Daily Meditations

The Fifth Thursday of Great Lent. The Monastic Life: The Way of Perfection, Part III

Published by Pemptousia Partnership, June 16, 2015

By Prof. Georgios Mantzaridis

The monastic profession rite, with its shearing of hair, is called a second baptism”19. Baptism, however, is one and the same for all members of the Church. It is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. The rite of profession does not repeat, but renews and activates the one baptism. The vows taken during the rite are in essence no different from those taken at baptism, with the exception of the vow of celibacy. Furthermore, hair is also shorn during baptism.

The monastic life points the way to perfection. However, the whole Church is called to perfection. All the faithful, both laymen and monks, are called to become perfect following the divine example: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”20. But while the monk affirms the radical nature of the Christian life, the layman is content to regard it conventionally. The conventional morality of the layman on the one hand and the radical morality of the monk on the other create a dialectical differentiation that takes the form of a dialectical antithesis.

Saint Maximos the Confessor, in contrasting the monastic with the worldly life, observes that a layman’s successes are a monk’s failures, and vice versa: “The achievements of the worldly are failures for monks; and the achievements of monks are failures for the worldly. When the monk is exposed to what the world sees as success- wealth, fame, power, pleasure, good health and many children, he is destroyed. And when a worldy man finds himself in the state desired by monks- poverty, humility, weakness, self-restraint, mortification and suchlike, he considers it a disaster. Indeed, in such despair many may consider hanging themselves, and some have actually done so”21.

Of course the comparison here is between the perfect monk and the very worldly Christian. However, in more usual circumstances within the church the same things will naturally function differently, but this difference could never reach diametrical opposition. Thus for example, wealth and fame cannot be seen as equally destructive for monks and laymen. These things are always bad for monks, because they conflict with the way of life the monks have chosen. For laymen, however, wealth and fame may be beneficial, even though they involve grave risks. The existence of the family, and of the wider secular society with its various needs and demands, not only justify but sometimes make it necessary to accumulate wealth or assume office. Those things that may unite in the world divide in the monastic life. The ultimate unifier is Christ Himself.

The Christian life does not depend only on human effort but primarily on God’s grace. Ascetic exercises in all their forms and degrees aim at nothing more than preparing man to harmonize his will with that of God and receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. This harmonization attains its highest expression and perfection in prayer. “In true prayer we enter into and dwell in the Divine Being by the power of the Holy Spirit”22. This leads man to his archetype and makes him a true person in the likeness of his Creator.

The grace of the Christian life is not to be found in its outward forms. It is not found in ascetic exercises, fasts, vigils and mortification of the flesh. Indeed, when these things are seen as ends in themselves they become abhorrent. This repulsiveness is no longer confined to their external form but comes to characterize their inner content. They become abhorrent not only because outwardly they appear as a denial of life, contempt for material things or self-abandonment, but also because they deaden the spirit, encourage pride and cultivate self-justification.

The Christian life is not a denial but an affirmation. It is not death, but life. And it is not only affirmation and life, but the only true affirmation and the only true life. It is the one true affirmation because if goes beyond all possibility of denial and it is the one true life because it leaves death behind. The negative appearance of the Christian life in its outward forms is due precisely to its attempt to stand beyond all human denial. Since there is no human affirmation that does not end in denial, and no worldly life that does not end in death, the Church takes its stand and reveals its life after accepting every human denial and affirming every form of earthly death.

The Power of the Christian life lies in the hope of resurrection, and the goal of ascetic striving is to partake of the resurrection. The monastic life, as the angelic and heavenly life lived in time, is the foreknowledge and foretaste of eternal life which eats away at mortality. It aims not at casting off the human element, but at clothing the incorruptible and immortal: “For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life”23.

There are sighing and tears produced by the presence of sin, and an aching to be free of the passions and to regain a pure heart. These things demand ascetic striving, and undoubtedly have a negative form, since they aim to break down. They are exhausting and painful, because they are concerned with states and habits that have become second nature. It is however precisely through this breaking down, this self-purification, that man clears the way for God’s grace to appear and to act. God does not manifest Himself to an impure heart.

