The Monastic Life In-Depth
“The monastic profession is a lofty and fruitful tree whose root is detachment from all corporeal things, whose branches are freedom from passionate craving and total alienation from what you have renounced, and whose fruit is the acquisition of virtue, a deifying love, and the uninterrupted joy that results from these two things; for, as St Paul says, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace and the other things he mentions.
Flight from the world is rewarded by refuge in Christ. By ‘world’ I mean here attachment to sensory things and to worldly proclivities. If you detach yourself from such things through knowledge of the truth you are assimilated to Christ, acquiring a love for Him that allows you to put aside all worldly matters and to purchase the precious pearl, that is to say, Christ Himself.”
Theoliftos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia,
The Philokalia, On Inner Work in Christ and the Monastic Profession.
The call to the monastic life is one that appears to have a very ancient root. One could possibly trace this fervent call back to the time of the Essenes, a radical sect of Judaism that existed in Jesus’s time that came together in a tightly knit community where they could live a common life together while strictly adhering to the teachings of the Torah and the Law in a more fervent way than the average Hebrew layman, or even the average Pharisee or Sadducee could. Evidence for their existence was written about by the Jewish philosophers Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, and also by Pliny the Elder, where it was mentioned that they lived a communal life together devoted to a strict life of poverty, scrupulously following all of the rules of the Sabbath, celibacy, charity and benevolence. Another possible root could be traced to the ascetical practices of the varying heretical gnostic movements during the period of ancient Christianity. Inspired by strains of Greek stoic philosophy, some of these movements erroneously taught that everything in the material world
With the rise of Christianity, strains of Essene thought could have crept into the Palestinian Christians of the Ancient Christian Era. As Christianity grew, certain people began to feel a tug at their hearts, a tug that compelled them to really live out the teachings of Christ in their lives. As such, some people banded together, like the Christian communities of old, but devoted their entire lives to prayer, piety, voluntary poverty, celibacy, chastity, and good works. Others felt an even more radical call, to break away from the world around them and live as solitary hermits, devoting their entire lives in prayer and fasting. These lone solitary figures grew to high prominence as living saints, often times spending their lives perched atop a pole, or living in a tree or abandoned tomb, devoting their time to prayer and constant battle with demons, and also being granted spiritual gifts from God to counsel those who seek them out for advice, to heal the sick, and educate those who did not know the word of God by the very example they set for the people around them.
As Christianity spread in the empire, people learned about the heroic efforts of these lone solitaries who, by the grace of God, strove to be closer to Him and were rewarded with many graces. Some others, feeling a call by God to live more perfectly, began to group together and coalesced into Christian communities that strove to live together in a common life, bound together in common prayer and by the Word of God, answering a call to a particular grace that they would embrace in their daily lives. These were, more often than not, lay movements by groups of like-minded people who felt God’s call in their lives to come together as one body and live out their lives in common worship and work in service to each other and to their fellow men and women. Both men and women felt this call – in some rare instances, they lived together, often times as a “spiritual” couple within a given community. More often however, these Christians often grouped together in a same sex community, devoting their lives to a life of complete celibacy and chastity.
All of these movements, too numerous to mention or list or describe individually, were the foundation for monasticism, whether as individual hermits, individuals living together and gathering as one for common prayer and meals (idiorrhythmic monasticism), or as a community sharing a common life of prayer, work, and rest (coenobitic monasticism). All forms of monasticism seem to have taken form both in the East and the West, although the goals of individual monastic movements do have many diverse origins and purposes. For example, many Eastern monasteries tend to be under the protection of an Eparchial bishop, and such monasteries founded, often times in remote and inhospitable places, to enable monks to simultaneously engage in ascetic practices to bring himself closer to God while offering up his whole life as a prayer for the sake of those around him and for the world. Other monastic movements were formed independently of an Eparchial bishop, often times as a lay movement in response to a given need or purpose. These types of monastic movements are most often seen in the Western Church, such as with the Order of Preacher (Dominicans) who were formed not only to live a common life of poverty, but also to be teachers, especially to the poor, whom by their preaching they would educate the faithful in combating heresies of the day.
In our Ukrainian Catholic Church today within the United States of America, we currently have various monastic movements and orders. Some of these were either inherited directly from Western monastic movements (i.e., the Byzantine Franciscans and the Redemptorists), or reformed along those lines (i.e., the Order of St. Basil the Great, which started out as an Eastern monastic order but was later reformed by the Jesuits). We also have several independent monasteries under the protection of various Eparchial bishops (one for Philadelphia Metropolia - Monastery of the Holy Cross in Washington, DC, and two for the Eparchy of Chicago – Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Redwood Valley, CA, and Holy Transfiguration Skete in Eagle Harbor, MI). As far as women’s orders/monasteries go, we have the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great (Basilian Sisters), Basilian Contemplative Nuns, Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, and the Missionary Sisters of the Mother of God.
While each of these orders are formed to answer in service to a particular charism or grace, ultimately, the monastic is a man or woman, whether living in community or as a hermit, who feels a radical call to God’s grace in his or her life. The monastic radically surrenders himself to God’s grace in living out both an active and contemplative life of prayer, for everything that monk does in life is a prayer offered up to God. As it is said in scriptures, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) The monk, whether it be in his daily labors of working for his daily bread (whether it be through manual labor on a farm, or writing icons, or teaching religion, or even working in a factory – some monastic rules allowed monks living in common to hold jobs in the community for the benefit of the community), in his private or public prayers (a monk is expected to pray the entirety of the hours, even if his duties prevent him from attending formal prayers, such as a monastery cook, or if he is traveling), in meeting people, in feeding the poor, visiting the sick, infirm, and imprisoned, and so forth, his whole life becomes one unified living prayer offered up to God. In his humble quest of love, God gradually forms the monk in holiness, so that way the monk, as a living prayer to the Lord, becomes a living ikon of God’s love for all. In his monastic journey, the monk becomes a sign for others who wish to surrender to God so that our Lord may restore the divine image within us that has been shattered by our assent to our passions and sin. The monastic is a hero/heroine, for the monk and nun engage not only in battle with the world, standing against it by living a life that is considered odd and archaic, but also does battle with the passions within themselves through voluntary poverty, prayer, fasting, and keeping of vigils.
Because of the many things the monk and nun does in answering the call to live a whole new life, dying to the world so that they may live a life of grace and love and imaging God in everything they do, they become living beacons to us. Their dedication in seeking God and living a life of true holiness becomes an example for us in living out our own lives as Christians. Because of this, as well as the factors mentioned above, in the Eastern traditions, it is common to call a professed monk “Father,” even though he may not be a priest or deacon (often times, professed nuns are called “Mother” as well). The professed monk is indeed a father, and the professed nun is indeed a mother, for by their living a life of grace, they can provide us with the necessary spiritual guidance that we need in order to fully understand God’s work in our lives; they are spiritual directors in the true sense, for their experience is not simply by receiving a degree in spirituality but rather, they have been schooled through the hard school of work, poverty, fasting, keeping vigils, prayer, and above all else, loving one another as God loves them.
Unfortunately, this small blurb cannot capture the whole mysterious essence of monasticism. Whole volumes by the fathers, especially by the holy fathers of Mt. Athos, have been written on the monastic life. Probably the best way to understand the monastic life is to experience it first hand. If you feel called to a radical way of life in total surrender to God, perhaps you may be drawn to the monastic life. In this age of the culture of death, there was never a more pressing need for monks and nuns in this world. We need young men and women who are bold enough to answer God’s call in living a life of prayer, especially for a broken world as ours. We pray that God may be calling you to live a holy life as a monk or nun.