Life in the World & Monasticism
There are three well defined stages in Spiritual life in the Greek language:
• Metanoia (turning, towards inside, towards God)
• Theoria (facing God, seeing Him and hearing Him) and
• Theosis (Union with God)
Konevets Monastery in the Ladoga sea
'Dying' to the world through Metanoia and 'remembering God' continuously (Theoria) are such hard labours that some people choose to follow the way to the union (Theosis) with God without the distractions of the daily life in the 'worldly' occupations. Withdrawing to a monastery or a convent does not change any of the difficulties or make this work easier; the novices carry the sins of their soul and in their body wherever they go.
Our energy is limited and used up in many ways. One common 'leak' is the expenditure of energy through thoughts, feelings, sensations and tensions and further imaginings connected with these. After all - this is all part of human nature, 'old Adam and Eve'. The 'sins of the soul' and the body can only be purified by the Lord sitting on his throne. Our struggle is to beat this 'legion' and prepare the way for the 'real I', Lord Jesus, or the 'Spirit' – is a reality and not a concept.
Going to reclusion can be seen as an attempt to lessen the impact of the world and coming into a situation where one is reminded all the time of 'the only thing necessary' - the remembrance of God and the union with Him. About Orthodox Christian Monasticism Bishop Alexander Miloant writes "Orthodox monasticism has always been associated with stillness or silence, which is seen primarily as an internal rather than an external state. External silence is sought in order to attain inner stillness of mind more easily".
The monasteries that have oral instruction at a high level have always been difficult to find. If anything, finding them today is even more difficult. The tradition of the "Staretz" and “Geron” or “Geronta”, as the Elders (old men) of the Slavic and Greek monasteries are called, is not to be found in all monasteries; neither were they available in all the monasteries earlier. Their importance is clear from the Egyptian deserts to our own time; without an experienced guide we can easily find the wrong way!
The Spiritual Guide can be a priest, or a priest monk, but also just a monk or a layman (although these laymen are much rarer than the guides who are in monasteries). It is important to note that Confession, which is a Sacrament of the Church, although often connected with the work as a Spiritual Guide, is a separate function and requires a priest, who acts as a mediator in forgiving the sins, which is only possible for God. These monks and laymen are mostly recognized by their companions, as well in the monasteries as in the world, and it is through this recognition that they become Spiritual Guides.
In an article called “The Spiritual Guide in Orthodox Christianity” Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia gives an explanation of this practice (which, as he points out, originates fifteen centuries before Freud and Jung):
“The elder's gift of insight is exercised primarily through the practice known as the "disclosure of thoughts" (logismoi). In early Eastern monasticism the young monk used to go daily to his spiritual father and lay before him all the thoughts which had come to him during the day. This disclosure of thoughts includes far more than a confession of sins, since the novice also speaks of those ideas and impulses which may seem innocent to him, but in which the spiritual father may discern secret dangers or significant signs. Confession is retrospective, dealing with sins that have already occurred; the disclosure of thoughts, on the other hand, is prophylactic (preventive), for it lays bare our logismoi before they have led to sin and so deprives them of their power to harm. The purpose of the disclosure is not juridical; to secure absolution from guilt, but its aim is self-knowledge, that we may see ourselves as we truly are.”
Orthodox Christianity has been called "The World's Best Kept Secret". One reason for this is language. The writings about the inner life have been available for well over a thousand years in different languages like Syrian, Greek and Russian, and in many other languages in the Bible and other sacred writings. However, only in the latter part of the 20th century a larger selection of this literature has been translated into English.
Some of these translations were made from the Russian version of the Philokalia by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (three works published in the early fifties), who both had their association with P. D. Ouspensky. In this way one of the most 'unorthodox' teachers of Christian tradition, G. I. Gurdjieff, through the inspiration via his best known pupil, Ouspensky, had a strong influence on the transmission of the Orthodox message into the West.
