Monasticism is at the heart of the Orthodox Church. It is the most radical expression of faith, in which a person leaves the world and “normal life,” in order to live in community, in poverty and self-denial, for the sake of Christ. It takes a certain maturity for a church, as Bp. Pankratiy of Valaam said, for it to produce monasticism. This is perhaps why it took 100 years of the existence of Orthodoxy in American culture to start to bring forth monasteries.
A focus on cultural expressions of monasticism may stress external forms, which can vary, making them seem more important than the real substance of the life, and a kind of external formalism takes the place of spiritual process. This is a great temptation for those who are “traditionalists,” as there is a tendency to get caught up in the externals.
There is a place for obedience to form, however, what is most important is the inner work of monastic life, the life of repentance; of being “transformed in the renewal of mind” that may, or may not, be visible to any but a monk's spiritual father.
What is essential to monasticism is its unique culture, which distinct from the overall ecclesiastical culture shared by the Orthodox Churches, while remaining a vital part of it and yet independent of any particular ethnic cultural expressions.
Unique monastic cultures include Athonite, Greek, Russian, Romanian, and Serbian, as well as others, which all nevertheless maintain underlying forms, values, and ways of life that are uniquely, recognizably monastic.
The true monk is not just outwardly a monk, but rather, inwardly.
In the late 19th Century, St. Ignatiy Brianchaninov wrote that all monastic life must be absolutely based in Scriptures, and any that is not is going astray.
We need to consider what that means.
Monastic culture is nothing other than life according to the Gospel, both for each monk and for each community. Its goal is the purification, enlightenment and deification of the monks through a life of repentance, and the building of communities that incarnate the Gospel. There is always a corporate side of things, as well as individual. This is because monastic life has as a goal to bring out and foster authentic personhood in each of its members, which can only be done in community. The gifts of each one need to be discerned, and applied to the life of the community, so that each person reaches his potential and thus, is fulfilled; and so that the community receives the gifts intended by God for its upbuilding, given to each.
Essential to this is the role of the spiritual father, the elder, to whom the monks are in a relationship as disciples, as spiritual sons. Not only does this emulate the relationship of Christ and the apostles; it is the way the Lord has given his followers to live.
In establishing monasticism in America, I believe what is most important is to look at the essential principles of monastic life, rather than try to duplicate culturally specific forms. This principle and a shared understanding of how monastic life is to be lived that are the core of monastic culture, whatever the particular cultural expression.
The first principle of monasticism is a life of repentance, the transformation of the mind and heart. This involves not only a turning away from sin, but also a renewal of the spiritual faculty within a person. It involves grief for sin, and purification of the soul from the effects of sin; but more than that, it is about an opening up and maturing of the spiritual consciousness in illumination. Repentance is thus the process of deification, the gradual ascent of the person to union with God. However, it is also the process of renunciation and detachment, a gradual ascent to freedom from attachment to sins, then to things and relationships, then to one’s own ego.
Repentance is at once turning away from and renouncing all things that hold us back from following Christ, a reordering of one’s entire life and system of values, and ultimately, of one’s consciousness itself. Yet, it is also the work of detachment, letting go of these things by which one has defined himself and his life, and refocusing solely on God.
Monasticism is about inner work.
While all Orthodox Christians are called to a life of prayer and fasting, according to the rules of the Church, the purpose of fasting is that it is a discipline to bring oneself under control. Thus fasting is not only the abstention from various foods. It is, on a much broader level, the fasting from all things which lead us into temptations and passionate behavior. At the heart of such discipline is inner watchfulness and vigilance, so that passionate thoughts do not gain control of our awareness, and lead us into sinful thoughts, obsessions, and actions. At the core of this is the battle with thoughts, afflictive emotions, which lead us into sin. This is the essence of inner work. Prayer and fasting, the discipline of keeping one’s awareness (nous) focused on God, and the practice of self-denial, support this inner work.
To paraphrase St. Maximos the Confessor: the true monk is not the one who appears to be a monk outwardly, but one who guards his thoughts.