The Universal Character of Monastic Spirituality

by Paul Evdokimov

Father Georges Florovsky recalls that “too often one forgets the provisory character of monasticism.” St. John Chrysostom declared that monasteries “are necessary because the world is not Christian. Let it be converted, and the need for a monastic separation will disappear.” ["The Church: Her Nature and Task," in Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View, Collected Works, vol. I, Belmost, MA: Nordland, 1972, pp. 57-72] History has not vindicated St. John’s hope. Monasticism will surely keep its unique testimony to the end of the world.

However the baptized world is sufficiently Christian to hear the monastic message and to assimilate it in its own way. Here is the whole problem. As formerly, martyrdom was transmitted to the monastic institution, so today, it seems, monasticism evokes a certain receptivity in the universal priesthood of the laity. The testimony of the Christian faith in the framework of the modern world necessitates the universal vocation of interiorized monasticism.

Past history gives us two solutions. The first, that of monasticism, preaches a complete separation from a society which lives according to the “elements of this world,” and from its economic, political and social problems. This is the “flight to the desert” and the later autonomous existence of communities that care for the needs of their members. The “monastic republic” of Mt. Athos is a striking example of a social, self-governing life, separated from the world and even opposed to it. It is perfectly clear that since everybody cannot share this vocation, the monastic solution remains limited. It is not the solution for the world in its totality.

The second solution was the attempt to Christianize the world without leaving it in order to build the Christian City of God. The theocracies of the East as well of the West manifest this effort under the ambiguous forms of empires and Christian States. The resounding failure of this attempt proves that one can never impose the Gospel from above, nor prescribe grace as a law.

Is there a third solution? Without prejudging, one can at least say that this third ought to appropriate the two others in an interior way, that is, in applying their principles beyond their outward forms. “You are not of this world, you are in the world.” These words of the Lord recommend a very special ministry, that of being a sign, a reference to the “wholly Other.” Formerly it was realized differently. At present, it seems to show itself above the “desert” and the “city,” for it is called to surpass every form in order to express itself everywhere and in all circumstances.

The Western Church has canonized monasticism and the lay state as two forms of life. One corresponds to the “counsels,” the other to the “precepts” of the Gospel. The unique absolute is then broken. On one side, the perfect advance, on the other is the weaker position of living by half measures. Certain ascetics justified conjugal life only because it produces virgins and populates monasteries.

The essentially homogenous character of Eastern Church spirituality ignores the difference between the “precepts” and the “evangelical counsels.” It is in its total demands that the Gospel addresses itself to everyone, everywhere.

“When Christ,” says St. John Chrysostom, “orders us to follow the narrow path, he addresses himself to all. The monastics and the lay person must attain the same heights.” [Epist. ad Haeb., 7, 4; 7, 41 Adv. oppugn. vitae monast., 3, 14.] We can see indeed that there exists only one spirituality for all without distinction in its demands, whether of the bishop, monk or lay person, and this is the nature of monastic spirituality. [See Pourrat, La spiritualit chrtienne, I, ix.] Now this has been shaped by lay monastics, which gives to the term “lay” the maximal spiritual and ecclesial meaning.

In fact, according to the great teachers, the monastics were only those who wished “to be saved,” those who “lead a life according to the Gospel,” who “sought the one thing needful,” and “did violence to themselves in all things.” [St. Nilus, Philokalia, Vol. I, pp. 200-250.] It is quite evident that these words exactly define the state of every believing lay person. St. Nilus thought all monastic practices were required of people in the world. [Epist., I 167, 169.] As St. John Chrysostom said, “Those who live in the world, even though married, ought to resemble the monks in everything else. You are entirely mistaken if you think that there are some things required of ordinary people, and others of monks… they will have the same account to render.” [Hom. in Epist. ad Haeb., 7, 41.] Prayer, fastings, the reading of Scripture and ascetic discipline are imposed on all by the same prescription. St. Theodore of Studion in his letter to a Byzantine dignitary drew up the program of monastic and specified: “Do not believe that this list is of value only for a monk and not entirely and equally for a lay person.”

When the Fathers spoke, they addressed all the members of the Church, the mystical Body, without any distinction between clergy and laity. They spoke to the universal priesthood. Our contemporary pluralism: different theologies for the episcopate, the clergy, monastics and the laity, unknown at the time of the Fathers, would be incomprehensible to them. The Gospel in its entirety is applicable to every problem in every environment.

On the other hand, certain great figures among the monastics show clearly that they went beyond their own state, as well as beyond every formula or definite form. We find an example of this in the luminous figure of St. Seraphim of Sarov. He did not attract disciples nor was he the master of any school. Yet he is the master of all, for his witness in the Orthodox Church surpasses all that is a type, category, style, definition or limit. His Paschal joy did not come from his personality but is the echo of Orthodoxy itself. In ordinary language he said extraordinary things which he had received from the Holy Spirit. After a terrible struggle, shadowed by a silence that hid a life no monk could endure,

St. Seraphim left the extreme practices of the hermits and stylites and returned to the world. “An earthly angel and a heavenly man,” he transcended even monasticism. He was no longer a monk retired from the world nor a man living among people. He was both, and in surpassing both, he was essentially a witness to the Holy Spirit. He said this in his famous conversation with Nicolas Motovilov:

It is not to you alone that it has been given to understand these things, but through you to the whole world, in order that you may be strengthened in the work of God and be useful for many others. As to the fact that you are a lay person and that I am a monk, there is no need to think of that . . . The Lord seeks hearts filled with love for God and their neighbor. This is the throne on which he loves to sit and on which he will appear in the fulness of his heavenly glory. “My child, give me your heart and all the rest I shall likewise give you,” because it is in the heart of man that the Kingdom of God exists . . . The Lord hears the prayers of the monk as well as those of a simple lay person, provided both have a faith without error, are truly believers and love God from the depths of their hearts, for even if their faith is only a grain of mustard seed, both of them will move mountains.

[Little Russian Philokalia, vol. I, Platina, CA: St. Herman Press, 1991, pp 116-117.]

Both, the monastic and the lay person, are a sign and a reference to the “wholly Other.” St. Tikhon of Zadonsk wrote in the same vein to ecclesiastical authorities: “Do not be in a hurry to multiply monks. The black habit does not save. The one who wears a white habit, the clothing of an ordinary person, and has the spirit of obedience, humility and purity, that one is an untonsured monk, one of interiorized monasticism.” [N. Gorodetzky, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976, 48.]

The monasticism that was entirely centered on the last things formerly changed the face of the world. Today it makes an appeal to all, to the laity as well as to the monastics, and it points out a universal vocation. For each, it is a question of adaptation, of a personal equivalent of the monastic vows.

An extract from Ages of the Spiritual Life: From the Desert Fathers to Our Time, translation by Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998.