by Mother Raphaela
Men and women come to monasteries for many reasons. The primary reason is to welcome those who know they have been touched by God and want to respond by offering Him their whole life. A monastery is meant to be a place where such an offering can be made to God; where a person, having tasted the love of God, can seek to empty him or herself of his or her own fallen dreams, ambitions and agendas, in order to be filled with the love of Him who alone heals and transforms. All the ascetic disciplines of the monastic life are aimed at promoting this self-emptying, to “lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of all.”
Yet a monastery is not the only place where this can or should be done. Before taking the first steps, one must test to be sure that one will be under doctors and not sick men; that the ship has a pilot and not just ignorant crew members. One who has made this discernment and decided that a certain monastery is indeed where one believes one is to live out this vocation of love and self-denial, must then accept that those who are the guides and teachers in that monastery must make a similar discernment. Just as a physician must sometimes judge that a very sick person cannot tolerate a certain drug or procedure, so those who have experience in living the monastic life know that certain people who want and need God’s healing are far too fragile for strong spiritual medicine. Many such fragile, wounded people come to monasteries. Some seek them out on their own; some are sent by friends or priests who may think that, even though they have problems, if they can put in a few rough years, they will get themselves straightened out with the help of grace and monastic discipline. They assume that anyone can persevere in a monastery if that is what they want.
Frequently, however, wounded people are not at all sure what they want. Usually they have a very distorted view of the monastic life: on the one hand, they are hoping it will be an escape from a life they have come to find intolerable, and on the other, they have real fears of its being a completely unnatural life, even resembling a concentration camp.
While a magical ability to take deeply disturbed people and have them instantly turn into saints is attributed to monasteries, the asceticism and prayer which have been the traditional means for turning sinners into saints are not popular. Americans especially live in a culture marked by extreme feats of physical endurance under unquestioning obedience to trainers for the sake of sports, conquering new realms in outer space, or simply returning to a “natural life-style.” Yet far too often much milder discipline is questioned as an aspect of the monastic life, let alone of parish life.
At least part of the reaction against asceticism may be because again, too often, disciplines have been uniformly imposed without discernment of personal, God-given needs and calling. Such arbitrary imposition of rules comes very close to the binding of burdens too hard to bear that the Lord condemned in the pharisaical direction of His day. Such an approach is far different from supporting another person in growing into what God desires, with the recognition that this differs for each one. For example, the basic ascetic discipline of obedience, if rightly under- stood, is a great safeguard against personal whims becoming one’s private religion. Yet a person in authority must exercise great discernment in the obedience he or she requests from others. Most people today, even if they do not seem to be deeply troubled or wounded, must begin the path of the ascetic life by practicing voluntary acceptance of the ordinary problems and difficulties of daily life: they should practice giving up their attachment to resentments, bitterness, the taking of offence at any questioning of their words or behavior; begin cultivating gratitude and taking up the old practice of counting one’s blessings daily. Only then can they even think of beginning to take on the silence and solitude, the prayer, fasting and other forms of self-denial that are the basic monastic medicines for the sickness of self-will and resistance to God and His love. Only those schooled in such forms of self-denial are able to accept, as further medicine, sufferings like those that many endure today in prison camps, war zones, or areas struck by natural disaster, poverty and famine, for to endure such suffering without voluntary acceptance does not lead to growth in love and grace, but only to bitterness and further wounding.
Beginners in the Christian journey have a faith far too weak to look upon any unpleasant situation, much less endure it themselves, without jumping to the conclusion that, at least in this case, God has made a mistake. Yet full Christian faith knows that God does not make mistakes. Everything, even our own sins and the evil done to us and to others, is part of the reality He has called into being and uses to work out His ultimate good purpose. This is why Orthodox Christians insist that salvation into the eternal kingdom of God from this world of sin and suffering was won only by God’s own suffering in Jesus as He hung upon the Cross.
This is also the reason for the strong tradition that the monastic life is a way to embrace voluntarily, in un- ion with Jesus Christ, an authentic form of living martyrdom. The Lord’s words that “He who would be a disciple of mine must take up his cross daily and follow me” and St. Paul’s dying daily to the sinful self that he might be alive to Christ, are at the heart of the Gospel message. Men and women in all walks of life have been made saints – have received healing and God’s eternal life – in no other way than through suffering, accepted in faith, while trusting entirely to Him.
Sometimes monastic community life, in an attempt to help those who come, lost and wounded, can turn into a non-ascetic, “therapeutic” environment. Indeed, many of the people who came and then left over the years have been greatly helped by monasteries through the grace of God. In the process, however, communities often come to realize that they cannot be the ones to help people who are not capable of digesting strong monastic medicine. Such beginners need special programs set up for them, but these programs may compromise community members’ own necessary efforts to live the monastic life and sometimes even tempt them to become merely psychological rather than spiritual trainers for those whose faith is not strong enough to accept the tools of ascetic healing that are a monastery’s heritage.
If a community does feel called to work with people who need such pre-monastic, therapeutic experience, it should be understood that this experience is not training for the life of the community. Such experience is primarily a chance to go back and grow up normally through some of the stages people went through earlier in harmful and damaging ways.
A very large part of growing up is finally leaving home or getting pushed out of the nest. Since the point almost always comes when leaving the community is the healthy next step for such men and women, such experience is better sought before attempting to leave home and parish life for a monastery.
While the monastic life is sometimes looked upon as a higher vocation, if God has something else in mind for a person’s life, being turned away from monastic life may lead that person to what is for them a higher calling. Christian marriage and family are not easy vocations in our world, and they are badly needed. Only parents who are struggling to grow in God’s love and the faith of the Church can raise up children to be healthy men and women.
Workplaces, not to mention homes and parishes, badly need the influence of Christians who are trying to bring God’s love and discernment into every word and action of their lives. Indeed, only such families and parishes can prepare men and women for the monastic life. God may, in His providence, have allowed the damage in the lives of some people who may be too wounded for family life or the workplace and be incapable of living with others in community, because He has something else in mind for them, also. An extreme illustration may be found in the lives of some of the “Fools for Christ,” a few of whom have been exceptionally sane and healthy people who, with the advice of their spiritual fathers, have taken on the exterior aspects of insanity as a form of asceticism in order to go beyond the purely social ego. Most, however, seem to have been mentally or emotionally damaged people, living in situations where no source of healing could be found for their state; where the Lord withheld the power to cast out the demons and leave them “clothed and in their right minds.” Some of them, by accepting the circumstances of their lives, have reached a real holiness. It has also been to the credit of some of those around them, that although they might not have had the skills to bring them healing, they have been able to include them in their society with care, compassion and even veneration.
Much will be expected from those who, through no merit of their own, have been given more capacity to grow and enter into God’s healing salvation. Those who see themselves as having been given lesser talents must in their turn learn to be faithful in little here in this life, in order to be accounted worthy of the fullness of healing and life in the Kingdom.
Whether or not we are following the monastic way, may we be given the strength gradually to grow into an acceptance of the limitations of our lives as well as the suffering and the cross we are asked to carry. With the saints, may we come to embrace these eagerly and joyfully.
May we see that the evil, sin and suffering around us and in our own lives can be voluntarily taken on through love, and become the means of healing unto eternal life in God’s kingdom of love.
Mother Raphaela Wilkinson is the Abbess of Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, New York. She is the author of two books, Living in Christ: Essays on the Christian Life by an Orthodox Nun, and Growing in Christ, both published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
IN COMMUNION / FALL 2006