Lessons from Monasticism

A Homily Given by Fr. Dcn. Michael Schlaack on January 14th, 2018         

On January 17th, the Church commemorates a very important figure in the spiritual life of the Christian faith.  On that day, we commemorate the memory of St. Anthony the Great, who is known as the father of Christian monasticism.  And since his day of commemoration falls on the day before our annual Dormition dinner, I thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on St. Anthony’s life and contribution to the Christian world, and how we can see that same work being carried out in modern Orthodox monasticism.

         St. Anthony was born in Egypt the year 251 to a wealthy family.  Both of his parents died while he was a young man, leaving him with a younger sister to care for.  One day, St. Anthony was challenged by the words of Christ in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me” (Mt.19:21).  The Lord’s teaching changed St. Anthony’s heart toward his earthly possessions.  After providing for his sister’s care, he sold everything he had, gave the money to the poor and began his life as an ascetic in a hut not far from the village where he grew up.

            St. Anthony then spent his days working with his hands and giving the money he earned to the poor.  During this time, the saint was viciously attacked by the Enemy, filling him with doubts about his chosen path in life.  St. Anthony was often driven to desire by lustful and lewd thoughts, which could only be fought by constant meditation on Christ and the eternal salvation that can only come from a forgiving and loving God.  It was during this time of extreme spiritual challenge that St. Anthony was granted a vision from God, filling him with the wisdom that would become a cornerstone of his life and a pillar of the monastic rule he would later establish.  In the vision, St. Anthony saw a man who spent his time alternating between prayer and work, showing the saint that both the spiritual and physical endeavors are necessary for his salvation.

            St. Anthony would continue fighting against the temptations of Satan for the next 20 years, living alone in a tomb in the desert and practicing his extreme ascetical rule before finally achieving calmness of his mind and soul.  At this point, several friends sought out St. Anthony for spiritual guidance and soon a small community of monastics formed around him.

            Besides his ascetical practices, St. Anthony was also known for his staunch defense of the true Christian faith.  One of the few times that he left his desert cell was to defend the true faith against the heresies of Arianism and Manicheanism.  He was also known for converting many pagans to Christianity as well.

            After eighty-five years in the desert, St. Anthony peacefully fell asleep in the Lord in the year 235 at the age of 105.  His two closest disciples, Ss. Athanasius and Serapion, obeyed his final request to be buried in the desert where he had lived and ministered for so long.  St. Anthony’s relics were eventually transferred to Alexandria and then to Constantinople in the seventh century.  In the eleventh century, St. Anthony’s relics were moved to a church outside of Vienna, and in the 15th century his relics were moved to their current resting place in the church of St. Julian in Arles, France.

            The influence that St. Anthony had on both the monastic and the spiritual life of the church cannot be understated, and his legacy goes far beyond the monastic rules in both the East and the West that his life and example has directly influenced.  His support of the Orthodox faith by confronting pagans as well as the Arian and Manichaean heresies helped to strengthen Christianity.  And his model of prayer, asceticism, humility and love is an example to us all.  These are the fruits of St. Anthony’s life and work that are carried on today, especially in the monastic settings.

            The question that often arises is whether monasticism, especially Orthodox Christian monastic life, has any relevance in our modern world?  How could a movement that occurred nearly 18 centuries ago be of any value for us today, especially in our American culture which has very little tradition or exposure to this form of religious life?  What real value do the monasteries and monastic men and women have in the modern age?

            First, we need to understand that even back in the 3rd century, the very idea that someone would sell all his processions and give the money to the poor, then spend his life living in hunger, poverty and solitude in a tomb in the desert was considered extreme even for St. Anthony’s times.  Some would say that this lifestyle goes completely against “human nature,” which has always been defined by the world as seeking out the most comfort and the highest level of status that we can possibly achieve in our lifetime.  To withdraw from the chaos of the world is considered by most to be “insane.”  The rest of the world is constantly competing with your time and resources, trying to convince you that the ways of the world are the only right way to live.  But, as all Orthodox Christians understand, the voice of God is more often heard in the quietness and stillness of our solitary retreats.  Like the Prophet Elijah, we need to find that mountain hideout to escape from the rest of world for just a little while, to allow ourselves to trust completely in God’s care and provision, and to wait for the answer to our prayers. 

            The monks and nuns of today are not that much different from the rest of us: They have parents, siblings, and friends and loved ones.  They came into the world much like everyone else and someday they, too, will die.  They are tempted by the same demons and face similar challenges that we must encounter as well.  The difference is that their primary focus is their own personal salvation and inner peace, and through that transformation, the salvation of the entire world.  St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”  The monasteries provide for us an island for peaceful focus, where we can spend time in prayer and contemplation, allowing us to recharge our spiritual batteries and thus be prepared for further battle with our daily demons.  And since the monastics practice the life of prayer and holiness on a daily basis, they are able to also share that wisdom with the rest of us, helping us to find the inner stillness we all desire.

            No, it is not the monasteries that are the anachronisms of our society, but I would contend that it is the rest of the world that is really out of step with the life that God had originally prepared for each of us.  It was the Christian monastic movements that were always on the cutting edge of their society for declaring that the so called “truths” of the modern existence could not lead to a happy, fulfilling life.  Even today they provide that necessary sanctuary for helping us to find true meaning and happiness.

            As I stated earlier, we will all have a chance this week to meet and hear from Mother Gabrielle and the sisterhood of the Dormition of the Mother of God monastery.  I encourage everyone to take advantage of this opportunity to support their work by attending the charity dinner on Thursday evening.  Many people do not even know about the vibrant community that exists in Rives Junction.  The Dormition monastery is one of those blessings of the Orthodox Christian faith that needs to be experienced by everyone, so please set some time aside this week to join us at the dinner.  If you cannot, then I encourage you to pray for the sisterhood at Dormition and for all our monastics brothers and sisters, and then make it a point sometime this year to visit Rives Junction.

            It is difficult to conceive of an Orthodox Christian faith that does not include monasticism at the heart of its spiritual life.  The monastic orders in place today, in both the East and the West, are direct benefactors of the life and work of St. Anthony the Great and the brave men and women who over the centuries have decided to swim against the tide of their popular culture.  This is part of that rich treasury of the Orthodox faith that our predecessors have fought, and often died, to preserve.  It is now our turn to do our part to ensure that the monastic communities continue to thrive and provide an island of peace and sanity for future generations.