Monastic Social Work

Monastic Social Work

by Father Dale A. Johnson

For much of my adult life I have studied eastern monasticism. Originating in the mountains and deserts, solitary monastics migrated to the cities in the lands between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers between the 4th and 6th centuries. It was a migration born out of conflict and persecution. Persian armies and theological rivals hounded the once peaceful life of the monks. John of Ephesus and John of Tella write emotive accounts of the harsh persecutions suffered by the monks. But whatever persecution the monks suffered the urban populations suffered more. Plague, war, famine pummeled the residents of Mesopotamian cities, especially Amida (present day Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey). Monks were forced to seek refuge in the cities to escape the marauding Persian armies.

What is interesting to note, at least for me, is the response of the monks and nuns who sought refuge far away from their isolated existences on pillars and in caves and in walled off cells. They began an heroic social work in the cities. Instead of weeping over their own woes they wiped their tears and used them as oil of healing for others.

Susan Harvey writes in her book Asceticism and Society in Crisis:

“John stresses an unbroken pattern in the Aidan ascetics' social involvement, despite their flight to unfamiliar territory. The personal trial of exile, with its hazards and discomforts, was not considered a release from an ascetic's obligation to others.”

“Hala, a monk at the monastery of the Edessenes in Amida, had devoted himself for some years to caring for the destitute and strangers in the city. When the monastery was expelled and its property confiscated or hidden, Hala was beside himself, having nothing with which to comfort those in need. At once he set about finding new ways of continuing his ministry, paying no heed to the affliction of his own monastic community or to their mockery of his efforts. Rather, he collected old coats and rags from dung heaps and then cleaned and sewed them together into cushions and rugs for the poor visitors who came. "And so he found this method of carrying out his own employment, not giving up this strenuous pursuit in peace or in persecution, in the city or in exile."

This story says a lot about how we are to respond to suffering in our lives. We can either be victimized by the circumstances of life or we can allow it to become an opportunity for God to express His love for humankind through our hearts and hands. I was in an orphanage the first couple years of my life. This had a deep impact on me. Fear of abandonment often haunted me. But I also had a parallel feeling of gratefulness to God for rescuing me from disease and death. I had a choice as to how to respond to the circumstances of life. Syriac monks in my adult life have become a model for how to respond. Today I work among the poor, the neglected, abandoned, and homeless women and children in the Caribbean.

Harvey continues to explain:

“The expulsion of the Amidan monasteries carried further implications. Their absence left a burden on those who remained in Amida and its territory, that their services for the populace be continued. Thus a local recluse, who had chosen a separate life outside the city and its monastic complexes, found himself forced to leave his retreat and return. Simeon the Solitary had once been renowned for his labors in an Amidan monastery, both in private ascetic practice and in his ministry to the poor and strangers in the city.”

There is no doubt that give our lives to other causes regret and sorrow for our families and friends who often wonder why they feel left behind and often do not see us for years at a time. Serving the abject poor is a duty and obligation. Our families and families and friends have the same choice to either feel victimized or to live a life Christ has ordained for everyone. I look to our sisters and brethren in India and I am just amazed at the number of homes for the destitute, orphanages, monasteries, and institutions of charity. It should be a sign and challenge to the Syriac Orthodox of Europe and America. How many shelters, hospitals, soup kitchens, and institutions of charity are evident?

Harvey further adds:

“John of Ephesus speaks with admiration of the "underground" communities, the secret groups of ascetics exiled from their own monasteries or convents who remained in the city, residing in housing ostensibly rented for tenancy by others....Such a person was the holy Euphemia, who had for many years lived an ascetic career in Amida with her daughter Maria. She followed a private rule of austerity in her own life (John of Ephesus and others would beg her to show herself some of the kindness she so liberally bestowed on others) and, at the same time, with Maria's aid devoted herself day and night to ministering to the city's poor, sick, homeless, and afflicted. There seemed no corner of the city or its environs unknown to her, and no one person, rich or destitute, citizen or stranger, whose life had not been touched by her grace and charity.”

Where are the saints among us today? I know they are among us because Christ is alive. What we should be doing is seeking and searching out those who are living the gospel in this way and support them.

The other day I visited a local jail. It is a third world prison. Women and men were housed together. Police has rounded up single woman on the streets who could not give the police money. It was a horrible injustice against people who were destitute. The jail had no food and water for these women. The police expected their families to come and feed them. One women was sick with AIDS. Her family had disowned her. I gave money to fed her and the others. A few days later her family came and thanked me for helping her. We prayed together and they took her home.

Today we live in times of economic crisis. Wars have flared up around the world. More people are displaced and suffering famine than at any other time in history. Diseases like the SARS and AIDS are decimating entire nations. What should be our response? To hunker down and hide in the cities or to reach out like these heroic monks and nuns of the ancient past? If there ever is a time to reach out to the poor, the pilgrim, and the stranger it is in times such as now.



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