Sunday, April 11, 2021

Met. Tikhon: a call to the angelic life

(OCA) - A Call for Monastic Vocations, on the Anniversary of the Monastic Tonsure of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon

From a Monastic of the Orthodox Church in America

Enter eagerly into the treasure-house that lies within you, and so you will see the treasure-house of heaven; for the two are the same, and there is but one single entry to them both. — Saint Isaac the Syrian

Today on April 7th, the commemoration of the repose of Saint Tikhon of Moscow, the faithful of the Orthodox Church in America congratulate His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon, on the liturgical anniversary of his monastic tonsure. We extend to him the greeting given to every newly-tonsured monastic: “May you be saved in the angelic life!”

What is this “angelic life”? The life of every monastic rests upon the four pillars of chastity, poverty, obedience, and stability. These are the ascetic disciplines undertaken by the monk that redirect his love of self and the world to love of God and neighbor. These are the pillars of his inner treasure house; the floor is repentance, and the walls are made of the stones of prayer. Repentance, prayer, and ascetic labors lead monastics to the “life of the angels.”

But are monastics “angelic people” set apart from the rest of the faithful? While monastics function as icons of the angelic life within the Church, we are fundamentally sinners seeking contrite and humble hearts. The aim of monastic life is sublime, but the road towards that goal is rough and rocky: we monastics struggle to love our brothers or sisters in Christ, struggle to submit to our abbot or abbess, and struggle to confront our own passions. Sins abound within the monastery, and monastics, for the most part, are ordinary people; we have simply chosen the monastery as the setting in which to pursue our salvation. One of the more surprising things experienced by people when they make a pilgrimage to any of our monasteries for any period of time is that monks can be cranky. In the imaginings of many a visit to a monastery is going to be a life-changing experience peopled by levitating, effulgent beings whose honeyed words will sweeten our lives towards a certain theosis. Not so. There is much wisdom in our cenobitic grounds, but they are not perfect people and the realization of that should not shake your faith.

We must all choose the arena in which to pursue our salvation. Each of the faithful should ask at some point in our formative years: “Will I best learn to give my heart to God in the monastic life, or in family life?” Those who chose monastic life do so, not because we are innately holier than the faithful in the world, but because we feel that the monastery, with its rule of prayer and ascetic discipline, provides the tools we need for transformation in Christ. What about you? Is your own heart calling you to the monastery? Or are you called to support someone for whom the monastery is the gate of salvation?

Once we begin asking ourselves these questions, the most important thing we can do is to visit the monasteries; visit the monasteries; visit the monasteries! When monastic pilgrimage becomes a normal part of life in the Church, young people will naturally consider the monastic path, without pressure or anxiety. Every time you make a monastic pilgrimage, you enrich your own spiritual life and also support those with a monastic vocation. If you have a monastery near your home, God has truly blessed you; if you must travel a great distance, God will grant you great grace for the effort you make.

God calls us all to Himself: He desires to make each of our hearts a treasure-house in which He dwells, as in heaven, whether we live in the world or in the monastery. Truly beautiful is the way He has intertwined these two forms of the one Christian life: the faithful send loved ones to the monasteries, and the monasteries support the faithful with prayer. As we remember the anniversary of Metropolitan Tikhon’s monastic tonsure, we give thanks to God for his loving service to the Church. His example reminds us that while only a few monastics will become bishops, every monastic serves the Body of Christ. At the same time, we monastics give humble thanks for the support the faithful give to us. Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us support one another! Come to the monasteries and enter into the waters of prayer for whatever amount of time God grants us to be together. Perhaps you will unknowingly strengthen someone on their monastic path. Perhaps your heart will call you to stay and pursue your salvation in this place.

A word from the Chancery of the Orthodox Church in America: parishes and faithful should consider supporting our monastic communities financially, but also in prayer and service. Additionally, as the author mentions, parishes and faithful should work together with local monasteries in order to organize pilgrimages and retreats for adults and youth at these communities.


