Q: Dear Fr. George: I am writing this letter out of concern for the rather negative effect that the monastic movement in America is having on some of the parishes, including my own.
In a recent interview with The Christian Activist, Archbishop Spyridon seemed to acknowledge that this problem exists in our Archdiocese today and pointed out that a parish is one thing and a monastery is another. The danger is that we might have a confusion of the roles of a monastery and of a parish..
My question is, what does the church do to prevent that confusion from taking place? Who is the spiritual leader in the community, the canonically ordained and assigned priests or a monk who invades the parishes, introduces monastic rules and ideas, recruits young people who are only technically adults to monasticism and leaves the parish in disarray? The church should be concerned when outside forces undermine the effectiveness of a parish priest by questioning his orthodoxy, and at the same time, realize that this is an issue that concerns the entire Archdiocese.
I hope you will not hesitate to address this very vital issue in your column. Because of the great sensitivity, please do not publish my name.
A troubled member of a deeply troubled community.
A: You have raised a very sensitive issue that is both challenging and needs to be addressed by our Synod of Bishops. In fact, the subject of monasticism in America was on the agenda of our Bishops’ meeting last March in New York.
Of course, you are not the first to write and point out the improprieties that are committed by certain monastic forces in our country. However, we must bear in mind that the monastic movement is very young in America, and like any new development it will experience growing pains. Inevitably, as in any other new movement, mistakes will be made, and misunderstandings will occur.
I am well aware that some of our communities are concerned that monastic practices will take over their parish life, become a divisive issue, and drive many of our people away. In their zeal to establish monasticism in America, monastic leaders, and especially some of their overzealous followers (both clergy and laity) have threatened the peace and stability in some of our parishes. This should not be.
Without question, monasticism has played a constructive role in the history of Orthodoxy. It has preserved the rich deposit of our faith handed down to us by the apostles. Monasticism has helped preserve, shape, and define Orthodoxy in its struggle against wanton innovations, heretical beliefs, and State interference.
For instance, Monasticism took the leadership and played an indispensable role against the error of Iconoclasm. The monks were in the vanguard of these battles, and they suffered the most for the sake of the Faith.
Moreover, we owe much of our beautiful liturgical life to monastic influence. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine Orthodoxy without monastic influence in iconography, hymnology, theology, and prayer life.
No Orthodox Christian could deny the immense contribution that monasticism has made to the True Faith.
The monks of Mount Athos, the holy sites in Palestine, and Mount Sinai (just to name a few) have stood as vigilant and worthy guardians of the Orthodox Faith and the countless relics, manuscripts and priceless religious artifacts for well over a thousand years. We are truly indebted to them.
So why not a monastic movement in America? Shouldn’t any right-thinking Orthodox believer welcome the opportunity to transplant monasticism in America? This writer is an advocate of such a movement. But it must be done properly and carefully, with an appreciation for the unique situation here in America. The canons and Tradition must guide us so that we avoid the confusion and tragic situation that has beset your parish and others like it.
The Archbishop is quite right. The role of the monastery is not to be confused with the role of the parish.
The Synod of Bishops should carefully study any request to start a new monastery. If and when permission has been granted, it should be made unequivocally clear to those responsible that the monastery is to function under the authority of the local bishop. Monks are not to interfere with the ministry of the parishes and the authority of the priests. Only with the permission of the bishop, should monks visit local parishes and perform any kind of ministry, including the Sacrament of Holy Confession. This rule should be followed very strictly and, when it is violated, appropriate measures should be taken by the local bishop and, if necessary, by the Synod of Bishops.
Recruiting is a very sensitive issue, and the Church leadership should carefully investigate interference in our parishes in order to avoid unnecessary strife and avoidable divisions in our communities.
Monastic life is a special calling. It is a very difficult life that calls for great sacrifice and self-denial, and hence, is not for everyone. I recall that a few years ago a young man left America to become a monk in Greece. Far from home, he found it very difficult to adjust to the rigors of monastic life and eventually succumbed to a severe case of melancholy. The Church must be very careful, if the monasteries are sanctioned by the Archdiocese, the Archdiocese becomes ultimately responsible to both the laws of the individual states and the country.
And finally, I would like to emphasize that parish priests with ties to monastic communities, either here or abroad, must remember that while serving as pastors of communities, they are to minister and behave as priests who serve laymen who live in a dynamic and challenging secular community and not members of a small and limited monastic order. The manner of grooming and clerical attire must therefore be appropriate. The life of a monk, as admirable as it is, must be lived in the monastery, not in the secular community.
MAY 5, 1997 ORTHODOX OBSERVER PAGE 9 Tell Me Father