Monasticism and the way of Radical Life
On this earth, peace is not an end in itself. We do not believe in an earthly utopia. There will be disagreements, violence, terrorism and wars until the end of time, for the prince of this world is still allowed to be active. As Orthodox Christians, rather than seeking peace, we are meant to seek the Lord first, and then He gives His peace to fill our lives.
In my own experience as a monastic, I find that there are several levels we have to deal with if we are going to find peace. I have heard monastics from other communities echo our own experience. In the middle of a time of incredible struggle and tension, with sisters at odds with each other and everything seeming to go wrong, visitors will arrive for a few hours or days and leave with the remark that they have found the monastery “so peaceful.” Of course in some instances this may be because the sisters have learned to behave nicely no matter what emotions and thoughts they may be hiding, but I believe it is something more than that. One of the great joys and inspirations of monastic life is to be living with people of enormous good will who truly want to be all that God wants them to be. It is amazing how such good-willed people can still offend each other, but we certainly do. If one perseveres in this life, one soon learns the sometimes bizarre lengths the devil and his minions will go to in order to cause divisions and strife in the monastery.
The “secret,” if there is one, to surviving in this environment, is never to forget that the others are good-willed; that each person is loving and striving to the utmost. Many of the monastic writers say that we should always consider others to be better than ourselves and I have found this to be very practical advice. If each woman remembers this, if she faces the struggle with the demons within herself without getting side-tracked by obsessing on what others should be like or should or should not be doing, then peace can and does reign.
This does not mean pretending hurtful behaviors and words have not been witnessed. It does mean not judging other’s motives and not holding on to grudges. It means forgiving one another from the heart “seventy times seven” each day and being willing to accept that same forgiveness for ourselves while realizing that we may be mistaken in our assessment of others and of situations.
As Orthodox Christians, we are called to spiritual warfare with all the weapons God has given us in the Church. As we persevere in this life of warfare, giving up all physical weapons of violence, we discover other levels of violence within ourselves. We do not need bombs or guns or missiles in order to kill. As each of us faces the venom within ourselves that slips out either intentionally or unintentionally in sullen looks, resentful words and hurtful actions, we may sometimes feel that the physical warfare of others may be less harmful in the eternal scheme of things. Yet no one, with the exception of the Lord Himself and His blessed Mother, has been free from this kind of sin.
I would say from my own experience that some of the angriest people I have met (and at one point I would definitely have included myself in that category) are unable to see their own anger. They become furious at the mere suggestion that they might be angry! They see themselves as very nice people — or at least as justified in their anger. We see this often in places like monasteries. People who have not faced their anger and find themselves stripped of their usual comforts and self-willed ways of doing things, can begin to act out — sometimes even in physically violent ways. But because they cannot take responsibility for their own anger, they will blame the monastery: I’m such a good, nice person. This monastery and these sisters must be evil (or today probably the word would be “sick”) because they are forcing me to act this way.
No one can force us to act out in anger. It is our own response, more or less conscious, depending on how responsible we are for our lives.
For most of us, it takes years and years before we can become fully responsible, able and willing to say: “Yes, I was angry; I did say (or do) that; I did mean to hurt that person; I’m sorry; please forgive me” — even when we believe that the other person meant to hurt us first. As we become like Christ, we come to see that retaliation is not the answer. Humanly speaking, we cannot rise above such hurts, but when we admit our powerlessness and are willing to accept the grace of Christ and grow beyond our fallen nature into His divine nature, then we also can say: “Father, forgive them.” Even when they themselves may not want or ask for that forgiveness. We forgive, not to get the final moral victory over our opponent, but in order to make room for the Lord and His peace in our hearts. We have to do this. We have to be willing radically to let go of others so they also can fall into the hands of the living God. How often do our best efforts to fix others and situations result rather in substituting our own fallen and limited solutions for the power of our all-powerful God?
This willingness to let go in love and forgiveness is the real power of martyrdom and the reason why monasticism has been called at times the way of “White martyrdom.” We give up ourselves completely, trusting that God will be able to act through us even by — or perhaps most especially by — our death — or the death of our cherished dreams. Any other motive for martyrdom, the kind born of hatred, desire for justification or revenge, etcetera, simply adds to the escalating violence — as we see so clearly in the Middle East now.
When we haven’t dealt with the roots of our anger, while we may be able to put a lid on it in certain situations, it will sit there building up steam to explode through another vent when we aren’t looking. Thus the phenomenon of the loving husband and father who is a vicious boss — or the other way around: someone who is absolutely charming at work or in church or other outside social settings, but is transformed into a monster by walking through the front door at home. I’ve heard stories from children of well-respected professionals such as doctors and even clergy, of their cowering in the closets until they knew what mood mommy or daddy would be in when they came home.