  1. Fr. Schmemann, 40 years ago, echoes my thoughts today which are probably even more true today.

    "More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:

    –get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);

    –while working, pray and seek inner peace; do no get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;

    –after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;

    –always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov). Keep at that kind of service and be–in church matters–totally obedient to the parish priest.

    –do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;

    –read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly (this point needs more precise definition);

    –if friends and acquaintances invite you because they are close to you–go; but not too often, and within reason. Never stay more than one and a half or two hours. After that the friendliest atmosphere becomes harmful;

    –dress like everybody else, but modestly, and without visible signs of a special spiritual life;

    –be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. If you act that way, everything will be to your benefit;

    –do not seek a spiritual elder or guide. If he is needed, God will send him, and will send him when needed;

    –having worked and served this way for ten years–no less–ask God whether you should continue to live this way, or whether change is needed. And wait for an answer: it will come; the signs will be “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.”

    Entry for Tuesday, January 20, 1981 in his Journals

    1. But then by the same token similar advice could be given to candidates for the priesthood or other orders. Learning humility and service to God and to the community is vital for both groups. However, this is not to imply that this is the only way to building toward monastic life. Believe me in monasticism working hard soon enough diminishes the attraction of the externals, since they of themselves will not sustain. Wise spiritual fathers and mothers can aid in the process of learning to be real with God.

  2. It's striking how much Fr. Schmemann seems to disdain monks and monasteries.

    I believe Metropolitan Jonah said that the best time to come to a monastery is when you're about 25 years old, having spent a little time in the world and perhaps having completed a college degree if you're able. If you feel a calling, then it's best to test it out as soon as possible. Incidentally, that's exactly what Metropolitan Tikhon did. We probably wouldn't have Met. Tikhon today if he had followed Fr. Schmemann's advice. I've heard many monasteries won't even consider new vocations for people over the age of 40.

    Fr. Schmemann seems to encourage a secret "monasticism" without actually being a monk and without actually living in obedience in a monastery. That's just living in your head. Anyone following his advice will probably end up leaving the church or end up with emotional problems and becoming exactly the kind of sad vaudeville he so disdained. Monasteries actually exist for people who want to be monks.

  3. Joseph, he actually supported monasticsm. But he reacted to the external piety/liturgical dress-up, the escapism, hatred of the body/sex, and dominance it had in church life at the time.

    I think that the quote that James mentions is actually pretty close to the early desert hermetic life that you find in the Life of Anthony.

    For an indepth examination of Schmemanns relationship I would suggest the following talk/transcript:

    1. Monasticism was a reform to go back to the early church way of life by escaping the issues with the "Christian culture", the quote seems to be jive with Merton & Maria of Paris of the need to come back into the world as its possible to live this in our secular society.

    2. I would especially look at Met Jonah's comments...

    3. Thanks for posting this Michael L, I was not aware of it. Vassa quotes Schmemann:

      "...monasticism was a departure from life and its cares for the sake of prayer. It was not a matter of illuminating life and its cares with prayer, nor of uniting them to prayer, not even of turning life into prayer, but it was about prayer understood as life."

      'not even of turning life into prayer, but it was about prayer understood as life', that is really helpful for me. 20 years ago when I first read St. Theophan, as much as I appreciated it I had this intuition that Fr. Schmemann put into words for me here. prayer has no *substance* if it is turned into the very substance of life - prayers life exists in *relationship* to life as a given (a gift of God). I think of the Prayer of Moses (Psalm 89) and the rest of the Scripture that a certain kind of Orthodox piety seems to almost bypass in its "romanticism" & "individualism" as Fr. Schmemann put it and is so much distance from my life and the life(s) of the prayer of the Psalms...

    4. To add to the above, when thinking of a false 'prayer understood as life' I point to recent much discussed pietistic reactions to IVF, vaccines, celiac disease, virus vectors, etc. Where is the *life* in a piety that opposes these realities with fantasies of Thrice Blessed Spoons and Architecture?? It's pure escapism dressed up in Byzantine cosplay...

    5. Throughout the world, monastics wear special robes. