My Monastery

monastery Over the years, I’ve spent some time at the Holy Cross Hermitage, in Wayne, WV. I must say that going to the monastery has been one of the great joys of my Orthodox journey. Folks always comment that when I return from the monastery, I seem happier and more peaceful. It would be hard to say what has the most impact on me when I am there. Certainly, the liturgies are special, talking with the brothers is a blessing, and even doing work there seems to have a special blessing to it. But for me, its the stillness, the quiet spirit of prayer that pervades the monastery that effects me the most.

Yet, even with this spiritual benefit, monasticism is not my life and I  return to the “world.” It isn’t long until the cares and the noise of the world begins to wear on my spirit again. Would it better to stay at the monastery? Perhaps, but this is not my lifestyle. I say lifestyle because the monastics and I share a common calling: we are both called to be an ascetics.

People often make the mistake of thinking that ascetics must be monastics, and so a life of asceticism is not for those of us who live in the world. This is not right because the Lord said that each and everyone of us must pick up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Him. There is no better definition of asceticism than this. The difference between myself and the monastic brothers is that I must live my asceticism in the world, among co-workers, family and friends.

I once told the brothers at Holy Cross that the Abbot m was a very easy abbot to live with. I had a much stricter and more demanding abbot than they. They looked surprised and asked what I meant. I told them that my abbot, my wife, was far stricter than their abbot. I mean if you want to live with someone who wants to know all your thoughts, and what you are doing at every moment, etc., then she was stricter! They smiled and agreed.

Those of you who know my Matushka know that she is a kind and gentle sweetheart. She really makes very few demands. What I meant by my words is that she is my monastery. It is with her that I must work out my salvation, and she must do the same with me. How does this work within a home and marriage?

Years ago, when I did some marital counseling, the couple said that they tried to have Christ in their marriage. I asked what they meant. “Well, we pray before meals, go to Church and read the Bible.” they would reply. These are good things, but as I listened to their problems, I would also hear stories of arguments, anger, grudges, resentment, unforgiveness, and so on.

I  asked the couple that as good Christians did they believe that what the Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount was true; that is, when faced with an enemy, should we go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and not return evil for evil but meet evil with good, and answer cursing with blessing? They agreed that this is what the Lord said, and it is what we should do. Then I asked that if we were to do this for our enemies, how much more should we do this for our spouses and children? The response was something like “a deer caught in the headlights.” We seem to think that a marriage license allows us to be ego-centered and demanding and unforgiving.

My home is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. When I experience some supposed offense, I should see this as an opportunity sent from God for the salvation of my soul. Yet, when the offense comes from my wife or children, I think I am free to be angry, sullen, and resentful. Not so! So, if my wife “compels” me to cook dinner, then I should wash the dishes as well. If she’s had a bad day, and says an unkind word, then I should return a blessing instead of another unkind word. If she offends me, I must forgive her. Her needs must be more important than my own, and I must consider her as being better than myself.

I am her monastery as well. Imagine what marriage would be like if both spouses practiced this kind of asceticism. Marriage would be heaven on earth and there would be little room for the devil to sow seeds of discord. Consider this thought: if I cannot practice my asceticism at home, how will I be able to practice it in the world? It is because of this asceticism that we wear martyr’s crowns at an Orthodox wedding.

My church is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. Like living in any family, offenses will come from our fellow church members because all of us are sinners and imperfect in holiness. But instead of becoming angry or offended, I should see such offenses as an opportunity sent from God to perfect me and save my soul. Imagine what church would be like if we all practiced this kind of asceticism. Church would be heaven, the Kingdom of God on earth.

Work is my monastery. It is here that I must practice forgiveness, patience, stillness, and the crucifixion of my ego and pride. Offenses will come from my boss and my co-workers. But instead of becoming angry or offended, what if I saw these offenses as an opportunity sent from God to perfect me and save my soul. Imagine then what work would be like.

I will admit that asceticism is uncomfortable. It is the cross that I am called to carry and no cross will be comfortable. I have a male ego, and it does not want to submit to my wife. I have pride, and I don’t want my weakness to be on display to church members (after all, I am THE PRIEST!!!). What will church members think of me if they knew what a bozo I really am, and that I am in fact I really am “the chief of sinners?” I remember a story that I read where a Bishop committed some sin. He stood on the amvon and confessed his unworthiness. He would not be a bishop anymore. The people would not hear of it, for they knew this man, and how he had loved them, served them, and protected them. So, they shouted to the bishop that he was “axios” -worthy. In his humility, the bishop said that he would only remain bishop on one condition: Until God told him otherwise, each Sunday at the end of the liturgy, he would lay across the threshold of the Church. The congregation would then leave by stepping over him. They reluctantly agreed, and for a long time the congregation did this and they cried as they stepped over their beloved hierarch. I don’t remember how long this went on, but eventually God brought healing to the soul of the Bishop.

Yes, stillness, repentance, forgiveness, the crucifixion of our egos is painful, but necessary. I don’t live in a monastery, but God has made my home my cell; God has made my church my cell; God has made the world my cell. Like all ascetics, I must crucify myself to the world, but even more, the world must be crucified to me. There is no other way to salvation.


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