God’s Gift, the Monk

“Jesus said unto him, if thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9:23) and “all things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3), says our Redeemer Jesus Christ. Believing in the life beyond, believing in the power of creation of God the everlasting, believing that God is living and works in the world to this day, believing that He has governed and governs the world, are questions to which contemporary man finds answers full of doubt.

It is hard today to speak big words of monks and monasticism, in general, considering that, for many people, monks seem to be people living at the edge of society, backwards or uncultured, who have not found a purpose in life or maybe have suffered a great deception. However, for the believer who still has in him a smidgen of his inner God’s aura, for him who has not crumpled his inner God’s visage, we shall state forcefully – and together in spirit with all those who have been struck by the light of God the All-Holy – that without monks and monasticism, the world, “the Christianity of the secular would have collapsed”[1].

Emperors such as Theodosius, Justinian, Alexios Comnenos, issued laws and protected monasticism. “Monastic life and contemplation are a holy thing”, useful to all citizens, “for its cleanliness and mediation”, of prayers said by monks for the common good, said Emperor Justinian in Novella 133. And Alexios Comnenos (1081- 1118) wrote: “I don’t think I have ever done God’s will, which is why I am convinced that all that God has granted me in this life was due to the faithful prayers of my monastic saints and the trust I put in them”[2].

The same lofty awareness of monastic life we can find with Holy Voivod Stephen the Great, who called monks “my prayer givers”, seeing Putna as “his beloved monastery”[3].

Monasticism, founded and rooted in the teaching of Christ the Redeemer and the Holy Fathers, as well as in 2000 years of existence, proved that this way of life is “the art of arts”, “the science of sciences”, just as leading a true Christian life is a “confessional art”[4].

What is the purpose of a monastic life? In one word, we can say: perfection. It is a thing that is hard to grasp, but even harder to follow and see through.

The words of Christ our Redeemer are clear. “If thou wilt be perfect,” Jesus said unto a young man who wanted to be redeemed, “go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Matthew 21:9). And Jesus also said: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48), and “Thou art God” (Psalms 90:2).

Perfection! Lofty and deep search! However, many, very many have been those who have reached this lofty peak. The heights belong to the eagles, alone are they in admiring the beauty above which they have risen. Going to the one called the Golden Mouthed, we find with him special words about who monks are, what they do and what their purpose is. They are “the host of Christ, the royal flock, the life and living of the powers above”[5], and are “equal to angels”[6], and for us, “our life” and “the luminous incarnation of heavenly things”[7]. “All these come from the good ordering of things found within their soul. Truly they be saints, and among men are they angels”[8].

For Saint John Chrysostom, the monk is “a man committed unto God, the man who chose a lonely life, master over rage, envy, the love of silver, pleasure and all other sins. He endlessly thinks of and takes care that his soul not be ruled by shameful passions, that his mind not be enslaved by the bitter tyranny of lust. He watches that his mind be ever above ephemeral things, pitting against his passions the fear of God”[9]. They are “people who could not harm another, being prepared in their soul only to suffer”[10], and “their searches are proper and filled with the love of God”[11].

Monks had the love and courage to take the words of Christ our Redeemer in their heart and apply them in their life, for the benefit of their fellow man. They had the courage to turn the earth into Heaven, the handful of clay that is the body into a corner of the Realm, for they understood that you must love God above your sins, and the man next to you above his sin. They understood that only the love of God makes possible all these, and they handed themselves over to this love so that it works through them in the world.

Following God’s command and continuing His work in the world, monks understand they have to be in the service of God. They live their life as a Mass, which they extend into daily life. Anywhere they may be, anything they may do, they put everything in the service of God and their fellow man, so that the words that precede any Holy Mass may come as the beginning of any undertaking of a monk: ”It is time for the Lord to work!” God is the one working in us and through us, but only at such time when we say with all our heart: “Lord, thy will be done!” and “I am thine, save me!” (Psalms 118:94)

The monk retreats from the world, renounces it, giving up all pleasures, all the delights of this world, having a precise purpose. He gives up his own will, not out of contempt for the things of this world, but out of his permanent wish to rise above them. Or, as St. John Climacus said, “the monk gives up his will through a richness of will”[12]. Rising above them, he manages to uncover in them their true value, thus making out of anything that surrounds him an occasion of lifting themselves and others towards God.

