned as spiritual father), in order to overcome their ego-centeredness and acquire humility.
✞ A monastery is where a community of monastics strive to live together in love and unity and peace, supporting each other in their individual and corporate struggles to overcome their egos and passions, to work out their salvation, and to serve God in accordance with His will.
✞ A monastery is a place where monastics struggle against the devil, and against their passions.
✞ A monastery is a spiritual hospital, where wounded and sick people who truly desire to be healed of their spiritual diseases can have the opportunity to receive healing from the Great Physician.
What a monastery is not:
✞ A monastery is not a retirement home, or a place to go because one does not want to work.
✞ A monastery is not a place where one can just live comfortably, living basically the way one always has, but without having to worry about paying bills and making ends meet. (You have to work to ‘earn your keep’ and contribute to the overall life of the monastic community.)
✞ A monastery is not a place of escape for those who feel they have failed in life, have lost their jobs, their homes, their family, their physical/mental health, who can’t find a spouse, and don’t know what else to do. (However, sometimes the Lord can lead someone to accept His calling to be monastic by freeing a person from these things that can bind us to the world. And sometimes people who have lost these things can use it as an opportunity to find a far fuller and meaningful life in giving themselves wholly to God by embracing the monastic life.)
Monastic life might be the vocation to which the Lord is calling you if:
✞ You have a driving desire to wed yourself and your soul to the Lord as the heavenly Bridegroom, and have a burning desire to live for the Lord alone and to serve Him above all else and live a life of prayer for the rest of your life;
✞ You can accept that the purpose of living this life of monastic obedience is for your salvation, and to enable you to acquire humility and thereby to become more fully united with the Lord;
✞ You can reject the world and its values, and live for the Lord alone;
✞ You can let go of attachment to your possessions and the concept of ‘mine’ versus ‘yours,’ letting the community own everything;
✞ You can accept giving all your financial resources to the monastery for the good of the community as a whole, as well as for your personal needs;
✞ You can accept working in whatever capacity is asked of you, for the support and good of the community;
✞ You can let go of your friends, relatives, relationships and social life outside the monastery (most monasteries will allow occasional contact with family: how much contact is permitted varies from community to community);
✞ You have an intense desire to dedicate your particular skills and talents to serving God, regardless of your age;
✞ You can accept to follow basic Christian moral precepts, realizing that dishonesty, deception, misrepresentation (of yourself, your health, your finances, etc.), theft, sneakiness, doing forbidden things secretly, and similar immorality, will not be tolerated, and will usually result in an invitation to leave;
✞ You can accept living under the monastic vows of obedience (as discussed at length above), chastity (not only celibacy and letting go of one’s family ties, but also purity in all of one’s thoughts and actions), poverty (living simply and not owning anything in your own name, including property, bank accounts, insurance, etc.), and stability (staying in the monastery where you were tonsured, unless receiving permission to live elsewhere).
In addition to the above general guidelines that need to accepted to be a monastic, here are some very specific points for you to consider. You need to do some deep soul-searching, led by the Lord in His great mercy, to make sure you are willing to accept the following “standard operating procedures.” These are generally non-negotiable and apply in all, or almost all, monastic communities from the moment you arrive as a ‘seeker.’
✞ Can you accept not watching TV, listening to the radio or stereo?
✞ Can you accept not accessing the internet and using e-mail whenever you want to, but only when permitted?
✞ Can you accept not talking on the phone whenever and to whomever you wish, and as often and as long as you wish, but only when permitted?
✞ Can you accept not going shopping, perhaps not at all, or only occasionally?
✞ Can you accept not having your own checkbook or credit card, and not having control over how you spend your money if you have any income (such as Social Security, gifts or pay), or not having any money at all to spend?
✞ Can you accept participating in the communal meals, observing the Church’s rules of fasting, and eating what is placed on the table, and not complaining if you don’t like it, as applies to the particular monastic community in which you are interested or in which you already are living?
✞ Can you accept attending all the church services that are required of the community?
✞ Can you accept doing whatever obediences (work) are assigned to you?
✞ Can you accept wearing the monastic garb that is the ‘uniform’ of the monastery where you live, no matter how uncomfortable you feel it is? (i.e. head always covered in the proper manner, no short sleeves, etc.)
✞ Can you accept treating the other monastics with respect, and especially the abbess/abbot or person in charge? (Yelling at or arguing with the abbess/abbot/or person in charge or other monastics absolutely will not be tolerated.)
The following points are expected behavior of all monastics, but will frequently involve life-long struggles to actually achieve. So don’t feel overwhelmed that you can’t do these from day one. But be aware of the expected behavior— as a goal towards which you will be working.
✞ Can you accept not having your own way?
✞ Can you accept having to obey someone else in most everything you do?
✞ Can you accept not being allowed to do what you want to do, and live the way you always have?
✞ Can you accept criticism, direction and guidance to help you learn what is acceptable and unacceptable monastic behavior and dress?
✞ Can you accept doing what the abbess/abbot or person in charge tells you to do, without arguing, complaining or protesting? (Yelling is always totally unacceptable!)
✞ Can you accept that when you fall, you will pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and keep trying?
✞ Can you accept to repent and ask forgiveness immediately when you have fallen, as is appropriate and applicable?
✞ Are you willing to struggle to try to accept and adapt to those aspects of expected monastic behavior that are difficult or problematic for you?
Remember that monastic life is a constant spiritual struggle, and one must not get discouraged when one can’t adhere to all the above-mentioned precepts. When one’s failures are pointed out, a response of hostility and anger is not an option. It is important to remember that you must allow yourself time to get accustomed to a totally different way of life from the way you have always lived — you won’t change overnight, but you must daily struggle and work on it.
All of these above mentioned guidelines involve blessed struggle. There are two arenas of monastic struggle. The first arena is the struggle before entering a monastery, during which time you are called by the Lord to abandon the world, its values, and all that is in it, in order to live for God alone. The second arena is the struggle after you enter upon monastic life. In both arenas, only the Lord’s grace will enable you to grow so you can forsake whatever still binds you to the world and your ego-centeredness, when the Lord calls you to take up your cross and follow Him in the monastic vocation.
Living the authentic monastic life is a most rich, blessed and meaningful life! And it is vital to cultivate and expand Orthodox monasticism in North America. The state of a country’s spiritual life throughout the centuries has always been a reflection of the state of the monastic life in each country and century. We desperately need authentic Orthodox monasticism to spread and develop in North America in order to help save our country and its people from the secular immorality and self-indulgence that engulfs us, and raise the spiritual level of our Orthodox people and churches as well. Our society teaches us to indulge our egos and our bodies, which is the polar opposite of what the holy Orthodoxy Faith teaches us. Therefore, it is difficult even for our most faithful Orthodox people to abandon the world and its ways and embrace the monastic way of life, which entails sacrifice and a continual struggle to overcome our egos and self-centeredness, rejecting self-indulgence as a ‘normal’ way of life. But the joys of being more fully united with our Lord are more than worth the struggle.
By the Lord’s grace, may the reflections about monasticism herein expressed be of assistance to you, to help you to better understand what Orthodox monasticism is all about, and to provide some guidelines in helping you to decide whether the Lord is calling you to wed the heavenly Bridegroom, and serve Him above all else in this special way. The struggle and challenges are great, but the rewards are far greater.
By Sister Ioanna, St. Innocent Monastic Community,
9452 Hazelton, Redford, MI 48239-1138