Sunday, June 5, 2011

Monasticism and the Baptized

Blessed Pope John Paul II on Mount Sinai, where, on Feb. 26, 2000, he visited the Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine, which, he said, "stands indomitable as a witness to divine wisdom and love."
One significant work of the recently beatified Pope John Paul II for the Eastern Churches is his Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen. In this letter, Blessed Pope John Paul II identifies monasticism as “a reference point for all the baptized.” One could look at each Christian way of life and see in it a model for all Christians, without denying the distinctiveness of particular vocations. Another way of putting it is that there is not one spirituality for monks, another for priests, and another for the married. There is one Christian spirituality and theology, just as there is one Christianity, one Christ, and one Church. “There is… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is Father of all” (Eph 4:4-6). A monk is not living just a part of the Christian life, but the whole of Christian life. The same is true of a priest, a married person, and each Christian. Looking at Christianity as expressed and lived in each vocation instructs each Christian in their own living of Christ. Monasticism, however, is particularly suited to this type of examination.

“In the East, monasticism was… presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity,” writes John Paul. This is for good reason. The life of the monk or nun is one of total absorption in Christ, shown by their commitment to prayer, their apostolically communal way of life, and their radical observance of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This is not to suggest that these elements are unique to monasticism, but that they are expressed by monasticism with rare clarity. As John Paul writes, “The monastery… is where the human being seeks God without limitation or impediment, becoming a reference point for all people.”

Monasticism, like martyrdom before it, stands as a radical sign of the coming kingdom, in which all people are called by God to participate, and which monastics, in a sense, already experience. The martyrs and the monastics count their sacrifices nothing, even a joy, as they know they are imitating the Lord and going to Him. “The Church invokes [the] return [of the cosmos to the Father], and the monk and the religious are its privileged witnesses,” according to John Paul. They witness and experience this recapitulation of the universe primarily in their lives of prayer, both liturgical and individual. John Paul continues, “As a living sign of this [eschatological] expectation, the monk continues and brings to fulfillment in the liturgy the invocation of the Church… a maranatha constantly repeated… with the whole of his life.”

The very breath of a true monastic is prayer. In the East, the witness of the hesychasts’ silent prayer of the heart particularly exemplifies this. “Silence (hesychia),” John Paul notes, “is an essential component of Eastern monastic spirituality,” and each Christian ought to incorporate, to that degree they are able, this prayer into their life.

Lest individual prayer come to dominate the life of the monastic, or any Christian, participation in the liturgy and in the community of the Church is an equally vital part of their lives. “Monasticism… is always a personal response to an individual call and, at the same time, an ecclesial and community event,” writes John Paul. This parallels quite well with other vocations within the Church. Witness, for example, the ordination of a deacon, privately called to a life of service to the Church in this way, publicly ordained to the purpose. Also, the Church publicly blesses the private calling to married life in the mystery of crowning. Each Christian’s life is marked by a personal relationship with our Lord, lived out within the community of the Church. John Paul points out that “a monk's way is not generally marked by personal effort alone.” This certainly is true for all other Christians as well. St. Basil the Great favors the communal life for his monastic communities and also insists that every Christian ought to have a spiritual director, writing, “to believe that one does not need counsel is great pride” (I Cap. I Isaiae).

While spiritual direction is necessary to avoid over individualization and self-conceit, it also enables the individual to more personally respond to Christ within the Church than otherwise, which John Paul admires. He writes, “A spiritual father… gives Eastern monasticism an extraordinary flexibility: through the spiritual father's intervention the way of each monk is in fact strongly personalized.” Monasticism presents the individual with a balanced way of life as a member of the community, then, not distorted by either extreme as he or she seeks to live out the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Every Christian needs this balance. The temptations – both toward individualism and toward depersonalized, external membership in the community – exist outside the monastery walls as much as within.

The monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are not exclusively monastic, but universally Christian. The Church, it seems, has traditionally associated them with monasticism because of the monastics’ radical and unimpeded commitment to them. John Paul does not directly refer to these vows in Orientale Lumen, but they are clearly not far from his considerations.

He writes, “Standing before the abyss of divine mercy, the monk can only proclaim the awareness of his own radical poverty.” This is the poverty of spirit our Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed, “blessed” (Mat 5:3) and to which all Christians are called. This awareness of the emptiness of self awakens one to the absolute need for the salvation only Christ offers.

In his discussion of monasticism as a universal model, John Paul never directly mentions chastity. Perhaps this is because it is in this quality that monasticism is expressed most distinctly from other vocations. However, about the reality of purification, accomplished for the monastic in part by the discipline of celibacy, John Paul writes, “This process of becoming ever more moderate and sparing, more transparent to himself, can cause him to fall into pride and intransigence if he comes to believe that these are the fruits of his own ascetic efforts. Spiritual discernment in continuous purification then makes him humble and meek, aware that he can perceive only some aspects of that truth which fills him.” The purpose of chastity, as well as of ascetic efforts, is the development of single-heartedness toward God. The monk and each Christian must endeavor to develop this with all humility.

Obedience, in a certain sense, is the beginning of the Christian life. John Paul writes of this, “The starting point for the monk is the Word of God…. When a person is touched by the Word, obedience is born, that is, the listening which changes life.” To “obey” is to “listen to” (ob audire) and “faith comes by hearing” (Rom 10:17). Faithfulness and obedience, then, are much the same thing. Each Christian striving to live the faith must embrace obedience, just as the monastics do. Jesus Christ told those who would follow Him, “"If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The monastics strive to live this out radically and, in doing so, serve as an example to all Christians.

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