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The Social Dimension of Orthodox Monasticism
Abbot George Kapsanis of Gregoriou Monastery, Mt. Athos

The basic dimension of Orthodox monasticism is only social. Fleeing the world the monk seeks the true community - that is, the communion in love with God and fellowmen.

This theanthropic society can be attained only with great difficulty in the world where society is usually shaped by formal conventional and external social associations. As Fr. Demitrios Staniloae characteristically says, "The Christians in the world are united with God indirectly through His gifts; whereas the monastics are united with Him directly. They renounce the gifts of God in order to meet the God of the gifts." Such gifts for example are the communion in marriage, which the monk renounces not from pride or destain toward marriage, but from desire to join the higher and mystic marriage with Christ which is mystically symbolized by the fleshly marriage. This mystery is great, I speak of Christ and the Church. (Eph. 5:32)."

To attain to the direct communion with God and the fellowman, the monk struggles with daily repentance, asceticism, and obedience to be purified from the passions which flow from self-love as from a spring and which are the chief impediment to communion with God and our fellowman.

The holy fathers clearly point out that the lover of self cannot love either God or his fellowman. And further, self-love is the root of all evil. The passions impede us from seeing properly God, humanity and the gifts of God. We see them in an impassioned manner, that is with diseased spiritual vision, distorted. The world is good. It becomes evil for us because we behold it passionately. Thus Abba Isaac says, "The world is our passions."

The monk who is cleansed of the passions cleans the eyes of the soul and can see dispassionately (according to the depth of his cleansing) both persons and things. Thus he can communicate with people properly and use things properly.

It is not by chance that St. Maximos the Confessor in the 400 Chapters on Love speaks mostly about cleansing from the passions. Without their purification it is impossible to acquire true love.

And further, St. John Climacus places love together with faith and hope in the 30th and last step of the Ladder of virtues. According to St. John, love is "by its nature a likeness of God, in so far of course as that is possible to humanity. As to its activity it is inebriation of the soul. As to its distinctive character it is a fountain of faith, a depth of patience, a sea of humility." It is apparent that for the monk society is not sentimental situation and human attachment (affection, co-operation, passion) but a charismatic condition, a gift of the Holy Spirit, granted to those who struggle for purification from the passions.

You can not obtain God and humanity in your heart so long as you are full with your self-love. So much as you empty yourself of self-love, so much more can you hold God and your brother.

This experience the monk attains after the blood of asceticism and struggle. In the texts of the Vigilant fathers, there exists a realistic anthropology and sociology. From their personal struggle the holy fathers knew how antisocial a person becomes with the passions and how social through dispassion and the transfiguring of the passions. Let us remember the word St. Maximos the Confessor: "The mind joined to God for a long time in prayer and love becomes wise, good, strong, compassionate, merciful and slow to anger; to say it simply, it includes within itself almost all the divine qualities. When it withdraws (from God) it either becomes self indulgent like the cattle or quarrelsome with men like a wild beast."

St. Basil set the theological basis of the cenobitic system which helps the monk to go beyond the unhealthy individualism and egocentricism and to make concrete the highest created society.

The prototype for the monastic common life is the choir of the Holy Apostles with the Lord at it's head. The prototype of Christian communication should be the monastic cenobitic community. It is worthy that communality, equality, freedom from slavery to any human person in whatsoever expediency should be pursued and implemented in Orthodox cenobia.

Prayer and participation in the divine worship and the divine liturgy aid the monk in attaining this theanthropic society. Without prayer how can the monk love God and his fellowman? Every cry to God "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me the sinner" or "have mercy on us" constitutes one surpassing of egoism and one opening toward God and man. In so far as the monk draws near to God he draws near to humanity, as happens with the radius of a circle which as the circumference nears the center draws them together.

In the same way, in the common divine worship we pray to and glorify, and thank and intercede with God as His people, as the future body of Christ, as a priestly Kingdom and holy people. The common worship draws us together in personal spiritual bonds. The center of our theanthropic society is the Divine Liturgy and Eucharist. For this reason the Divine Liturgy is celebrated daily on the Holy Mountain. The characteristics which are used from the beginning for the central mystery of the Church are characteristics with social significance. Liturgy means "leitton ergon"; that is, work of the people. In the Divine Liturgy we can surpass every unhealthy individualism, even any individ- ualism, even any individualism of religion or piety, and become Church.

The term `Divine Eucharist' signifies especially communion with God and between us. Having given thanks to God in common we join not only with God but with each other by reason of our eucharistic attitude.