I recently heard from “one who knows”, how it happened that Gerald Palmer, who was a student of P. D. Ouspensky in London, felt very alone after Ouspensky died in 1947. But he was also lucky; in his desperation he travelled to the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos) and happened to meet Father Nikon, who visited the monastery where they met only a couple of times a year; rest of the time he was living a hermit’s life in the Southern deserts of Mount Athos. And it happened like in fairy tales that Mr. Palmer asked Father Nikon to be his Spiritual Guide, Geronta, and Fr. Nikon agreed.
Today we have plenty of great literature from the Bible to the latest writings on the Prayer of the Heart available in books and electronic format.
One 'language difficulty' is that it is impossible to approach a spiritual Father, for instructions if he does not speak your language; his language might be Greek or Russian or some other language unknown to you. Still another reason for the difficulty is a direct result of the forms Christianity has taken in the West - the Eastern teachings are so different, that a considerable openness is necessary on the part of a Western person to understand what the Eastern mystics said and thought.
As an example, the Russian Orthodox Monasticism has guarded their communities against what they call the sinful and Satanic influences coming from the 'World'. This clash has always been there, but a definite opening towards the rest of the World has at least (and at last) become possible after the fall of the Soviet rule. However, outside influences need to be kept at bay simply to maintain the special conditions in the Monasteries. The same has, at least in the past, also applied to the monasteries in Mount Athos.
A Word about Self-Gathering
Self-gathering is the Orthodox inner work described by Saint Theophan the Recluse in his main book "The Path of Salvation". According to Saint Theophan there are three elements in self-gathering:
- First: the gathering of the mind in the heart, called attention.
- Second: to be alert in the body, called vigilance.
- Third: to come to the senses, called soberness.
To be self-gathered you descend within your heart with the help of these three elements. When you are within, the work is to remain there as long as you are conscious. When you are outside, you repeat the self-gathering and go on renewing it as it is not something that continues without the effort. When you have gathered yourself, you are within; missing even one of the elements puts you outside. In fact St. Theophan writes: "...the ascetic labourer is in a minute-by-minute struggle...Therefore he is in a state of perpetual beginning..."
Self-gathering is the method that makes further work possible. It is the preparatory work that can lead to the death of the tyrant that keeps the 'real I', 'the Spirit', in prison. The death of this tyrant (old Adam and Eve) can eventually make the new birth possible.
The Quest for Freedom
The way to freedom goes through slavery. At some point we have a need to come under the will of another, someone, who we trust, 'a teacher', even if we do not always agree. Monasteries provide a focus and an opportunity to come under another will, the Will of God and that of the Spiritual Father. In the absence of a Father, the Will of God is available, all the time, just as much in the world as in the monasteries.
What about my Freedom then?
The idea I have had from my childhood of freedom is based on the routines of the daily life and living; it is a very strange idea. According to this idea, which puts demands on me to earn money, look after the home and family, do cooking, cleaning and other household duties, freedom is simply the time when these duties leave me time 'to be free'. This means that my freedom has been limited mainly to the evenings and weekends, holiday and feasts. It is clear that this is not what is meant by freedom! Freedom is more like living every day as it was a holiday, a feast, like Christmas; indeed, to have Christmas every day and to be born anew every day!
All 'Good News' are connected with the ultimate Truth and with each other. For some time I have tried to find out how to serve. I was startled one day when my daughter, then 14, one day said: "I think it is very nice that you do the cooking. If you could learn how to also serve it in a nice way, it would certainly taste a lot better!" The questions that are ringing in me out of this simple shock are: Who do I serve? Do I serve myself? What has selfishness to do with the difficulties in serving others? Is all of it connected with love? Is patience one aspect of love? What is patience? What has all this to do with freedom?
What is clear is that freedom is not dependent on the outside or on what I am doing at any time: it is more an inner activity. The Prayer of the Heart has a close connection with this freedom. It is in the heart that this freedom can be born.