He gave up all that the world could offer him best, so that the others may enjoy more fully these things. His fruit is the benefit of his fellow man, and his fear is that of becoming an obstacle in the path of his fellow man, bearing engraved deeply in his heart the worlds of the Psalms: “O God, thou knowest my foolishness and my sins are not hidden from thee. Let not them that wait on thee, O Lord of Hosts, be ashamed for my sake: let not those that seek thee be confounded for my sake, O God of Israel.”(Psalm 68:7-8).

The monk will be consumed, will burn for the world that he left; he no longer belongs to himself, and thus becomes the gift of God! He is, at the same time, the gift that the world makes to God, but also the gift that God returns to the world. He is seated between the world and God; he is at the same time witness of God’s love for the world and silent mediator for the world in front of God. All these are found in the monk’s entire life, whether he is in the bosom of the church raising praise to God, or going about his daily business.

For this reason, his words, his teaching or his sentiments, his life experience and moral principles, are not what stand witness to his calling, to God and life lived in Him, but his very presence. His presence is the monk’s true preaching, his silent shout. A true monk is the one who makes the one in front of him exclaim: “It is enough that I see you!”[13]

Being and doing these things, the monk is gift from God, a man gifted to God of his own free will, only out of love for God and his fellow man. St Theodore the Studite considers monasticism “the third grace”. “The first grace” is the Law of Moses. The second, the grace “above graces”, which “of his fullness have we all received” (as John the Baptist, speaker for God’s, said) (John 1:16). And finally the third – the monastic visage of life, given to man and understood as heavenly life, as a descent of angelic life upon the earth, as touch and embodiment in history of that which, in itself, is beyond its limits.”[14]

St. John the Revelator, God’s Speaker, in his first Epistle, wrote: “because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John, 4:4), meaning the fulfillment of the words of Jesus Christ the Redeemer: “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Monks, the living icon of these words from the Redeemer, are the successors of He Who, being God, made Himself man to turn men into gods. For Christ descended from Heaven to lift men there!

Therefore whoever has Christ within him, in his heart – and this is where the monk’s entire search lies, and not only his – is greater than all that seems to the world to be grand and triumphant. And then the words of John the Baptist that we quoted prove to be wholly founded.

But how can we get there, to that measure? Is it simply sufficient to step through the door of a monastery and put on a uniform, like a soldier in the army? Of course not! It is a fight led unto confessional ground, and the fight is not “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12). It is a fight against the world of evil spirits, the world of darkness, of Satan.

But Christ arrived and crushed the head of the snake: “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Christ’s kenosis, his humility, overcame.

In the same way, following Christ, who said: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34), the monk, donning the same cloth of humility and sacrifice, overcomes the entire multitude of temptations, of spirits that stand against him.

Accepting the holy sacrament of obeisance, one of the three monastic vows, means accepting the holy sacrament of Christ. The other two vows, virginity or the wholeness of wisdom, and poverty, with the meaning of renouncing worldly possessions, are contained entirely in the great sacrament of obeisance. Without it, “neither priesthood, nor the Holy Sacrament, the prayer of the mind, fasting or vigil, save not[15]. That is why obeisance becomes for the monk the stone at the peak of the angle. Even his daily chores bear the same name: “obeisance”.

Through submission, through obeisance, the monk follows Christ in his obeisance of God the Father, becoming a son of God, and this makes all his brothers together, “children of the most High”. (Psalm 81:6)

This obeisance he directs not only towards his father superior, but also towards all his other fellow men; moreover, he perfects his availability to all in the world. To each he gives what is proper, feels indebted towards all, as per the words of the Holy Apostle Paul: “Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law”. (Romans 13:8)

The monk is he who raises sacrifice to the rank of single principle, on which his entire life is centered. He constantly sacrifices himself; he no longer lives for himself, but for God and the work of God’s hands – the whole of mankind. That is why his achievements he believes to be not his, but those of his fellow man. However, his failures, stumbling or any unfulfilled thing, his or his fellow man’s, are a wound to him, hard in healing, for any shortcoming of his will be reflected in the life of his fellow man. Any stumbling, any unfulfilled thing or any impotence he will feel acutely as an obstacle in the path of his prayer on behalf of his fellow men. Thus his life becomes a life of amends, put into the service of his fellow man. His tears will become a cleansing sacrifice for the entire world, for people whom he loved so well that he retreated from the world. That is why it is no coincidence that St. Gregory the Theologian said that the tears of monks are the world’s cleansing bath[16].

In the life of the monk we find that which is written in the Holy Scripture about Jesus Christ the Redeemer when he was twelve and His parents were seeking Him in the Temple. The Holy Virgin scolded Him, but He said: “How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) With that he showed that all things must be channeled toward God, have to be subject to His will. Nothing without God and all for God. After this, the Scripture says, “And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them” (Luke 2:51). Christ made obeisance toward God the Father, the Virgin Mary and Joseph the Just – in that order! Towards the other people he showed His love and availability “teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 9:35)

This episode shows very well how the monk positions himself, in his obeisance, towards others. First and foremost he lays his life at the feet of Christ the Redeemer, Who placed in his hear the calling of monastic life. Answering this call, he first obeys the will of God, to Whom he is obedient in all.

He listens to his father superior as he would the Holy Virgin, obeying him as one who knows the sacrament of his heart and the loftiness of his calling.

He obeys his brothers as he would Joseph the Just, as workers at the same labors of calling. And he makes himself available to all men, “for his good, to edification.” (Romans 15:2)

The other virtues are not woven into the monk’s heart either without obeisance, without humility. You cannot speak of patience, of love, of kindness, without having as a foundation of monastic life the sacrament of Christ – obeisance. St. John the Baptist puts in Christ the Redeemer’s mouth the following words for whomever would follow Him:

“If thou shalt adorn thyself, adorn thyself with My jewel! If thou shalt arm thyself, arm thyself with My arms! If thou shalt clothe thyself, clothe thyself with My clothes! If thou shalt feed, feed thyself at My table! If thou shalt travel, travel on My path! If thou shalt inherit, inherit My inheritance! If thou shalt go to thy country, come into the city whose mason and builder I am! (Hebrews 11, 10) If thou shalt build a house for thyself, build thy house in My tents! I ask not for payment for that which I bestow upon thee, but I owe you rewards if thou shalt use all that is Mine!” What generosity can match this? “I am thy father, Christ tells you, I am thy brother, I am thy Betrothed, I am thy house, I am thy nourishment, I am thy coat, I am thy root, I am thy foundation, I am whatsoever thou shalt wish for! I shall serve thee so that thou shalt want for nothing! For I am come not to be served, but to serve! (Matthew 20:28). I am thy friend and limb and head and brother and sister and mother! I am everything! One single thing I ask of thee: to be close to Me! I am destitute for thee, beggar for thee, on the cross for thee, in the sepulcher for thee. Up there, I mediate for thee; down here, I am a messenger from the Father for thee. Thou art everything for me; brother and heir and friend and limb!’ What more can you ask for?”[17]

This dedication, throwing oneself in the arms of Christ, is not abandon, nor destruction of one’s personality, but quite the opposite, an affirmation of freedom in God, a freedom of movement in God and knowledge of Him. Only he who gifts himself can live it, can taste and have it!

This sacrifice is not simply for oneself, just as Christ did not gift Himself for His own sake. The confessional man sees and feels the needs of this world; it is transparent, for in him “but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26), and Christ “was formed in him” (Galatians 4:19). Thus, each instance becomes important and is lived fully through ceaseless prayer; this is God’s presence in heart and in mind. St. Silvan the Athonite once asked his father confessor: How can I weep for this world, though? And his confessor answered: Know through prayer the state of this world, what its needs are, and thus you shall be able to weep.

Praying ceaselessly is also an obeisance left by Jesus Christ the Redeemer (Luke 18:1), a commandment expressed by the Holy Apostles as well. The Holy Apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing!” and “In every thing give thanks!” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, 18), and then affirming strongly, as a commandment, “Quench not the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Not quenching the Spirit means not losing the grace, the presence of godliness within the heart and mind. A contemporary father often said that “The Spirit is very fine”: the grace of the All-Holy Spirit is easily lost by us, it withdraws when we shed the vestment of obeisance and humble cogitation. When we shed this vestment, that is when the monk, or even the Christian, draws to his hear those things contrary to God: judging, anger, meanness, haste and many other passions, which are spirits of evil, recalled for the Galatians by St. Paul, which are spread throughout the sky. And that is because when you take something, you should right away put something back, otherwise “‘and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” (Matthew 12:45).

All our striving and struggle is for gaining the Holy Spirit, for otherwise we are left bodily people: “My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he is also flesh” (Genesis 6:3), says God’s Spirit in the Holy Scripture.

In order to fulfill this, the main concern of the monk is “guarding his mind from his fellow man”, meaning having a clean conscience with himself, never condemning anyone with anything. “Through silence and non-condemnation is the peace of the soul safeguarded”, say the Fathers of the Church, and Father Antim Gaina from Secu Monastery, after the first, second and third scolding for vain words, no longer received one for confession – the worst punishment afforded a spiritual son[18]. This punishment is like ripping the shoot from the stem, like Ismael’s banishment from the bosom of Abraham (Genesis 21:9-12), and is a consequence of not obeying.

In the monastery, between the son and spiritual father, father superior, staret, as we say today, must be a complete communion and communication. The slightest lack of obedience removes the Spirit of God and we are left without discrimination. That is why obeying and curtailing of the will are guarded seamlessly. Through curtailing of the will, meaning no one imposing his own will, is peace and good order brought into a monastery.

Of obeisance, Father Sofronie Saharov, novice to St. Silvan the Athonite, said: “Obeisance is a sacrament revealed only in the Holy Ghost, and, at the same time, it is sacrament and life in the Church; […] obeisance was discovered to be gift from above, incredibly large […] Giving up with trust, good will, love and joy, his will and any judgment on himself to his father superior, his confessor, the obedient one shall yank himself away from the heavy burden of worldly care and reach the knowledge of that which is priceless: cleanliness of mind in God”[19].

“Monkhood is, above all, cleanliness of the mind”, says further Archimandrite Sofronie. “Without obeisance it is out of reach, and that is why there is no monkhood without obeisance; […] cleanliness of the mind, however, is the special gift of monkhood, unknown by other means. […] The link between father superior and novice is one of holiness”. “For the novice, this sacrament consists of learning to do God’s will, to enter the sphere of Godly will, thus communing with Godly life; and for the father superior, it consists of bringing the novice, through prayer and the requirement of his life, to knowledge of this path, cultivating in him the true freedom, without which redemption is not possible. The true freedom is that where the Spirit of God dwells, and that is why the goal of obeisance, and of Christian life in general, is gaining the Holy Spirit.” (Corinthians 2 3:17).

The true father superior never tries to “submit his novice’s will to his ‘human’ will, but, in the course of their life together, these circumstances may occur when the father superior finds that he needs to insist upon his commandment being carried out; the true novice, however, would never bring his superior to that”[20].

“The father superior’s willlessness is heavier than that of the novice, in virtue of his great responsibility towards God. But responsibility towards God falls on the shoulders of the superior only if the novice obeys; and if not, then the entire weight of his actions is born solely by the novice, who thus loses what the unwilling gain by obeying[21].

In our worldly lives, various obstacles arise in fulfilling this ideal. The worst and hardest to overcome is pride and its daughters, of which the principal is selfishness. But, if man is willing, “all things are possible to him that believeth” (Mark 9:23). There are countless examples in the Pateric and Lives of the Saints; we will recall only Dositheus, novice to Dorotheus. After only a few years of monkhood, when his willlessness was not doing his will, when he went to the eternal, “only due to the obeisance he was doing”, reveal brighter than everything else the crown of unwillers. He was worthy enough to stand before the All-Holy and Godly Trinity and pray for those left behind[22].

This is the reward, this is the crown of those who of their own free will took “the light yoke” and “the light burden” of Christ and His followers. And then the effort is entirely worth it, for outside of the soul, which is “of God” and “returneth to God”, nothing is everlasting upon the earth (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

All these, the crafting of good deeds, willlessness, obeisance, curtailing the will, cleanliness, poverty, patience, manliness, courage and all the other virtues required by monastic life make this life a truly well received sacrifice before God.

Living like this, the monk hallows himself and hallows those around him, he is light and life for all in the “house”. St. John Climacus says that prayer is the crutch of this world[23]. In this spirit, “to sustain” means to act as support, to prop up, to hold something as in an embrace, and thus, in this spirit, the world needs prayer givers.

We can thus say that the monk has the courage to turn into life the words of Christ the Redeemer, granting the world hope. The words of Christ are spirit and life, and the monk shows that they can fit and go to work in an impotent body. He shows the entire world, this world harrowed by hopelessness and the lack of redeeming directions, that not all is yet lost. He bears witness by his very life to the truth of Christ’s utterance: “and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20), reinforcing by personal example, often misunderstood by others, the words by which the Good Shepherd encourages His speaking flock: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)

Therefore we need a monk who is well anchored in the confessional laws and rules to be living and free in the life granting Spirit. Let whomsoever is not a monk support the ones who are, for more than ever the world needs these bestowers of support.

And let us, the monks of today, recall our fathers – Holy Fathers – who wished to live thusly in times past, to toil for the good of the world. We, who were called to such holy work, deeply confessional, shall do so, for Christ will never be in our debt. He will give and shall not take away, He will give and will not be sorry. Therefore, onward joyful towards holy willlessness! Let us wish and let us do! And let us not forget that Jesus is a monk’s only joy:

Jesus, the All-Kind, joy of monks!
Jesus, comfort of my soul!
Jesus, light of my mind!
Jesus, joy of my heart!
Jesus, Son of God, bestow mercy upon me!

Archimandrite Melchisedec Velnic

[1] St. Ignatie Brancianinov, apud Arhim. Sofronie Saharov, Of the Foundations of Orthodox Willesness, translation by Hieromonk Rafail, Alba Iulia, 1994, p. 33.
[2] Tomáš Špidlík, The Spirituality of the Christian East, vol. III, ‘Monasticism’, translation by Deacon Ioan Ică jr. Sibiu, 2000, p. 7.
[3] Stephen the Great and Holy. Chronicle Portrait, The Holy Monastery of Putna, 2003, p. 235.
[4] Ibidem, p. 9
[5] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, from ‘Church Parents and Writers’, vol. 23, Bucharest, 1994, p. 106.
[6] Ibidem, p. 799.
[7] Idem, from Oratorical Treasures of Saint John Chrysostom, in French by Jean Doublet, translated into Romanian by Deacon Gheorghe Băbuţ, vol. I, Oradea, 2002, p. 236.
[8] Idem, Clarifications on Saint Apostle Paul’s Epistle 1 Timothy, Bucharest, 2005, homily 14, p. 155-156.
[9] Idem, On the Devil’s Narrow Power. On Repentance. On Troubles and Overcoming Sadness, translated by Prof. Father Dumitriu Fecioru, Bucharest, 2002, p. 245.
[10] Idem, On Virginity. The Apology of Monastic Life. On Raising Children, translation from Greek and notes by Prof. Father Dumitriu Fecioru, Bucharest, 2001, p. 189.
[11] Idem, Clarifications on Saint Apostle Paul’s Epistle 1 Timothy, homily 14, p. 156.
[12] Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Holy Willlessness, in Filocalia, IX, translation, introduction and notes by Father Dumitru Staniloae, Bucharest, 1980, p. 79.
[13] Confessional Sources: Pateric, Alba-Iulia, 1993, For avva Antonie, p. 9.
[14] Archim. Sofronie Saharov, Of the Foundations of Orthodox Willlesness, p. 31-32.
[15] Gheron Iosif Isihastul, apud Hierom. Efrem Katunachiotul, On Obeisance, p.18.
[16] Irenné Hauserr S.I., The Theology of Tears. Weeping and the Piercing of the Heart According to the Eastern Fathers – With an Anthology of Patristic Texts, Sibiu, 2000, p. 113.
[17] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, p. 868-869.
[18] Protosyncellus Ioanichie Bălan, Romanian Pateric, Galaţi, 1990, p. 645.
[19] Archim. Sofronie Saharov, Of the Foundations of Orthodox Willlesness, p. 60-62.
[20] Ibidem, p. 62-63.
[21] Ibidem, p. 63-64.
[22] Avva Dorotei, Useful Teachings and Letters for the Soul, printed by the blessing of His Eminence Justinian, Bishop of Maramureş and Sătmar, Bacău, 1997, p. 14-15.
[23] Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Holy Willlessness, in Filocalia, IX, translation, introduction and notes by Father Dumitru Staniloae, Bucharest, 1980, p. 403.