Sunday, 31 August 2014

WHAT ARE WE LACKING?

Matthew 19: 16-26

At that time, a young man came to Jesus, knelt before Him and said, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones? Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honour your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ ” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

***
It is commonplace to hear Christians say that we are living in a society that is becoming less and less moral. In my darkest moments (which are many), I often think the same thing. But in my more clear-sighted moments, I think this is wrong. When I think of the horrendous and barbarous deeds of past ages, I am thankful for living in England in the twenty-first century.

But perhaps “moral” is the wrong word; maybe moralistic would be a better term to use. These days, one has only to light up a cigarette to be met with jeers and contemptible looks or harsh criticism. If one has a momentary lapse and succumbs to one passion or another, or shows any sign of weakness, he is likely to be condemned forever as a bad person. Our so-called “immoral” society is ready to condemn all manner of sin (or should I say sinners), even if that is a word that would not so readily be used. And of course that would not be the preferred nomenclature. For sin can be forgiven, but moralists are not keen on forgiveness: they are more interested in passing judgement. 

From a moralist point of view, the rich young man in today’s Gospel reading was a “good person”: he had no addictions, he was not sexually immoral. He was the archetypal law-abiding citizen and religious goody two shoes. Yet deep down he knew this was not good enough. So he approaches Jesus asking what he must do to have eternal life, and he does so by addressing Jesus as “Good Master!” Our Lord’s reply is surprising: “Why do you call me good? Only God is good”. This answer alone could be the basis of a lengthy theological treatise about the divinity of Christ, His relationship to the Father and the meaning of being the Son of God. But maybe I will attempt that another time. For the purpose of this lowly sermon, our Lord’s reply forms the foundation of Christian “morality”: only God is good, because to be truly good is not to be "law-abiding", but to be holy and the embodiment of love. 

Despite this response, Christ then condescends to the moralistic mind-set of the young man, and tells him if he wants to be saved to keep the commandments. As if he is trying to narrow down the list to a few bare essentials, he asks which ones. And our Lord lists a few, including an injunction that is not one of the “Ten Commandments”, but which is to be found in Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. The young man replies, “I have done all of this since my youth. What am I still lacking?” Here the inadequacy of morality is made abundantly clear: despite keeping God’s law, he knows salvation is still far off: something is wrong, and he cannot quite put his finger on it.

St. Basil the Great’s sermon on this passage is particularly interesting, because it reveals that the young man did not in reality keep the last commandment mentioned: “love your neighbour as yourself”. This is apparent from the vast wealth which the young man possesses while surrounded by people who are poor and starving. As St. Basil explains, “whoever loves his neighbour as himself does not possess more than his neighbour”. If we truly had that kind of love, we would all give what we do not need to those who have less. Therefore our Lord tells the young man that if he wishes to be perfect he should sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, and then follow Him (following Him would have meant living as He and the apostles did: poor and homeless). This the young man cannot accept, and he walks away. He turned down the offer of salvation in order to hold on to his abundant wealth.

The rich young man was moral, but he lacked love. He kept the commandments as religious obligations, as moral rules. He did not kill, he did not steal. but he was NOT a good person. For goodness and selfishness are mutually exclusive, and this man was certainly selfish, since he was unwilling to let go of a life of luxury and privilege to help his fellow human beings.

This is what we are all lacking. We may keep the fasts; we may pray; we may be sexually chaste; we may not smoke or drink to excess; we may not be gluttons; we may not be thieves and murderers, but we are still far from the Kingdom of Heaven, because we do not have love. But worst of all: we do not even have the humility to believe that we are really lacking anything. In this sense, we are worse than the rich young man, because he at least realised that something was amiss.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

BEARING THE CROSS

Today, we began our preparation for the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross (14th September) with the katavasies of the Cross chanted in the Sunday Matins service. Our preparation is intensified on the Sunday before the Cross, and is later reflected upon in an "after-feast" (the Sunday after the Elevation).
 
