ON ESSENCE OF MONASTIC LIFE
Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica
The Holy Fathers say that as angels are the light to monastics, so true monastics are the light to people.
What does the word "light" mean here?
That monastics are those who preserve the high criterion, or the martyric ethos, of Christian struggle and life in the Church. And moreover, that they ought to be guides, show the way of spiritual growth to people with their existence, their deeds, their word with their whole life. Hence, monastics ought to be the light to laity, to the people living Christian life in the world. This, in a way, puts the monastic order in the Church in a place of a prophetic ministry: as the Prophets in the Old Testament announced the coming of Christ to the people and showed them the way of being in constant communion with God and never estranging from Him, so monastics today have the same role in the life of the Church. And indeed, if monastics fulfil their calling, they become the light and support to all that harbour their hope in God.
A true monastic is the one who has gone through the way of purification of his heart from passions and sin and has ascended to the second degree of spiritual growth illumination of the mind. At that spiritual level the monastic's mind, owing to the openness of the heart, can descend in the heart and perform the prayer there. Staying prayerfully in the heart, the mind partakes of Divine grace, that every man receives at Holy Baptism. Here, inside, the monastic's mind illumines transformed by this grace and therefore this degree of spiritual growth is called illumination of the mind. Through this illumination of the mind, the monastic comprehends the mysteries of life in general, the mysteries of God and of the Holy Scriptures, the mystery of the Church. Hence he can show his own way and attainment to other people and lead them along this way, since he himself has gone through and is familiar with it. Only in that sense is the monastic a spiritual guide as well. It can even be a monastic without a priestly rank. Such an example on the Holy Mountain was Geronda Paisius, visited by people from the whole Greece and from all parts of the world, for they felt his spiritual greatness. At his cell's door could be seen even tens of people daily, waiting to receive a spiritual counsel from the Elder.
So, once a monastic has purified his heart from passions, the grace of Holy Baptism reveals within it. This Divine grace transforms his whole existence and thus the mere presence of such a monastic at a certain place is a power that casts fallen angels demons out of that place. Likewise, the monastic's word, having been transformed, can gracefully help and support people. The transformative power of the word is truly great and it reaches the innermost depths of human hearts, bringing light and strength, showing them the way.
Ordaining a monastic in a priestly rank demands great caution. The ranks have to meet the degree of spiritual progress of the one who is to be ordained in obedience. Here the rank of the deacon corresponds with the process of purification of the heart. It is given under presupposition that the one ordained continues further on the way of self-perfection, by virtue of obedience and humility before his Elder. The aim of that struggle is to reach the degree of illumination of the mind, when the heart is purified from passions and the mind-and-heart prayer pours forth within it. This graceful condition, on its part, corresponds with the presbyterian rank. In the course of further self-perfection, through love even towards his enemies, one gets to the third degree in the spiritual growth, called deification of man, adequate to the episcopal rank.
Monastics who have walked this way of graceful growing in the Church, as we have said, are found worthy to become spiritual fathers, guides and enlighteners of people. The same is applicable when priests are in question, since their place in the Church is to serve the same cause. They must not merely be formal bearers of the presbyterian rank, but having attained illumination of the mind, they should devote themselves to spiritual guidance of the people in the Church. This especially refers to the Bishop.
Coming to a monastery, the future monastic must walk that path of purification of the heart in order to achieve illumination of the mind. This should happen during the period of probation until the investment with the Great schema. Its duration depends on the novice's fervour for an ascetical struggle and for a true, in Christ, life. The main passions that the heart ought to be purified from are: avarice, pleasure-indulgence and vainglory. From the first two types of passions, bodily comfort and piling up material wealth, a monastic can easily free himself shortly after coming to the monastery, since the way of life in the monastery does not allow opportunities to satisfy these passions. The monastic faces greater spiritual struggles and ascetical effort when purifying the passion of vainglory that is, the high opinion about himself, or pride or as the Fathers call it self-conceit. Having got hold of the heart, this passion keeps it closed and inaccessible for the mind. The one who has not opened his heart and does not know the place of the heart and yet will make efforts to say the prayer inside the heart, will run into a kind of an interior impenetrable wall, to unapproachable darkness. All who in this manner have tempted to enter the heart with their mind, and their heart had not been opened, have soon abandoned that endeavour and have not repeated it for a long time. The monastic should be especially cautious with this passion, the high opinion about himself, if he wishes to purify and open his heart. The only remedy for this passion is obedience in a real and concrete personal relationship with one's spiritual father.
How do we recognise that we suffer from the passion of vainglory? When somebody offends us or says a bad word about us or acts from a position of authority towards us, our heart immediately darkens and in an instant we lose our love towards that person and it is not easy for us neither to talk with, nor to look at the one. It will take time to overcome this obstacle in our relationships. Exactly this spiritual darkness, that follows the undergone assault, is a sign that our heart is captured by pride and high opinion about ourselves. Having occupied this space through the passion and having an easy access to our heart, the demon does not use its usual method of conquering by gradual penetration of the thought till the heart eventually consents to it. Besides, all this involves non-love for the other one, whom we, due to the offence, consider our enemy and simply reject from our heart.
Every monastic ought to purify himself from the passion of vainglory and open his heart. It is a process in the Orthodox spiritual struggle that a monastic goes through led by a spiritual father. The latter should teach and guide his spiritual children through this process of their spiritual maturation as persons.
All who come to a monastery and enter the process of spiritual development should comply with the three basic rules: proper confession; non-identification with one's own thoughts, desires and feelings; and the third rule is intensity of the ascetical, that is, bodily effort to the point of discovering the "place of the heart".
If we analyse these three rules, we will see that they all aim at healing from vainglory.
Proper confession implies that the one going to a confession blames nobody but himself for what has happened to him and reveals not other people's sins, but his heart's condition after the suffered temptation. This is one of the basic presuppositions for a genuine and proper confession: awareness that we ourselves are to be blamed for all that has happened to us. If, however, after a suffered temptation, I go to a confession and say that it is the other one's fault, I go astray from the path leading to my heart or, if I am already in the heart, I get out of it, non-lovingly blaming and condemning the other person. Claiming that it is all my fault, the whole swarm of thoughts following in such cases how should he, I did nothing to him, why is it like this, when I didn't do anything bad, and so on is simply gone, and the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us" continues, and so does the love for the other one. Great is the abyss between Divine and human justice.
Then, not identifying with one's thoughts, desires and feelings, which the monastic always checks with his spiritual father. It is the main struggle for destruction of our vainglory. Due to the habit our mind to be our criterion for everything, our opinion always to be the most just and correct, we forget that in fact we are fallen away from God and that most of our thoughts, feelings and desires do not comply with His commandments. When entering into obedience to our Elder, under his spiritual guidance we ought to check all these soul's movements, for otherwise we do not need spiritual guidance. And since we have already decided to get purified from the passion of vainglory, we should not trust ourselves on any matter, until it is checked with our Elder and we have grown up. Resembling little children, who see that they are incapable of walking or of understanding something and therefore ask and lean on their parents, teachers etc.
Orthodox ascetical practice is a real knowledge and art of living. On the other hand, it is a delicate matter, since a man may easily get lost in the labyrinth of that life, especially if he practices ascesis of his own volition.
The ascetical bodily effort tramples on egotism and purifies the heart. Until our heart is opened, it should be especially emphasised in our life. And when the heart is opened, the opening itself causes a new mode of prayer, and this is the mind-and-heart prayer. This prayer demands withdrawal to a quiet and dark place, not standing but sitting, during which our attention should by no reason be distracted: if we stand by the pain in the legs; or if we are in church by the presence of many people, noise and alike. There is no need for prostrations or standing; on the contrary, we should sit, lower our head towards our chest, close our eyes and bring into accord the prayer words with our breathing. Thus, we now pay special attention to the mind-and-heart prayer itself, although we should not completely neglect the bodily effort.
Through this whole process of purification, as we have pointed out, the spiritual child goes under the guidance of an experienced Elder who has passed the road of purification and is acquainted with and lives the mind-and-heart prayer as the core of his entire struggle. The Elder has an opened heart inside of which the spiritual child can, through a graceful and mystical way of interpenetration, live and grow just like the child grows in its mother's womb until it is ready to come out in the world. Tradition of the mind-and-heart prayer always takes place in a personal relationship and it is most safe to live and grow in the heart of our spiritual father. Such is the freedom of the Tradition: the one who has got can pass on, whereas the one who has not got has nothing to pass on.
So, the Elder ought to be experienced in the prayer as to guide his spiritual children free of delusion. However, obedience on the part of the spiritual children is also necessary if they truly wish to be in their Elder's heart and grow there unhindered.
When speaking of monastic life, we always point out the Tradition of mind-and-heart prayer. That Holy Tradition makes the monastic a monastic and distinguishes him from a layman. Only the openness of the heart for the Jesus prayer indicates that the heart is not captured by any passion. But, if the monastic's heart is captured by a certain passion and is inaccessible for the mind, then there is no essential difference between that monastic and any worldly man. A qualitative difference occurs once the monastic has purified and opened his heart.
The fastest way to opening of the heart is the ascetical practice of love. We ought to always, in every occasion pay attention not to, by any chance, reject anybody from our heart. If we hate somebody or reject him from our heart or do not make an effort to love him, it means that we close our heart to him, and since our heart is closed for one person, it is closed for all people and for God. We must not in any case allow our heart to be closed for whomever. It is what the Godman Jesus Christ has left us with these words: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do " And when to the One Who has saved mankind, people responded by crucifying Him, and yet He has shown us this path, the practice of love then what should we do? If His, we shall do what He has done. If, on the contrary, we happen to close our heart for anyone, then it will be closed for everyone, even for the mind and for the mind-and-heart prayer. As for the monastic, if he does not acquire opening of the heart and mind-and-heart prayer, he has failed his calling and his life. The monastic is called to perfection, that is, to deification. To close the heart for any person means to end the spiritual ascent. If we supposedly bring our heart in a condition on the verge of opening, the unresolved personal relationship will always turn out to be an absolute obstacle to that opening.
Yet another thing, coming to the monastery, through obedience the monastic gradually frees himself from the passions of avarice and pleasure-indulgence and of everything connected to body, property, and money. Through prayer and attendance at church services, and especially through Communion at the Divine Liturgy, the monastic reaches purification and illumination of the energy of the mind. The Holy Fathers call this purification and illumination also the first vision of the uncreated Divine light. There is a danger hidden in here. If the monastic does not make use of this vision to observe his own sins but, on the contrary, to observe the sins of the others, then he takes another road the road of pride and high opinion about himself, leading out of the heart. If, still, he uses that first vision of the Divine light to become aware of his own impurity and filth, he then continues on the path leading heartwards. We ought to beware of this trap of our enemy.
This is why it is said that the Orthodox ascetical life is an all-encompassing effort, equally involving all the aspects of spiritual growth. Therefore we ought to pay attention to everything, especially to love towards every single man. A monastic should not hurt anybody even by an accepted evil thought, as such thought would, for him, have the weight of a deed done. Our love towards people is the simplest indicator of how we grow in Christ.