franciscan - January 2005
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2004
A Cry, A Question, an Answer
by Father Christofor Panaitescu
To be a monk is not to live in a dream. A monk must assume some responsibilities. He is in a permanent state of self-examination. In this secularized world his life is a cry, his purpose is a question and the way of his community is an answer. The monastic life is an expression of hope in Christ's Resurrection. If you once taste this life, you will never have enough of it.
This life, as a gift of God, is the lapse of time between the Lord's appeal to love and the human being's answer, also to love. The appeal depends on nothing; it is perfect, eternal. But the answer depends on the capacity for hearing of each one of us. We know from the Bible, especially from the holy Gospel that, often, people do not hear God well because of their sins. History proves that there have always been persons who answered immediately to the Lord's appeal and then dedicated their whole life to serving the heavenly will. Such persons are all the saints of the Old Testament: the Patriarchs, the Prophets, the Righteous and then God's Mother, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles and their successors. From the first age of the church some of those Christians left the world - as a social system - and began to live in deserts, or in mountains, in woods. The holy Gospel and tradition, the experience of the elders, were their Way.
A life in nature and with nature for God.
Not long after that they appeared as communities, working and praying together, earning their living and helping others in need. They were the monks.
Saint Elijah and Saint John the Baptist are the predecessors of monks. They were the cry shouting in the desert for the Lord's Law. They were a cry too because they were an example of how people could live in accordance with God's will. Being a cry, the people of Israel listened to them, came to them, followed them and, through them, Jesus Christ.
The monk and the monastic community call the whole world to follow Christ in His love and to love their neighbours. Endeavouring not to judge their neighbours, not to blame them in their sins, but to help and save them with love, the monk is a cry to others by the fact of his own existence, his own way of ascetical life, his prayers for the whole creation. The monk never shouts with his mouth, but with his behaviour, with his humble attitude in the face of human aggression, or the hostility of nature. The monk's cry is not one of despair, of suffering without end. Through his life he wants to call people's attention to their wrong way in this world.
What about the Question? A monk is a question to others because, often, they ask themselves why he or she chose such a strange, uncommon and difficult way of living. The reality is that Jesus Christ warned us that it will not be easy to follow Him on the Way to our Heavenly Father, even though we shall have the Holy Spirit's help (John 16:33). Unfortunately we often forget; this is not a pity, it's a tragedy.
If we read the life of Saint Francis or the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, we ask if it is possible to have such a communion with nature, with the environment. What we can see on TV, on the Animal Planet Channel, or on Discovery Channel is good, but it is not at all the same thing. Always on TV there are two worlds: the human world and the natural world. For saints there is only the Lord's presence all over the world: in their own life and in the creatures' lives. They succeed in making friends among animals and see the Lord's glory beyond nature. It could be seen as an ecological question. Does the world have to despair because of the ecological catastrophe, or are people able to be aware of their own suffering and the pain of nature and change? The answer proposed by the lives of these two monks is a challenge for us nowadays.
Another question put by the monastic community is that of the celibate life. Is it possible to live together with other men without being homosexual while keeping your virginity? Is it possible to see our neighbour as an icon of our Lord Jesus Christ, or must he or she be just an object or a servant for our pleasures? In this order of ideas the Christian and, implicitly, monks have to remake in themselves Christ's primordial image, destroyed by Adam in his fall. This is possible only if we preserve our spiritual and Godly purity. For us there are only two possibilities: life in a normal family, or in a monastic community.
What about the obedience, or the poverty which a friar promises to keep before God? When I, as a monk, try to obey my abbot, or an elder monk with more experience than me, this is because of the example given by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. Our Saviour suffered and obeyed His Heavenly Father till death, and a death on the cross (Philippians 2:6-8). Obedience is the only real relationship between God and people. This is not at all a kind of slave system, but a manifestation of complete freedom. Only a trespasser is a slave: 'Jesus said to them, "I am telling the truth: everyone who sins is a slave of sin"' (John 8:34). If we are able to know the truth, the Real Truth, we shall be set free (John 8:31). Otherwise the world is not far away from war, hatred, disaster.
The chosen poverty of a monk has to be studied, inspected by the consumer society of today. The human body is not made for pleasures; it must be the temple of the Holy Spirit; it must be a friend, a help for the soul, and not an object, or an aim in itself. In this order of ideas the examples of the saint monks' lives are conclusive.
Eventually the monk and the monastic community are an Answer. The spiritual life opened by the holy Gospel has more answers than humanity has questions, and the first and the most important one is that of the hope in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the message itself of the Gospel. A monk, as a good Christian, prepares himself for the life which is to come, grows up spiritually, waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in glory.
The daily seven services complete with the Divine Liturgy are a real spiritual support for the whole world. These seven services are structured according to the periods of a day and they aim to organise the monk's life all around prayer. Every service contains litanies in which the community asks the benediction of our Lord over the undivided creation and seeks its salvation.
The hospitality of monasteries all over the world is very well known and is an answer too for the need of love of the whole creation. In a normal community everybody is welcomed and can find there for a few days a good and warm bed and well-cooked fare.
However you can't feel the real pulse of the spiritual life in a monastery if you don't enter one. A monk, or a community, is not at all an afterthought in society, but is a gift offered to the Lord. f
Fr. Christofor Panaitescu is a Romanian Orthodox monk, and is currently working for the Church in the Czech Republic.
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