The month of September has been described as "the month of the Cross", since it is dominated by this feast, on which we celebrate the finding of the true Cross upon which our Lord was crucified. This is not just cause for an annual celebration: it is an opportunity - particularly next month when we celebrate the beginning of the Church Year on 1st September - to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. 
 
At the heart of the Gospel is the invitation to follow Christ to the Cross. As we hear our Lord say on the Sunday after the Elevation:
“Whoever wishes to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”. (Matt. 16:24)
Despite this, many try to “sell” Christianity or their particular denomination with promises of happiness, self-improvement, or even wealth. But true Christianity has nothing to sell. Instead, it promises hardship and suffering. Christ said:
“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you… If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18-20)
“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me”. (Mark 13:12-13)
If you are a Christian because you are looking for happiness, you are following the wrong religion. Ours is the religion of the Cross. We are Christians because we believe Christ is the way, the truth and the life, even if it means suffering and death. We are the religion of martyrdom; we are not of this world.
 
But there is another aspect of Christianity which we must also bear in mind: ours is a religion of mercy and compassion: we should condescend to human weakness. But unfortunately, because we are the religion of the Cross, many Orthodox give the impression that in our Church only the strong survive. But as St Paul says:
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” (Rom. 14:1). 
We are called to bear not only our own cross, but also the cross of others. Again, in the words of St Paul:
“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ”. (Gal. 6:2)
Our insistence that others should endure hardship with unfailing heroism destroys the faith of many. In response to every problem and misfortune, to every ill and evil we face, we often hear or give the answers: “It is God’s will; it is good for your humility; just pray and be patient and trust in God; what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

But what doesn’t kill us does not always make us stronger: it often makes us weaker, more bitter, more inept at coping with adversity. Everyone has a breaking point, and few of us have the patience of the saints. Yet we are expected to endure things beyond our strength, and the result can be catastrophic. Yes, we are the Church of the Cross, but we are not an insensitive, heartless, thoughtless Church are we? Surely there is room for weakness; surely there is forgiveness for failure. 

Are we exemplifying the sensitivity and compassion which we see in Christ? Or are we the kind of Church that would have excommunicated St Peter when He denied Him? The kind of Church that would not have received the Prodigal, that would not have received the tax collectors, prostitutes and adulterers whom Christ forgave without hesitation? 

Yes, we are the Church of the Cross, but we are also the Church of compassion and mercy. Take away the Cross, and we end up a wishy-washy, sentimentalist Church that would never produce saints and martyrs. But take away the compassion and mercy, and we end up a harsh, heartless Church that would never allow time for Christians to grow into saints.

We need the Cross to be true Christians, but we also need a heart. Without both of these, there can be no true Christianity and no salvation. 

May Christ remove our heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26), and teach us to take up His Cross and follow Him by exemplifying His compassion and self-denial. Amen.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

CELIBACY AS A VOCATION

Lecture at the High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon,
Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius
14th August 2014

Whenever one raises the issue of celibacy, he is bound to find himself involved in a debate on priesthood and marriage. But the purpose of my talk is to address celibacy on a wider level, both in its extension to laypeople, and in consideration of sexual continence within marriage. Furthermore, I intend to discuss celibacy as a legitimate vocation for both clergy and laity in the Orthodox Church, and also the revision of monastic models in the Orthodox Church.

With this in mind, I will address celibacy as a vocation in four contexts:

1) Sexual continence within marriage and priestly celibacy
2) Chastity in widowhood
3) Virginity in the world
4) Monasticism

Sexual continence within marriage and priestly celibacy

For centuries, many Orthodox have considered monasticism the only legitimate form of celibacy, and in regard to clerical celibacy, there is still a widespread opinion in the Orthodox Church that it is just plain wrong. It is nonetheless evident that the early Church embraced and encouraged multiple models of celibate life: sexual continence within marriage, chastity in widowhood, virginity in the world, and monasticism.

