by Fr. Michael Azkoul
People nowadays are more and more inclined to look down on the vocation of the monk. Some will go so far as to admit the monk is full of noble ideals, but most will say that any young man who chooses to sequester himself forever behind monastery walls is either insane, stupid, lazy or unrealistic. Monks, they say, never bathe, avoid the responsibilities of citizenship, wallow in ignorance, view the body as evil and abominate all the simple, harmless worldly amusements. Monks are a useless lot of selfish fanatics and spirit-mongers absconding with their souls into a world of fancy. What other reason could there be for giving up life in the “world of ordinary, honest human beings”? While the rest of humanity struggles to solve its problems, the monk secludes himself in a place where he will not have to face the dilemma of normal men.
This indictment of monasticism does apply in some instances, but in principle there is no higher calling than the monastic life. Those who despise monasticism — and ninety-nine percent of these people know nothing of the monastic life! they have no experience of it! — and hurl calumnies against the supreme effort of the human spirit have no understanding of its meaning, or they are deliberately endeavoring to stamp it out for the sake of a philosophy which is utterly contrary to the Christian Revelation. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (a satire on immorality among the monks) possess all these disabilities.
Throughout the centuries, probably since the 15th century, especially in the West, the monastic life has been mocked and degraded until today the so-called sophisticated mind finds it a stupid and wasteful expenditure of manpower. The modern Christian, being out with genuine Christian spirituality and accepting the interpretation of monastic origins given by unbelieving historians, distorts, fears, belittles and even ignores monasticism. Some might say that it once had a place, but in the world of Sputnik and revolution it is obsolete, if not positively wrong.
Even though the Church has always had monks (and God willing She always will), even though he is an integral part of the Christian religion, good Christians dislike him. But it is the monk, from the earliest times, that countless times saved the Church from being corrupted by Her pagan environment: it is the monk that constantly challenged the leaders of the Church to raise the standards of morality; it is the monk that gave refuge to slaves, to the impoverished, the persecuted; it is the monk that meticulously copied and recopied the Bible (by hand) it is the monk that wrote many of the Church’s hymns: it is the monk that was the great iconographer; it is the monk that developed the theology of the Church; it is the monk that stood as an example of Christian living (i.e., self-control, self-denial, humility) and it was the monk that best exemplified the idea of “the common life in the Body of Christ.” He did all this and still does.
Yet the question persists: what good is the monk? What does he do besides acquire a “cloistered virtue,” as John Milton put it, and give the impression that marriage is a low state for man? I think we have already answered the first question. As to the second, it is equally unfair. Firstly, Milton and people like him are biased not only by their own religious beliefs, but they seem to forget that it is very difficult to surrender what the common man enjoys and even takes for granted. The monk does not develop his virtue easily; it comes with great suffering, self-overcoming, with great efforts of the will.
Although it is true that he does not face the same kinds of temptation that we encounter, he has others: pride, homosexuality, being drummed into spiritual stupor by the routine of the monastery, and more “fiery darts” from the Devil than we shall ever get. The Devil knows that monks have given themselves up to prayer, contemplation, fasting, writing, that is, a life wholly devoted to God. And if we do not think that these activities are not the most important, then, we certainly are not attuned to the meaning of the Christian life. If we think that the true Christian Way is merely building hospitals and foundling-homes, then, we have succumbed to the humanist’s activism.
Humanists are those people who think that the real purpose and study of mankind is man; and that we should all work to improve man’s lot on earth. Humanism is an earthly philosophy to which no Christian can subscribe. We admit certainly that helping others is very important, but this by no means is to say that “helping others” excludes praying for them and gaining insights about the ways of God for men. Humanists think that monks are “lazy loafers” because they don’t join the PTA, civic activities, community welfare projects, etc. Well, this is being done everywhere and I cannot really say that the condition of mankind is any better for it. I can’t see those great strides in “progress” that the humanists have been predicting all these years. In the words of T. S. Eliot, men seem to be going “progressively backwards.” The monk obeys the precept, “pray without ceasing,” and I believe with the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, that the prayers of monks had more to do with winning World War II than did the Atom Bomb, (The Atom Bomb, there’s a hunk of “progress” for you.)
Again, the charge that monks disparage the Sacrament of Marriage is nonsense. No monk in his right mind would say that marriage is evil or foolish. Marriage is good and holy, but the vocation and it is a “calling” is higher and holier. Just take the examples of Christ, the Apostles — St. Peter even left his wife — and St. Paul. None of them said that marriage is bad, just that a life wholly given to the Master is better. Monasticism is not the only way to heaven, but it is a higher, heavier, harder way to it. Monks realize that married people have a rough voyage, beset as they are by innumerable stresses and storms, but they are also fully aware that God will take that into consideration at Judgment Day. So, in a sense, it gives the Christian living “in the world” an edge.
The monk is a monk not because he despises “the ordinary Christian,” or because he wants to run away from “life” — no indeed, he loves us or else he would not pray for us, paint for us, write for us; and he is not “running away from anything, particularly life. Christ is life, thus, he runs not from anything but headlong into something, Christ. Then, maybe we should all be monks? No, God has not asked for that. He has not called all men to follow this arduous course. If you are going to ask me why He chose this one instead of that one to be a monk, I will tell you quite frankly I do not know. But it has nothing to do with preferring this person over that one. “God is no respecter of persons.” Perhaps, God sees one person suited to the monastic life and another not. That he has bestowed the honor of the monastic life on one person instead of me is no reason for grumbling. God loves me too. Christ didn’t die on the Cross just for monks.
We must simply accept the fact — despite what heretics and humanists say about monks — that the monastic way is the superior way, (Even many non-Christians, such as the Buddhists, recognize this fact). It is superior — and I have no fear of repeating myself — because it is a life wholly consecrated to the kind of life that will exist in heaven: “the angelic life” (that is not to say that all monks are “angels”), the life in which “there will he neither giving nor taking in marriage” (would you say that Christ looks down on marriage because there will be no marriage in eternity?), the life which wants to begin the Next Life already, I can’t think of any higher ideal — can you?
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America