Friday, April 27, 2007

THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH AND MONASTICISM

In a recent exchange of posts and comments on Glory To God For All Things concerning monasticism, I commented that while monasticism is important to the Orthodox faith, there is always a danger in monasticism of "guruism."

This got me thinking about the occasional series on the Church I have worked on and how monasticism fits into that ecclesiology.

I think I've come up with a few thoughts I'd like to post to test my suppositions.

First, doing Orthodox theology in real life is always dangerous, but the danger is no excuse not to do the faith. The fact is we humans are handling things too great for us when we do the work of the faith, but that immensity is part of our ascesis toward making us both humble and awestruck, which serves many life-giving purposes. It also keeps us from the sad prelest that deludes us into believing we have ever "arrived" spiritually. To our very last breath we will labor with the truths of the faith. Period. Full stop.

Second, monasticism arose in the life of the Church as a charismatic response to the loss of persecution. It is the necessity of martyrdom (being a witness of the faith) that defines the move toward monasticism, a godly desire to take seriously the demands of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The ascesis of obedience, poverty, and physical discipline demand a grace to "die" to this world and live wholly in the next. This powerful and preservative witness of the Gospel of Christ is more necessary in times of affluence and secularism that any other time in history.

Finally, the balance of parish and monastery protects the Church from the extremes of both. Monasticism can tend toward guruism, that perpetual weakness of some to seek to never grow up and allow another to "master" their lives for them. This is balanced by the life of the parish that calls the faithful to live in the "desert" of daily life and still keep their faith. Parish life can tend, in our modern age, toward an unhealthy congregationalism that seeks to reduce the faith to it's "essentials." This creates a poverty of a perpetual spiritual kindergarten that never allows the faithful to struggle with the soul-maturing ascesis of the Orthodox faith. Monasticism stands as a lasting and visible rebuke to shallow Orthodoxy.

In both instances the enemy meant to be defeated is childishness and spiritual immaturity. But, just as the enemy often does, both these good remedies can be misused if we fail to appreciate the wisdom of God in incarnating the faith in real lives and not fall into the temptation for easy answers or reduce the faith to "rule keeping."

Fr. Stephen rightly observes that monasticism flies in the face of our modern penchant to see everything from a utilitarian attitude, but the whole of the Gospel attacks that small notion. Neither monasticism nor parish life were meant to be experienced in a vacuum, and both wise paths in Orthodox eccesiology were meant to work together in serving the spiritual needs of the faithful.

The main purpose, which cannot be forgotten if either of these gifts to the Church are ever going to produce what the Spirit has ordained them to produce, is to submit to the wise work of the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ to and produce Christ in us so we can all be brought back to the Father. This is the work of the witness of monasticism and parish life. Anything less runs the risk of becoming an end in itself and ending up doing the exact opposite of its Spirit inspired purpose.

B

2 comments:

Steve Hayes said...

In my (very limited) experience, "guruism" is a danger mainly in sectarian offshoots from Orthodoxy. True Orthodox spiritual fathers will not allow it.

Also, monasticism was not so much a substitute for persecution as a product of it. Christians who fled from the cities because of persecution and took refuge in the desery suddenly found, perhaps to their surprise, that they were still on the front line of the struggle.

One monk said that the monasteries are the lungs of the church. The church lives in the polluted atmosphere of the sinful world, but the monasteries breathe the pure air of heaven, and that is how the church can survice. Nevertheless, more people go to hell from monasteries than anywhere else.

Basil said...

Also, monasticism was not so much a substitute for persecution as a product of it.

How did you come to form this belief? Don't most church historians, in agreement with church tradition, hold that St. Anthony was the founder of monastic life? I'm interested in learning more.