Many think of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as being on two opposite ends when it comes to priestly celibacy, but this is not altogether true. While the Eastern Church never prohibited married clergy, there were differences of opinion concerning whether married clergy should continue to have sexual relations with their wives after ordination. The earliest evidence of imposed absolute continence within marriage for clergy is the 33rd canon of the Council of Elvira, held in Spain in 305 A.D.:

“It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this, shall be deprived of the honour of the clerical office.”

A similar statement is made in the 3rd canon of the Council of Carthage in 390 A.D.:

“It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep… It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.”

In addition to these local councils, there is a legend concerning a debate regarding the sexual continence of married clergy at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., handed down by the 5th century historians, Socrates and Sozomen. The original account comes from Socrates, who recounts an episode concerning Paphnutius, who supposedly intervened at the Council of Nicaea to oppose any plan to impose the discipline of absolute continence on all married clergy. Paphnutius was bishop of a city in Upper Thebes. He was renowned as a worker of great miracles, and had lost one of his eyes during the persecution. According to Socrates:

“It seemed fitting to the bishops to introduce a new law into the Church, that those who were in holy orders, I speak of bishops, presbyters and deacons, should have no conjugal relations with the wives whom they had married while still laymen. Now, when discussion on this matter was impending, Paphnutius having arisen in the midst of the assembly of bishops, earnestly entreated them not to impose so heavy a burden on the ministers of religion: asserting that ‘marriage itself is honourable and the bed undefiled’, urging before God that they not injure the Church by too stringent restrictions. “For all men”, he said, “cannot bear the practice of strict continence, neither perhaps would the chastity of the wife of each be preserved”, and he termed the relations of a man with his lawful wife “chastity”. It would be sufficient, he taught, that those inscribed into the clergy be no longer permitted to marry according to the ancient tradition of the Church: but that none should be separated from her to whom, while yet not ordained, he had been united.
The whole assembly of the clergy assented to the reasoning of Paphnutius: they therefore silenced all further debate on this point, leaving it to the discretion of those who were husbands to exercise abstinence towards their wives if they so wished.”[1] 

This text indicates that absolute continence was a practice which was lived, at least among some of the clergy, though evidently not by all. Temporary continence was already widely practiced by clergy and laity alike, but the “new law” which the bishops were trying to introduce into the Church and which Paphnutius opposed was one that imposed absolute continence upon all the clergy. It is also worth noting that in the 5th book of the same Ecclesiastical History, Socrates reports that the bishops and clergy in the East abstain from their wives freely and of their own accord, in contrast with certain regions (he names Thessaly, Thessalonica, Macedonia and Greece) where sanctions were applied if absolute continence was not lived. 

This account of Paphnutius is almost certainly a fabrication (it is not reported by any Church Fathers), yet it does serve to illustrate the existing differences of opinion and practice concerning the chastity of clergy within marriage, and it also suggests a pre-existing notion that absolute religious devotion and sexual continence go hand-in-hand, whether one is married or not. 

All of this is important to our subject for two reasons. First, it illustrates that the early Church did not consider priesthood to be incompatible with marriage and family. The early Church never forbade priesthood to the married, even if some believed married clergy should abstain from sex after ordination. Second, celibacy (be that men who chose to remain virgins and did not enter into marriage or the sexual continence of married clergy after ordination), was not only permitted, but greatly encouraged. This is in stark contrast to a prevalent attitude amongst the Orthodox today that clerical celibacy is a Roman Catholic innovation. In many Orthodox countries, celibate clergy are expected to enter monastic orders, but clearly both celibacy outside of monasticism and marriage were equally viable options for clergy in the early Church. 

