Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Monk's "Five Reasons Not to Visit the Monastery"

I know it's not everyday that a Western Rite Orthodox cites AGAIN magazine, but there is an excellent article on its website for those new to the Church. Hieromonk Jonah of the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco has written "Five Good Reasons Not to Visit a Monastery." The subtitle: "The Temptations of Monastic Maximalism." The article describes the perils of what I've called "Convert Fanaticism Syndrome"TM: the story of "Bill/Vasili" matches closely an individual I've encountered and is similar to another I've shared (with name changes) in presentations on CFS. Hieromonk Jonah's point, and mine, is not that Orthodox should not go to monasteries but that there is a standard pathology exploited in those "zealous [for the Faith] but not according to knowledge." He enumerates five, but his article (worth reading in its entirety) could be encapsulated thus:

Excessive external piety, false humility, preoccupation with gossip and "issues" in the life of the Church, judging people on their piety or stance in these issues, complete assurance that one knows exactly how things should be done, and perhaps most dangerous of all, idolizing a person or place as the ultimate criterion of Orthodoxy, can all be symptoms of this malady. They are all aspects of spiritual immaturity. What is missing in all this is Christ and the real spiritual struggle with oneself.

That is, the entire point of the Christian life: overcoming the passions, working out one's salvation, and, by God's grace, finding an eternal abode in His Kingdom (because He has found His abode in you on this mortal coil). The emphasis on setting standards for others to follow establishes one (at least in his own mind) as part of a spiritual/liturgical/rubrical/theological elite, all the while assuming one is actually a scrupulous penitent; C.S. Lewis broached this (but only somewhat, and in another context) in his essay "Dangers of National Repentance."

Focusing on purifying others of their sins, in other words, turns metanoia into jihad.

None of which should be interpreted as a condemnation of monasticism. I believe we desperately need monastic vocations, in the Eastern and Western rite. Unmarried people should be encouraged to consider whether the habit may be the means God has established for their sanctification. Pious laypersons (how's that for a PC term?) should visit to live out their faith and strengthen themselves to carry on lives as aliens in the world. With the approval of one's spiritual father, adopt monastic practices as much as is compatible with one's obligations.

But beware of the pitfalls into which one can fall by taking a good thing too far. Not only can you strain relations with others, but you can undermine your own spiritual health. The worst side effect of all in CFS, even when kept to a minimum, is that one fails to be the person God created him to be. It never occurs to those who so thoroughly take on the trappings of, e.g., a nineteeneth century Athonite monk, that their present status as a married person, worker, and parent is perhaps an expression of Divine sovereignty indicating the person God wishes them to become. One's motherhood/matrimony/friendships are not burdens one should count down the moments enduring until one's children finally bug off and one's spouse mercifully dies. (Yes, I know CFS victims who speak of them precisely as such.) Perhaps they are gifts of God granted for your spiritual life, the elements one is to sanctify moment by moment, the very path of theosis chosen for you. This may have been necessary because were you to enter "the angelic life" of a monk, you would quickly be torn to shreds by the demons and lose your soul. These individuals go about, trying to squeeze themselves into the cookie cutter they feel is most uniquely Orthodox, indignantly cursing priests and laymen, and frittering away long and tender relationships with "heterodox" all in the process of transforming themselves into someone God never created them to be.

I joke, but it's not funny. I laugh to keep from crying.

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