Reflections on Monastasicm

“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me” (Mt.19:21)

Upon hearing this verse in Scripture over 1800 years ago, St. Anthony, moved by these words did exactly as the scriptures instructed him. On this day ascetic monasticism was founded in the Orthodox world. Shortly after the death of St Anthony (Jan 17) the monastery of St. Anthony’s began to form in Egypt on the site where he had once sought isolation.

Egypt became known as a place of the most extreme ascetisicm. We have record of several women saints who disguised themselves as boys in order to enter the male monasteries in Egypt because they were seeking a stricter lifestyle than was offered in the convents of their time.

Monasteries began to grow around the world. Recently, a documentary was put together to try and tell the story of monastasicm in the Orthodox world. Informaiton about this documentary can be found here.  I’ve also posted an introduction to the film below:

As Orthodox Christians, many of us are able to comprehend the lifestyle and the necessity for monastic communities in our world. We are called to pray unceasingly, but living in the world sometimes this is not feasable. Our loved ones, those in need and our communities always need prayer. When we are unable to provide that prayer, the monasteries step in and continue the prayer for us. It is a wonderful harmony in prayer life so that somewhere in the world, everyone is being prayed for in every hour of the day.

60 Minutes did a wonderful spot on Mount Athos, which if you haven’t seen can be viewed below:

When we read the stories of the lives of the monastics we are moved by their dedication to God and prayer and their desire and drive for perfection. I found St. Ita’s story to be particularly interesting because she, in her ascetic life, chose to act as a mother to those who were brought to her. Often times it seems that those on the outside of the church look in on monasticism and see a world of “selfish men and women” who are to “scared to go out into the real world and deal with real problems” St Ita’s story shows us that a monastic’s calling within the vocation can be different from person to person. As in all things there must be a variety.

Although much of the monastic lifestyle is still present in the countries of orgin, we find a very different type of monastacism here in America. Personally, I have been to six monasteries in the US: St Tikhon’s, Holy Transfiguration Romanian, Holy Protection Serbian Monastery in Illinois, Nativity of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Convent in Pennsylvania, St John Chrysostom Greek Monastery in Wisconsin and Holy Trinity Greek Monastery in Michigan. I am going to attempt to describe my personal experiences with these monasteries.

Of these monasteries, St. Tikon’s is the oldest monastery in the country. Unfortunately there is not much I can say as I was there for the annual memorial day retreat. It was akin to an ethnic festival, but with a sense of prayerfulness the entire day.

Holy Transfiguration was my second monastic experience and I was filled with joy from my time at that monastery. The monastery was founded by the princess of Romania in 1967. It is a moderately sized convent with modest facilities. The nuns were very hospitipal, and each year they host the young adults for a New Year’s Eve celebration. They put out a quarterly journal and are very involved in the community, hosting retreats and guests. At the same time the nuns are able to maintain a separation from their guests. They are a presence, but not  a separation from their ascetisicm. It is difficult to describe a feeling, but Holy Transfiguration has been the only monastery I have never wanted to leave.

Holy Protection, I have found, is somewhat similar to Holy Transfiguration but the monastics have seemed more removed. There was once a non-monastic parish attached to the monastery and so the site was a place for the whole Chicago Serbian community to get together. This has prevailed and the monastery continues to host certain gatherings for Christmas and their feast day, as well as a summer camp. Like St. Tikhon’s, the site also hosts a Serbian seminary.

At all three Greek monasteries I have had the same feelings. Each monastery has given me a weird vibe. Again I say, it is difficult to describe a feeling, but my feeling at these monasteries have been that something is not quite right. As many people are aware, the Greek monasteries arose because Fr. Ephraim established them all. His extreme and unique views aside, a nun I knew from Holy Transfiguration put it well. She explained that the great monasteries overseas came into existence by a few people trying to live in asceticism and then grew because others were attracted to their holiness. Fr Ephraim has established just the opposite. He and the lay people who support the monasteries have tried to create great and elaborate institutions and then fill it with monastics. The fact that the development of these monasteries has been the reverse of the natural phenomena could, in part, attribute to some of the issues we see with these monasteries.

Monasteries as without a doubt, a vital part of our Orthodox community. They provide the lay with support in prayer and an oasis from the world for lengths of time. As a person in the world we should take what we can learn from the monastics and our time at the monasteries and bring back what we can to the world. We may not be able to live in complete seclusion, but bringing a new found awareness of God’s presence and perhaps just a little more silence into our chaotic lives can help draw ourselves and our families nearer to Christ.