Monks “guard the place”. They choose to constrain themselves spatially and there cultivate the spiritual freedom offered by Christ. They tie themselves down in death’s realm in order to experience more intensely the hope of the life to come. They reconcile themselves with space, where man is worn down and annihilated, feel it as their body, transform it into the Church and orientate it towards the kingdom of God.

The monk’s journey to perfection is covered in stages and is connected with successive renunciations, which can be summarized in three. The first renunciation involves completely abandoning the world. This is not limited to things, but includes people and parents. The second is renunciation of the individual will, and the third is freedom from pride, which is identified with liberation from the sway of the world24.

These successive renunciations have a positive, not a negative meaning. They permit a man to fully open up and be perfected “in the image and likeness” of God. When man is freed from the world and from himself, he expands without limit. He becomes a true person, who “encloses” within himself the whole of humanity as Christ does. This is why on the moral plane the Christian is called upon to love all men, even his enemies. Then God Himself comes and dwells within him, and the man arrives at the fullness of his theanthropic being25. Here is to be found the greatness of the human person, and this explains the superhuman struggles needed for his perfection.

The monastic life is one of perpetual spiritual ascent. While the world goes on its earthbound way, and the faithful with the obligations and distractions of the world try to stay within the institutional limits of church tradition, monasticism soars. It rejects compromise and seeks the absolute. It launches itself from this world and heads for the kingdom of God. This is the Church’s goal.

In Church tradition this path is pictured as a ladder leading to heaven. Not everyone manages to reach the top of this spiritual ladder. Many are to be found on the first rungs. Others rise higher. There are also those who fall from a higher or a lower rung. The important thing is not the height reached, but the unceasing struggle to rise ever higher. Most important of all, this ascent is achieved through ever increasing humility, that is through ever increasing descent. “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not”, was the word of God to Saint Silouan of Mount Athos. When man descends into the hell of his inner struggle having God within him, then he is lifted up and finds the fullness of being26.

At the top of this spiritual ladder are the “fools for Christ’s sake”, as the Apostle Paul calls himself and the other apostles27, or “the fools for Christ’s sake”, who “play the madman for the love of Christ and mock the vanity of the world”28. Seeking after glory among men, says Christ, obstructs belief in God29. Only when man rejects pride can he defeat the world and devote himself to God30.

In the Lives of monks, the Christian sees examples of men who took their Christian faith seriously and committed themselves to the path Christ calls all men to follow. Not all of them attained perfection, but they all tried, and all rose to a certain height. Not all possessed the same talent, but all strove as honest and faithful servants. They are not held up as examples to be slavishly copied, especially by laymen. They are however valuable signposts on the road to perfection, which is for all and climaxes in the perfectness of God.

Athonite monasticism by its ascetic striving and prayer keeps open the boundless horizons for perfection and bringing out the true worth of man. As a model Christian community Mount Athos enriches the lives of the faithful and strengthens them in their spiritual struggles. Its presence as a “city on the hills” is of the highest importance for the Church and the whole world. Today’s post-modern society in particular, rent as it is by division and confusion, can find in Mount Athos the spirit and the forces that lead to unity and the restoration of meaning to human life.

~Orthodox Christian Network (OCN), https://myocn.net/the-monastic-life-the-way-of-perfection/.

19. See Service for the Little Habit. The Greater Prayer-Book, p. 192.
20. Ml/5, 48.
21. Maximos the Confessor, On love 3,85,PG90, 1044A.
22. Archimandrite Sophrony, Ascetic practice and theory, Essex, England 1996, p.26.
23. 2 Cor. 5,4.
24. See Stage 2, PG88, 657A. For a comparison of the patristic tradition on the three stages of renunciation see the book by Archimandrite Sophrony, Asceticism and Contemplation, p.26f.
25. See Archimandrite Sophrony, We shall See Him as He is, Essex, England 31996, p.389.
26. See Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, Essex, England 71995, p.572. Also Asceticism and Contemplation, p.42.
27. 1 Cor. 4,10.
28. The Elder Paisios, Letters, Souroti, Thessaloniki 1994, p.235.
29. In. 5, 44.
30. See Archimandrite Sophrony, Asceticism and Contemplation, pp.33


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