It is not until the Council of Trullo, known also as the Qunisext Council, held in Constantinople in 692 A.D. that we begin to see a departure from earlier practice as well as a deepening division between East and West. In addition to affirming the right of married men to become priests while accepting also unmarried clergy living “in virginity”, the Quinisext Council prescribed excommunication for any priest who abandoned his wife, and absolute continence within marriage was discouraged. Yet at the same time it prohibited bishops not only from conjugal relations, but even cohabitation with their wives, requiring they be sent to a monastery. We see in the Council of Trullo, which is the basis for present Eastern Orthodox practice, not only a departure from the practice of the Latin Church, but also a departure from earlier Eastern practice. While in previous centuries, councils and Church Fathers made no distinction between bishops, presbyters and deacons in regard to marriage, the end of the 7th century marks a clear division between bishops and other clergy in the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

Whatever the reasons for this change, what is clear is that celibacy continued, and still continues, to be part and parcel of clerical ministry. Whether one restricts sexual continence to higher clergy or extends it to all, it is undoubtedly ingrained in the Church’s psyche that sexual continence is the superior way. 

However, all of this has ultimately done little to safeguard the integrity and purity of the clergy. The Church has always fallen into the danger of thinking of chastity and purity in exclusively sexual terms. But a sexually chaste bishop can be as corrupt as the next person. One’s celibacy does not vouchsafe his integrity as a Christian. It is therefore for good reason that many Orthodox question the present position of the Orthodox Church that the episcopate should be restricted to the unmarried. Are we overlooking far more virtuous candidates because we are blinkered by an obsession with sexual continence? Furthermore, the focus of the Orthodox Church today is not on sexual continence, as it was in the ancient Church, but marriage itself. But being unmarried is no guarantee of sexual continence, and marriage does not rule out chastity. 

The reason the early Church encouraged celibacy within marriage was that it saw celibacy as a vocation, not necessarily in contrast to marriage, but often in conjunction with it. Having raised a family, the cleric was expected within the framework of marriage and family life to commit himself to the things of the Spirit. 

As for unmarried clergy, the Church never thought of the celibate priest as a mere bachelor, free to do as he pleased. Rather, he was to be committed to prayer and care for his flock. A clergyman who forgoes the obligations of marriage and family only to give his time to other things which are not of the Spirit is failing in the vocation of celibacy, and so it is no wonder that many married clergymen are far more committed and fruitful in their ministry than unmarried clergy. The argument that celibacy in and of itself enables the priest to give more time to priesthood does not stand up. In fact, when a priest has a wife and grown children who are committed to the Church, together with them a married priest can achieve far more than any unmarried cleric. Priesthood is one vocation, and celibacy is another. If one’s celibacy means greater dedication to pastoral ministry or spiritual life, then it is a vocation which complements and supports the vocation of priesthood, just as marriage complements and supports the priesthood of married clergy.

Chastity in Widowhood

Chastity in widowhood goes back to biblical times. The most notable example is the Prophetess Anna, who, according to St Luke the Evangelist, “had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” (Luke 2:36-37).

Generally speaking, in Old Testament times widows were not encouraged to remain in chastity, but to remarry. If there was no unmarried next of kin to marry them and care for them, female widows were amongst the poorest and most vulnerable members of Jewish society. Hence the Lord’s frequent championing of widows in the Old Testament. It is not until the New Testament that widows were encouraged to not remarry but to commit themselves to a celibate life. Their role within the Church was notable. Widowhood, at least for women, had come to be seen as a vocation in itself. We perhaps see the beginnings of female monasticism in the role of female widows in the early Church. Their dedication to ceaseless prayer and their poverty certainly point to monasticism in an idiorhythmic form. They lived in their homes, but not in isolation from the church community.

In St. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy, the author advises young widows to remarry, and for widows from the age of sixty to be placed on the “list of widows”. It would appear that the purpose of this list was to help those widows who were living in poverty and had no family to support them. From this epistle it is also clear that widows were expected to be devoted to good deeds and the service of the Church. It is also apparent that as an order, widowhood was a role for women rather than men. This is probably due to the fact that women were financially dependent upon men; they could not inherit property or find employment, and so female widows were destitute and required special care.

While chastity in widowhood was never imposed upon men or women, widowed clergymen were not, and in general, are still not permitted to re-marry. This position is supposedly based upon St Paul’s exhortation that clergy should be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2). It is arguable that St Paul has been misunderstood, and that he was referring to polygamy, rather than the remarriage of widows, but when we consider the prevalent mindset of the early Church regarding the sexual continence of married clergy, it stands to reason that the same principle applied to widowed clergy.

