Poustinia: The Monastic Desert in The World

“The innermost spiritual sense of Orthodox Monasticism is revealed in joyful mourning. This paradoxical phrase denotes a spiritual state in which a monk or nun in one’s prayer grieves for the sins of the world and at the same time experiences the regenerating spiritual joy of Christ’s forgiveness and resurrection. A monk or nun dies in order to live, he or she forgets oneself in order to find one’s real self in God, one becomes ignorant of worldly knowledge in order to attain real spiritual wisdom which is given only to the humble ones.”

With the development of monasticism in the Church there appeared a peculiar way of life, which however did not proclaim a new morality. The Church does not have one set of moral rules for the laity and another for monks and nuns, nor does it divide the faithful into classes according to their obligations towards God. The Christian life is the same for everyone. All Christians have in common that “their being and name is from Christ.”  This means that the true Christian must ground one’s life and conduct in Christ, something which is hard to achieve in the world.

Monk PrayingWhat is difficult in the world is approached with dedication in the monastic life. In one’s spiritual life the monk or nun simply tries to do what every Christian should try to do: to live according to God’s commandments. The fundamental principles of monasticism are not different from those of the lives of all the faithful. This is especially apparent in the history of the early Church, before monasticism appeared.

From the very beginning the Christian life has been associated with self denial and sacrifice: “If any person would come after me, let one deny himself or herself and take up one’s cross and follow me”. Every one of us has one’s own special gift within the one and indivisible body of Christ’s Church. Every way of life is equally subject to God’s absolute will. Hence no way of life can be taken as an excuse for ignoring or selectively responding to Christ’s call and His commandments. Both paths demand effort and determination.

Christ’s commandments demand strictness of life that we often expect only from monks or nuns. The requirements of decent and sober behavior, the condemnation of wealth and adoption of frugality, the avoidance of idle talk and the call to show selfless love are not given only for monks or nuns, but for all the faithful.

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Therefore, the rejection of worldly thinking is the duty not only of monks and nuns, but of all Christians. The faithful must not have a worldly mind, but sojourn as strangers and travelers with their minds fixed on God. Their home is not on earth, but in the kingdom of heaven: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come”.  The Church can be seen as a community in exodus.  The world is its temporary home but the Church is bound for the kingdom of God.  Just as the Israelites, freed from bondage in Egypt, journeyed towards Jerusalem through many trials and tribulations, so Christians, freed from the bondage of sin, journey through many trials and tribulations towards the kingdom of heaven.

Orthodox Catholic 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. This stillness is not a kind of inertia or inaction, but awakening and activation of the spiritual life.  It is intense vigilance and total devotion to God.  Living in a quiet place the monk or nun succeeds in knowing oneself better, fighting one’s passions more deeply and purifying one’s heart more fully, so as to be found worthy of beholding God.

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The monastic life, with its physical withdrawal from the world to the poustinia (desert), began about the middle of the third century.  This flight of Christians to the desert was partly caused by the harsh Roman persecutions of the time.  The growth of monasticism, however, which began in the time of Constantine the Great, was largely due to the refusal of many Christians to adapt to the more worldly character of the now established Church, and their desire to lead a strictly Christian life.  Thus monasticism developed simultaneously in various places in the southeast Mediterranean, Egypt, Palestine, Sinai, Syria and Cyprus, and soon after reached Asia Minor and finally Europe.  During the second millennium, however, Mount Athos appeared as the center of Orthodox monasticism.

The grace of the Christian life is not to be found in its outward forms. It is not found in ascetic exercises, fasts, vigils and mortification of the flesh. Indeed, when these exercises are practiced without discernment they become abhorrent.  This repulsiveness is no longer confined to their external form but comes to characterize their inner content.  They become abhorrent not only because outwardly they appear as a denial of life, contempt for material things or self-abandonment, but also because they mortify the spirit, encourage pride and cultivate self justification.

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The Christian life is not a denial but an affirmation.  It is not death, but life.  And it is not only affirmation and life, but the only true affirmation and the only true life.  It is the true affirmation because if goes beyond all possibility of denial and the only true life because it conquers death.  The negative appearance of the Christian life in its outward forms is due precisely to its attempt to stand beyond all human denial. Since there is no human affirmation that does not end in denial, and no worldly life that does not end in death, the Church takes its stand and reveals its life after accepting every human denial and affirming every form of earthly death.

The power of the Christian life lies in the hope of resurrection, and the goal of ascetic striving is to partake in the resurrection.  The monastic life, as the angelic and heavenly life lived in time, is the foreknowledge and foretaste of eternal life.  Its aim is not to cast off the human element, but clothe oneself with incorruptibility and immortality: “For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life”.

There are sighing and tears produced by the presence of sin, as well as the suffering to be free of the passions and regain a pure heart.  These things demand ascetic struggles, and undoubtedly have a negative form, since they aim at humility. They are exhausting and painful, because they are concerned with states and habits that have become second nature.  It is however precisely through this abasement, self purification, that one clears the way for God’s grace to appear and to act within the heart.  God does not manifest to an impure heart.

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Monks and nuns are the “guardians”.  They choose to constrain their bodily needs in order to attain the spiritual freedom offered by Christ.  They tie themselves down in death’s realm in order to experience more intensely the hope of the life to come.  They reconcile themselves with space, where a person is worn down and annihilated, feel it as their body, transform it into the Church and orientate it towards the kingdom of God.

The life of monasticism is the life of perpetual spiritual ascent.  While the world goes on its earthbound way, and the faithful with their obligations and distractions of the world try to stay within the institutional limits of the church tradition, monasticism goes the other direction and soars.  It rejects any kind of compromise and seeks the absolute.  It launches itself from this world and heads for the kingdom of God.  This is in essence the goal of the Church itself.

In Church tradition this path is pictured as a ladder leading to heaven.  Not everyone manages to reach the top of this spiritual ladder.  Many are to be found on the first rungs.  Others rise higher.  There are also those who fall from a higher or a lower rung.  The important thing is not the height reached, but the unceasing struggle to rise ever higher.  Most important of all, this ascent is achieved through ever increasing humility, that is through ever increasing descent.  “Keep thy mind in hell, and despair not”, was the word of God to Saint Silouan of Mount Athos.  When a person descends into the hell of one’s inner struggle having God within, then he or she is lifted up and finds the fullness of being.

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At the top of this spiritual ladder are the “fools for Christ’s sake”, as the Apostle Paul calls himself and the other apostles, or “the fools for Christ’s sake”, who “play the madman for the love of Christ and mock the vanity of the world”.  Seeking after glory among society, says Christ, obstructs belief in God. Only when one rejects pride can one defeat the world and devote oneself to God.

In the lives of monks and nuns the Christian sees examples of persons who took their Christian faith seriously and committed themselves to the path which everyone is called by Christ to follow.  Not all of them attained perfection, but they all tried, and all rose to a certain height.  Not all possessed the same talent, but all strove as good and faithful servants.  They are not to be held up as examples to be imitated, especially by the laity.  They are however valuable signposts on the road to perfection, which is common for all and has its climax in the perfectness of God.

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