Once we have admitted our own inner anger and violence, we must pray and use every means the Lord puts at our disposal to come to terms with it. The disciplines of the monastic life aim at helping us to cut out this kind of anger. We have the opportunity to pray daily; to hear in the services the stories of others who have conquered through love and forgiveness; to be fed by the Lord’s own life of love and forgiveness through the Eucharist, to admit to our own sins and failings and receive the healing of confession; to read books by the saints as well as by contemporary professionals which can help us to understand where our own anger is coming from and how best to cut it out by the roots. And perhaps even more importantly, we have the opportunity to live very closely with other women whom we did not choose for any romantic association — strong women from many very different backgrounds. This is the arena where we learn to fight — using our anger rightly — against the thoughts and feelings that threaten to destroy us from within with a death far more deadly than any lion in the coliseum.
Looking beyond this arena of our daily life, today especially we are confronted with a world seemingly driven by anger. While it is true that many of us would hope our country would always be pure and holy and acting from Orthodox Christian principles, we need to face the fact that this did not happen even under the holy emperors of Byzantium and Moscow.
If we as Orthodox Christians cannot have unity of heart, soul and mind, how can we be surprised at or judge others who do not have the spiritual riches given to us for our salvation in the Church? The Lord said: “But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mt 5:22) I would submit that it is a far greater sin for Orthodox to engage in party spirit, whether it be on the level of party politics or ethnic-jurisdictional differences or within jurisdictions, which seminary or monastery is “more truly orthodox,” than it is for Jewish Israelis and Moslem Arabs to be killing one another with external weapons of violence. “He who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.” (Luke 12:48)
The only “label” I want to wear is that of an Orthodox Christian monastic. I will not try to define myself otherwise. For this reason, my approach to this topic has been to look to Jesus Christ as the only Way to both true monasticism and true, radical peace.
The more we try to sustain our own ideas about things, including what it means to be a monastic as well as a pacifist apart from God’s reality, the less our attempts to grow into His calling for us and to live with the peace that only He can give will be blessed with His providential empowerment.
I found that the Revised Standard Version of the Bible lists 426 references to the word “peace,” beginning with Genesis 15:15 “As for yourself [referring to Patriarch Abraham], you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” and ending with Revelation 6:4 “And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword.”
I was struck by these “bookend” references. The first suggests the nice, almost cozy type of peace our world would seem prefer. To quote the Litany of Supplication: “That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance,” finding a “painless, blameless and peaceful” ending to our life. And without this type of peace at least for some people, for some of the time in some places, life on this planet earth would be unbearable.
The second reference from Revelation gives us the other picture we face all too often in our world: God has permitted peace to be taken from the earth that men should slay one another. This is the other side of the reality we live with and if it is all that we live with, we can be driven to despair and insanity.
The literary genre begun by Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy is so immensely appealing to people, I believe, because it plays on these two contrasting themes. The hero (or band of heroes) is called to go on an epic, often super-human quest through incredible dangers, treachery, violence, warfare and ultimate tests of strength, intelligence and endurance. And this quest is necessarily interspersed with interludes of comforting peace.
The word “peace,” of course, comes from the Latin word, pax, whose root is pacisi, to agree. Without friends and supporters who in some way agree with us; with whom we share a unity of mind and soul, we can begin to doubt our sanity. Those who find themselves surrounded by constant doubt and disagreement can persevere, but only through a strong, living relationship with the Lord Who is the source of all unity, agreement and therefore, peace.
I’m sure reference must have been made to the difference between real unity and peace and superficial agreements.
I would submit that any peace, to be a true peace, must be literally comforting. We have lost the root meaning of the word in our common speech — coming from the Latin word, fortis, meaning strength, modified with the prefix com, meaning together, we understand that at their best, times of peace and comfort are meant to give us the strength and courage we need to return to our God-given, demanding tasks. “Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord,” in the prophecy of Isaiah.
Yet for us — and here is where I think we can see the danger of trying to set up definitions apart from God’s reality — comfort has degenerated to visions of soft pillows and blankets, easy chairs and walking shoes that may indeed help us to find necessary relaxation, yet may also tempt us away from our higher calling and enervate us rather than strengthen us.
And I think this is the difficulty with some approaches to pacifism. If peace for someone means being unendingly comfortable, in the common usage of that word, then I believe that person has misunderstood the nature of peace. And I believe a peace based on this assumption will not be able to stand.
Mother Raphaela is the Abbess of Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery in Otego, New York, a stavropighial monastery for women of the Orthodox Church in America. She is the author of two books,
Living in Christ, Essays on the Christian Life by an Orthodox Nun, and
Growing in Christ, both published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Her monastery website is holymyrrhbearers.com. Her paper was presented at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in June 2003.
Copyright by the author.