How should the average Orthodox Parishioner relate to monasteries?

A retreat or visit to a monastery can be a spiritually refreshing experience. There are aspects that need to be appreciated about both the parish and the monastery and their relationships to each other. Both are responsible to and under the overall care of the local hierarch with whom they and their pastor (priest for a parish; abbot/abbess for a monastery) are in communion. Both are (or should be) made up of people consciously committed to Christ and living His lifestyle (through repentance, full participation in worship, learning the Faith, prayer and reaching out to all people of the world with the Gospel, fully integrating them into the Church) as the local Eucharistic Community. In both cases the Community’s main (and ultimate) function is to organically become Christ’s presence and be an embassy for the Kingdom of God. The most obvious difference between the two is that of “lifestyle involvement,” not only in terms of having married people and families in a parish, but also jobs/careers, schedules, etc., that differ to great extent (most monastics do not work outside of the Community). The daily of cycles demanded in a monastery, because all live and work there, commonality of all goods and resources (personal non-possession of material goods), etc., do not usually take place in the Parish.

There are also some variances in Liturgical practices between the monastery and a Parish. There are liturgical variances even among monasteries themselves (most understand the difference between commonality and uniformity, preferring the former), some expressed in the language of the services (hopefully due to the recent immigration status of the monks). But it varies also in the approach to being a monastery (e.g., some are very intentional in outreach to the surrounding communities while others minister through hospitality to visitors; isolated verses near a populated area, etc.).

There are (perhaps too) many parishes that function as though personal commitment to the Gospel and real spirituality were just one (rather than the main) function among many and not even necessary for membership. Here some priests function more like chaplains performing services for the spiritual benefit of those who want them (with “pockets” of spiritually concerned indivi-duals), rather than pastors leading the “flock” with spiritually informed and committed laypeople who know the parish exists for Christ Jesus and doing His purposes. The resulting nominalism sees membership in terms of maintaining numbers (budgets and donations, etc).. “We can’t afford to lose anyone” (regardless of whether their lives touch the Gospel) is the slogan rather than “how do we become and bring others to the transforming presence of Christ.” Also some parishes are so large (compared to most monasteries) that personal pastoral contact is lost. Ecumenical studies point out that the maximum with whom one pastor, stretched to the breaking point, can remain “in touch”, is (including children) 200 persons (notice – not “units” or families). Larger parishes means many are lost “in the crowd.” Things become run as a corporation and factory. (recent studies on “Mega Churches” confirm this). A monastic community seems to be in stark contrast to this. In reaction, many people want to take almost everything they experience in visiting a monastery back to a parish. But the reality is that not everything that works in a monastery would work in a parish, even where all are fully committed to Christ, and vice versa.

Some, after visiting a monastery, react to the lack of enthusiasm for serious spiritual life in a parish to an extreme by thinking that only what monasteries do and say has any spiritual value. It is true that there are some very spiritually wise and men and women with real recognized pastoral gifts My experience is that the abbesses are just as wise, if not wiser sometimes, than their male counterparts (which points to the Church very seriously needing to somehow recognize Orthodox women who function as chaplains in other institutions). The danger is when others define spirituality by externals (e.g., having a beard and its length, always wearing a cassock, etc.) and the degree to which it resembles the “old world” and certain reactionary attitudes.

Some read about the lives of great elders and act as if everything any monastic says may be a clairvoyant word from God. In light of that, many will seek a monastic confessor as the only way for spiritual growth (sometimes, sadly, more to be able to “drop the name” of a “celebrity” with others). Monastics struggle with passions just as much as married clergy do. One must simply be discerning in any event. One priest-monk from Mt Athos told me that he refused to hear the confessions of laypeople on the “outside”. Even though he had the general blessing to hear confessions, he did not do so for quite some time because he realized he would “hear them” as he would for another monastic.

Not every abbot or abbess (or elder) is clairvoyant (and even if and when they are at times, they know that it is not in every single case). But for some, every word a poor monastic may share in response to a question is taken as the word of the Lord (even though the person asking advise has not given all the “whole story”). Going to a priest monk for confession is a matter of one’s own situation. In my own experience, since ordination it has been a blessing; while others may report penances that other confessors might find (as mentioned above) a little intense for a layperson. Again, be discerning. If a married person is told that to be saved, one should cut off all physical intimacy with one’s spouse (there is a canon condemning anyone who becomes a monk because they “despise marriage or physical intimacy”) or leave one’s family and become a monk or remain with a physically abusive spouse, -first, get clarity about what you think the person is saying and then get more input from other spiritually mature and seriously informed Orthodox Christians. There are those who (as an abbess who shared with me) value marriage (it is, in its totality, a Sacrament) and understand that family life often carries a greater “asceticism” than being a monastic. In every case, it is discernment. As in any community, monastics have a variety of perspectives, even in the extreme, depending on to whom one talks. There are those who support counseling while there others who are fearful of any “non spiritual” help for the psyche. But these are concerns among all levels of clergy and affirm the need for communication. For those who see monasteries as taking away financially from other church initiatives, maybe the question is why they (parishes, etc.) should receive support in the first place rather than trying to put all monasteries in a negative light and hinder people form visiting them. The attraction of monasteries is as a spiritual entity. For those who really want spiritual community, if they do not find that in the parish, they will go elsewhere.

Parishes and monasteries are meant to be distinct entities and supportive of each other Monasteries would not exist if not for the parishes and their prayers and families that produced its future members. And many others know the support in prayer and love by those whose lifestyle icons the One who is the true necessity and goal of our lives. The real question for the majority of Orthodox is how to become a real Eucharistic Community with not just a “pocket” of spiritually committed people but where, in its own context, the overall network of relationships that constitute the local Parish and its leadership, clearly live the prayer to “commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ, our God.”