Again, the term "Divine Communion" reveals most clearly the social character of the Mystery. As St. John of Damascus says, "It is called communion and is truely so because though it they commune with Christ, with his flesh and indeed divinity. They commune and unite and are changed by it. For from one bread they all receive one body and one blood of Christ and together we will become one precious body of Christ. Thus our unity and communion in the Church through the holy mysteries is so deep, as the future unity of the body. It is a unity not psychological or ideological or ethical or organizational, but a bodily- mystical union."

We do not bring about this union. We do not make the body of Christ. Christ makes us His Body. We must co- operate with continual repentance and asceticism that we may become worthy of this oneness of body and not impede it. The monastery constitutes a small relvelation of the Church. The monk struggles in the monastery. He does this in order to live continually and undisturbed (in so far as possible)the Church as a mystery of theanthropic communion. The pattern and source of this communion is the Triune God Himself. There exists, however, an apparent contradiction. The monk pursues the true community by retirement from society. This is something inexplicable for the logic of the world. He flees men in order to obtain freedom from passions and thus to love men in a divine manner. This is indeed a paradox, but not a contradiction. In this way also the isolation of the Holy Mountain is justified. So also we can explain such patristic sayings as: "Flee and be saved" and "a stranger to all and a friend to all".

St. Gregory Palamas in his wonderful homily on the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple explains how the Most Holy Theotokos, through her entrance and dwelling for many years in the Holy of Holies, lived far from every human attachment in deepest hesychastic prayer. There she prepared for the great work in which she interceded for the human race and bore the fruit of that intercession to earth. By her stillness and contemplation of God the Panagia became the most 'social' person of the Church.

The monk's withdrawal from the world does not indicate antisocialness, any more than worldliness means sociability. It is wonderful how the unworldly monks are open to everyone; how they receive every person as an icon of God and as a brother. Indeed the more advanced and graced of the monks can give rest to anyone no matter how weary and confused he may be. It is a well known patristic axiom: "When you give rest to your brother, you give rest to God." So also was the word of the Lord, "As you do to one of these the least of my brethren, you do it to me."

A certain graced elder who helped a psychotic youth to recover kept him close to him for a week. He told me how he remained unmoving listening to him for nine continuous hours.

The broad offering of hospitality of the Holy Monasteries constitute a tangible example of the communal offerings of the monks. More hidden however is the way the monks express their love for their fellowmen in their prayers for them. As a monk is more advanced, so his prayer for all the living and the dead becomes warmer and more continual.

As so recently proclaimed a saint as Elder Silouan the Athonite writes: "There are people who say that monks ought to be of some use in the world, and not eat bread for which they have not toiled; but we have to understand the nature of a monk's service and the way in which he has to help the world. A monk is someone who prays for the whole world, who weeps for the whole world; and in this lies his main work. But who is it who constrains him to weep for the whole world? The Lord Jesus Christ,Son of God, inspires him. He gives the monk the love of the Holy Spirit, and by virtue of this love the monk's heart forever sorrows over the people because not all men are saved. The Lord Himself so grieved over people that He gave over Himself to death on the Cross. And the Mother of God bore in her heart a similar sorrow for humanity. And she, like her beloved son, desired with her whole heart the salvation of all."

The monks express communality with their writings (like St. Nikodimos the Athonite), with their correspondence (like Elder Daniel of Katounaki and Elder Joseph the Cave- dweller), with their periods in the world in obedience to the Church for preaching, confession, and other pastoral service (like blessed Gabriel, abbot of Dionysiou Monastery).

In every situation of national calamity, persecution, captivity or trial the monastics express their love for their fellowmen with works of foresight for the common good. An example of this is found in St. Philothei in Athens under the Turkish domination. The advice of Orthodox hesychast monasticism in the preservation of the Orthodox faith and the language and ethnicity of the orthodox people under the Turkish domination and at all times is well known.

The monk's social consciousness is not easily acquired. It is the fruit of long and continual struggles. Without these and Divine Grace the monk does not overcome self-love and becomes anti-social. When the orthodox monasteries and the small monastic communities gathered around an elder operate properly they become centers which radiate orthodox society according to the standard of Christ. Thus each sanctified monastic and Christian becomes a center of true society.

Today when our life is becoming ever more individual, a- social and even antisocial, orthodox monasticism displays simply and humbly the community of the Orthodox Church. It helps the enclosed and fearful souls to open to God and to their brother; to not fear to express love when there is nothing to receive and not merely when a return is expected.

Sarte saw in every man a threat to his freedom. The humble and holy hesychast of Russia, Seraphim of Sarov, on the other hand, saw in everyone his joy. For this reason he greeted everyone, "Christ is Risen, my joy!"

Through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ the mortal and sick society of our fallen nature is transfigured into the healthy and eternal society of the new person in Christ.

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