Friday, September 11, 2009
Looking for monasticism in all the right and wrong places
There is little doubt among Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox alike that the spiritual center of Orthodox Christianity is the Holy Mountain, Mt. Athos. A plethora of books about indivuduals' pilgrimage there have been written. I have also read Fr. Basil Pennington's account of his time there entitled O, Holy Mountain! and he is a Catholic priest who was granted permission to stay there for an extraordinary amount of time rarely given to non-Orthodox. Another plethora of books has been written about monastic wisdom from the Holy Mountain. I'm reading one right now, entitled Short Trip to the Edge: Where Earth Meets Heaven--A Pilgrimage. As far as this book is concerned, it is well written by a University of Missouri-Columbia (my alma mater, btw) professor, Scott Cairns, and a member of St. Luke's Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, MO (and I know several people there). But, as far as originality goes, this was not that great of a book. It was still a good read and I liked reading the personal anecdotes.
Like other books that detail pilgrimages to the Holy Mountain, Dr. Cairns' reason for going was the same: the search for a spiritual father. Almost all of the books that are written by pilgrims to Mt. Athos have this as a common theme. They are all searching for a spiritual father on Mt. Athos. And why not? After all, this is the holiest place on earth (from Orthodox persepctive, of course) so what better place would there be? In his search, Dr. Cairns is often puzzled by the response he receives from monks on Athos. They ask why he cannot find one in the United States? And that is a fair question. The answer can go one of two ways. One might answer: "There aren't any holy men in the United States" (which, I would say, is false). Another answer may be: "Becuase we don't have as established a monastic tradition in the United States, we need to look elsewhere." I suspect the real answer lies somewhere in the middle of these.
Here in the midwest of the United States, we have no monasteries. There is a skete in Wisconsin and there is a monastery in Denver, both of which have had some controversies and which the faithful have been advised to avoid. One is required to drive in excess of 12 hours to find one. Both the east and west coasts have plenty of monasteries. The south even has a few, but here in the midwest, we are starving. I'm hopeful that Bishop BASIL can get his monastery off the ground soon. But, Metropolitan PHILIP is not about to give a blessing for that now or anytime soon. So, still we wait.
Like Cairns, I desire to go to Athos. But I would rather find a confessor here in the states to whom I can go regularly to flee from the cares of this world. Geographically, I don't have much of an option available. I long for an Athos right here in the midwest.
There are those who would argue that for Orthodoxy in America to be thriving and evangelistic, it must do so in spite of monasteries. In other words, monasteries are old world. In the new world, in this individualistic culture we know as the United States, monasticism has not a place. If Orthodoxy is to thrive, whether here or anywhere else, it is because of a good monastic spiritual support, not despite it. Orthodoxy without monasticism is not Orthodoxy; it is a shadow of its true and holy self.
But that doesn't solve the problem. We can't all go to Athos. We can't all take a trip for a week to a monastery which is located 800+ miles away. So, what are the faithful to do who long for spiritual counseling that can only be given in a monastic environment? I wish I had an answer because I am trying to find it for myself.
Don't get me wrong: my father confessor is a wonderful priest and I do receive good counsels from him. But he is also a family man, with a wife and children and, on top of that, has a good deal of many responsibilities to the church which does not allow him the full range of the contemplative life. And that is fine. The Orthodox faith has always had married clergy and celibate clergy. But Orthodoxy is about theosis, growing to become like God, to participate in His energies and, in a mystical, sublime way, partaking of His essence. Ascesis is not just for monks, but for all of us faithful, married and not. But if we have no ascetics among us, how do we learn that? How do we practice? How do we grow?
We need monasteries here in the midwest. We NEED them. Are they for everyone? Of course not, but some of us are starving for more spiritual direction and retreat than what our parish churches and priests can give us! That is a fact.