Monastics are an integral part of the Church and should not be seen as independent of the Church Universal. Monks are bound by the same Gospel as other Christians and need to avail themselves to the missionary and pastoral needs of the Church, as needed. Although a primary role of monasticism is to be found in worship and contemplative prayer, monks also have a long history as missionaries.
Many of the great monasteries of Russia, as an example, where founded in remote places but became centers of pilgrimage, attracting countless people. Whole cities often formed around monasteries, precisely because the monks had reached out with the Gospel and worked among the people. Where there was a need, monks responded with charity and evangelical witness.
In these difficult times where people are suffering economic hardship, loss of jobs and foreclosure on homes, monks can bring a different perspective that can give hope to those who’ve lost all hope. Monasteries become centers of spiritual healing and empowerment. People who’ve been struggling to find meaning in their lives can walk away with a new vision, gained through the interior work of the monks who’ve availed themselves as therapists for those who are hurting.
The strength of Orthodox monasticism is not to be found in the sameness of every monastery, for each monastic community has its own expression, often quite different from other monasteries. In Greece and Russian, there are monastic communities that run printing presses, care for the elderly and infirm, run Orthodox bookstores in cities, live as hermits, run large retreat facilities, run schools, and even, on occasion, parishes.
Monasticism is not something that is mastered through academic pursuits, but is rather acquired over many years of struggle, through obedience, long nights of prayer, ascetical practice, and communal life. A monastic, who is true to his vocation, will often see himself as just a beginner, even though he’s been a monk for forty years, for he realized how far he is from the perfection that comes with total surrender to Christ.
Many would wish to see monasticism in a romantic way, with monks quietly and silently living out hidden lives, yet there are monks who work with people as spiritual fathers, preachers, teachers, participating in an active way in service to the world. Each monk, and each monastery is called apart for the service of God and His Church, as God wishes. Thus, it is dangerous ground when we judge a monastery or a monk from our own fanciful image of what we think they should be like, for even on the Holy Mountain of Athos, there are many varieties of monastic expression, none being better than the other, and all based on the prompting of the Holy Spirit, as the monk attempts to live out the evangelical life of the Gospels.
Although the Orthodox Church does not have religious orders as the Latin Church does, there are in Orthodoxy different styles of monastic life, both individually and in community. Generally speaking some monasteries may be more liturgically oriented, while others may be more ascetic, while still others may have a certain mystical tradition, and others be more inclined to spiritual guidance and openness to the world for the purpose of care and counseling. These various styles of monasticism, which take both a personal as well as a corporate form, are not formally predetermined or officially legislated. They are the result of organic development under the living grace of God.
Yet all monastics share the common vows of poverty, chastity, stability, and obedience, ever following the words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this life, “be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
With love in Christ,