Many today question the Orthodox Church’s prohibition of widowed clergy entering a second marriage, particularly in cases where the cleric is young with small children. It is my opinion that the question must be raised within the broader context of the Church’s stand on whether married clergy must live in absolute continence. The majority of Orthodox today would argue that this is not required, following the principles laid down in the Council of Trullo. If that is the case, then it seems to me that there is no good reason to insist on the rule that a widowed clergyman is forbidden to remarry and remain a priest. The problem here is that we are trying to preserve an outmoded model of sexual continence by reinventing that rule in the form of the prohibition of a second marriage for widowers, all the while denying that sexual continence is required of married clergy after ordination. In other words, the reason for the prohibition of a second marriage is no longer applicable, unless we are going to insist that all married clergy must live in sexual continence.

Virginity in the World

Virginity in the world is another model of celibacy we find in the Old Testament and the early Church. As with widowhood, so with virginity, it appeared to be a “role” associated mostly with women, but male celibacy was also a sign of dedication to God in both the Old and New Testaments. It was a form of commitment to spiritual life which predates monasticism. For both men and women virginity was a sign of complete commitment to God. It was never exclusive to priestly ministry. Rather, anyone who was to be ordained was expected already to be an example of either the married or the celibate life. In other words, celibacy was a form of lay dedication, not simply a model for priestly life. Priesthood itself was not and is not a model of Christian life, but a vocation that is strengthened and nurtured within the models of marriage and celibacy. None of these excluded the others.

Unfortunately, we have not inherited any particular rules for celibate life in the world. That is to say, no guidelines for prayer life or activities for virgins and widows have ever been written. This is no doubt due to the fact that there was no “common life” for celibacy in the world. It is probably for this reason that celibacy in the world became less and less popular as monasticism became more established. Today, the dangers of the freedom of celibacy are even greater. While celibacy was always viewed as a vocation, it never enjoyed the stability that married and monastic life afford. It is all too easy for one who has chosen lifelong celibacy to become unruly and undisciplined in his or her prayer life or to become dissolute.

In the case of priestly celibacy, to some extent priesthood itself can provide some stability to celibate life, but this is sadly not always the case. Parishes do not often provide a spiritual support to those living in celibacy. A priest may be hard at work all week without attending a single church service; he could end up spending more time involved in parish festivals than prayer; his week could be focused on his computer more than his church. This freedom may be what appeals to many clergy who opt for celibacy, but this is not celibacy as a vocation; it is simply freedom without spiritual purpose. St Paul writes:

“An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs - how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife - and his interests are divided.” (1 Cor. 7:32-34)

To this, we must add: if the unmarried man’s interests are also divided, then what is the purpose of his celibacy? I fear that some still see celibacy as the superior way for clergy because it means they can “work” more hours. But is this the purpose of celibacy? What happens when prayer, spiritual study, preparing sermons, catechism, confession, and church services, come to be seen not as the priest’s “work”, but as extra curricula activity? What happens when the church office is considered more important than worship, pastoral work, mission and prayer? Celibacy becomes not a vocation, but a void that needs to be filled.

If it is difficult enough for celibate clergy to find a healthy balance, then it can be all the harder for laypeople choosing to live celibate lives in the world. There is need for discipline if one is to use celibacy as a means of spiritual dedication. But here I am in danger of using the words “spiritual” and “dedication” in very narrow terms. Celibacy need not be based exclusively on a monastic model. The celibate life need not be based only upon monastic ideals. For example, I have a relative who opted not to marry to dedicate her life caring for a disabled relative. Her life is chaotic and stressful. She can barely find the time and peace for lengthy prayer or spiritual study and contemplation. But I do not doubt for a second that her celibacy is a true vocation, and her sacrifice noteworthy. I would not dare even contemplate that her model of celibate life is less spiritual or committed to God than that of a nun in a monastery.

Whatever the model of celibate life in the world, if celibacy is to be a vocation, surely there must be more to it than sexual continence. Generally speaking, prayer should be the backbone of celibate life, and I am talking about more than just saying one’s daily prayers in the morning and evening. Of course, the advice of one’s spiritual father is of great importance. Whereas anchorites had already achieved a high level of spiritual prowess, usually after a significant amount of time in a monastic community, those living the celibate life in the world do not usually have this experience. In the absence of an abbot, a spiritual father can fill this role for those living in chastity in urban society. But again the problem is the great variety facing chastity in the world. One’s job and environment are not always conducive to celibacy as a vocation, and they are not often things we have much choice in. But certainly prayer and the study of Scripture, acts of charity, and church attendance are all fundamental not only to those living in chastity but to all Christians. For those living in chastity these basic Christian activities should be intensified. It is therefore fundamental that one views his or her celibacy as an opportunity for religious devotion, and not merely as freedom from the cares of marriage and family. In marriage and monasticism, there is a sacrifice of freedom and self-will. If this sacrifice is missing from celibate life, it is no longer a vocation on a par with marriage and monasticism. Therein lies the danger of celibate life in the world: marriage and monasticism demand self-sacrifice, while celibacy leaves it to the will of the individual. One must therefore be very careful that celibacy is chosen for the right reasons: it must be embraced for selfless reasons. This applies not only to those who choose to live in chastity without any connection to a monastery, but also to clergy who are tonsured monks only to become parish priests. It is all too easy for such monks to use their tonsure as a justification of celibate life while forgoing most of the sacrifices required of the monk. Tonsure is the sign of a commitment, not the commitment itself.

Monasticism

This brings us to the final model of celibacy: monasticism. There are three well-known models of monastic life: Cenobitic, eremitic (known also as anchorite), and semi-eremitic (sometimes called idiorhythmic). The latter two in particular are associated with hesychasm: a life given almost exclusively to prayer and solitude. A model less well-known in the Orthodox Church is urban monasticism, though this is a broader concept which could be included under the models of cenobitic or idiorhythmic monasticism.

The cenobitic model

The cenobitic model of monasticism is by far the best known. It means life in a monastic community, under the spiritual guidance of an abbot, where there is a common life of prayer, shared resources and meals, and work. Its greatest exponents are St Pachomius and St Basil the Great. The cenobitic model is deemed the safest form of celibate life, since it involves routines and brotherhood. It provides a structure of worship, food, work and prayer. Furthermore, in brotherhood, monks and nuns are compelled to deal with many passions that isolation does not compel us to face. For this reason, St John Cassian and St John of the Ladder urge those who suffer from the passion of anger to avoid solitary monasticism, where the passion will simply be hidden rather than overcome. Only when we have learned to practice the Christian virtues in relationship with others can we move on to more solitary forms of monastic life.

The eremitic or anchorite model

The earliest model of monasticism is the eremitic model, which is a life of solitiude, associated mostly with deserts. This model was inspired by the prophets Elijah and John the Forerunner. Its founder and greatest exponent is St Anthony the Great, while St Mary of Egypt is the best known female anchorite. Although this is the oldest model of monasticism, it is nowadays usually discouraged before a great deal of monastic experience in the cenobitic life for reasons I have already touched upon. Its purpose is complete liberation from all earthly concerns and all distractions in order for one to commit himself or herself entirely to prayer and contemplation. A more troubling aspect of this model is less frequent participation in worship and Holy Communion, things which hold a central position in other monastic models.

The semi-eremitic or idiorhythmic model

The semi-eremitic model is a compromise between the cenobitic and eremitic models. It usually involves a small number of monks or nuns living somewhere beyond but near to the monastery grounds. It is possible that this model was developed to resolve the danger of isolation from common worship and Holy Communion that we find in the eremitic model. It is known that St John of the Ladder began monastic life within this model, before moving on to the eremitic life, and decades later becoming abbot of the monastic brotherhood of St Catherine on Sinai. Monks of the semi-eremitic life would live in cells – houses with a small church, where 1-3 monks live under the spiritual and administrative supervision of the monastery. Usually, each cell possesses a piece of land for agricultural or other use. Each cell has to organize some activities for income, usually agriculture, fishing, woodcarving, spirit distillation, iconography, tailoring, or book binding. The monks living in a cell, having to take care of all daily chores, make up their own schedules.

As cells attracted more and more monks, some grew into larger monastic settlements known as sketes. Some of these became monastic brotherhoods, while others remained idiorhythmic sketes. Such a skete is mentioned in "History of the Egyptian Monks". The author, who visited Egypt in the fourth century, writes:

"Then we came to Nitria, the best-known of all monasteries of Egypt, about forty miles from Alexandria... In this place there are about fifty adwellings, or not many less, set near together and under one father. In some of them, there are many living together, in others a few and in some there are brothers who live alone. Though they are divided by their dwellings they remain bound together and inseparable in faith and love".

While the basis of all three models of monasticism is separation from the world, or rather, urban society, it is worth noting that in all three we find also the principle of returning to the world. St Anthony the Great opened his doors to countless visitors who came to hear his words or be healed of their sicknesses. St Basil the Great, after a few years as a monk in Anisa, returned to the city to become a priest and then a bishop, and tried to bring the monastic principle of shared resources to bear upon urban society. There is a sense that monasticism is not the end in itself, but the means to an end. The monastery, or skete or desert, are the training ground of the monk or nun, but it is not necessarily the case that one’s monasticism is bound to it. But it seems to be that the only reason for a monk to leave his monastery is to become a priest or bishop. But is it possible for monasticism to exercise a more direct role within urban society?

Urban monasticism

As Bishop of Caesaria, St Basil the Great founded the Basiliad: practically a city within a city, where monks worked together with other laypeople to heal the sick, feed the poor, and instruct people in Christian living. The monks worked for their living, but were completely committed to a life of prayer and charity. While it may be unrealistic to expect to see such a monastic community again, is it not possible to set up monasteries which, like the Basiliad, will offer an urban and engaged form of monasticism? Orthodox monasteries seem to all be hesychastic or semi-hesychastic, remote and rural. Perhaps a more urban and engaged monasticism, particularly for unmarried clergy who may feel called to monasticism but not of the remote and rural variety, would be very helpful - not only to those who would like a more idiorhythmic, urban and engaged monastic life, but also to the cities which such monasteries would inhabit.

Urban monasteries could act as a base and habitation for unmarried clergy, as well as nuns who can operate in the local parishes as teachers and spiritual guides. Such monasteries could function also as archbishoprics, seminaries and publishing houses. Monasticism will be something at work in the heart of society, and not in isolation from it, thus providing by its very existence, a witness to the society in which it lives. In the heart of a city, there would be a place crying in the urban wilderness: “make straight the way of the Lord”. Perhaps it would also be possible to have a semi-eremitic model of urban monasticism, where celibate laypeople who are not monks or nuns, could live and work in close contact with a monastery, or where widows, orphans, the sick and the elderly, can find spiritual and material support. Christian laypeople could work voluntarily or as fulltime or part-time employees, for the monastery’s various needs: as librarians, accountants, seminary teachers, translators, school teachers, or working in the monastery bookstore or publishing house. Much of what the Church and its bishops did for society in late antiquity – caring for the sick, providing for the poor, teaching the faith – has been taken over by hospitals, orphanages, old people’s homes, schools and parishes. But as the modern urban world becomes more akin to a spiritual wilderness than a Christian society, St Basil’s vision of urban monasticism remains as necessary now as ever. While there is certainly a need for parishes to do more in these respects, urban monastic communities can provide a structure and way of life for monastics, unmarried clergy, widows, theology students and many others, that parishes cannot offer.

So while we may well need to rethink our views on the validity of non-monastic chastity, it may be the case that we need to rethink our monastic models as well.


[1] Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica I 11 PG 67 101b-104b