Daily Meditations

A Layman in the Desert (Preface, Part I)

A few years ago I was challenged by a critique of Orthodox Christianity leveled by a close friend who was in the process of leaving the Church. “When you face facts,” he said, “you realize that if you really want to live the Orthodox life in its fullness, you have to become a monk.” As much as I wished to offer a counter- point, I found myself unable. In fact, I even grudgingly agreed with his view. After all, there we stood, two converts living in the world, struggling to understand the Orthodox faith, and seemingly ever surrounded in that pursuit by monastic religiosity, monastic thought, and, above all, monastic literature. The last of these was perhaps the biggest source of our consternation. We could see quite well that nearly all the great spiritual writings of the Church, both ancient and modern, were composed by monks and nuns, or at the very least by priests and deacons. Such spiritual classics enticed our hearts with thoughts of scaling the summit of holiness by way of a life lived in the desert or monastery. For my friend, the realization that such a life was now wholly impossible for him (he was married with a new baby) became a profound burden that contributed to his walking away from the Church entirely.

I had raised a very similar objection myself once. I was on Mt Athos speaking with a priest -monk about the Christian life. I had recently gotten engaged, and I presented to the monk the same dilemma that my brother in Christ would later present to me. Was I not taking on a second-rate Orthodox lifestyle by getting married and embracing a life in the world? This monk of the Holy Mountain brushed the idea aside. “‘What is a monastery?” he asked me, and provided an answer, “A monastery is merely a place where people come to help one another to salvation. Your home as a married man should be no different from that.” They were comforting words, and expressed a notion I had encountered many times before. Everywhere one turns in the Church, one is assured that, indeed, Orthodox life in the world can lead to salvation just as much as monastic life can.

As far as I can tell, there is no real debate in the Church about this idea, at least not at a fundamental level. The life of a non-monastic is as much a Christian life as any other, of this we are assured. And yet, one can often feel-as my friend and I did-that the Church merely pays lip-service to this teaching. We in the world can get the sense that we are being patted on the head by the monks, nuns and pastors around us. “Sure, your little life is just as good as ours!” we hear them saying, yet then we observe and, perhaps more importantly, read about lives wherein prayer and liturgy, fasting and sacrament, are the center of everything, and we wonder how our lives of work and family, money and property can possibly be “just as good.” Immersed in the sayings of the Desert Fathers, the Ladder of Divine Ascent, the Philokalia and many more, we are often heartened, and grow in wisdom-yet our sense that life in the world is second-rate tends to grow along with our understanding of Christian spirituality. What ought we to make of this problem?

I have come to think that the key issue facing those lay people who, like me and my friend, find monastic literature as discouraging as it is helpful, is that we have paid too little attention in the English-speaking Church to the problem of translating this literature conceptually. We have the good fortune of an ever-increasing number of linguistic translations into English of great spiritual writings from across the many centuries and nations touched by the Orthodox Church, but we have not sufficiently attended to the theoretical problem of how these kinds of writings-especially when written by monks and nuns-can be made valuable for people living in a profoundly different context. How, we might ask, can a married person learn about chastity from ancient celibates? How can a wealthy person in the world learn about charity from people who owned nothing? How can a construction worker learn about fasting from people who ate little more than a biscuit every day?

~ Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert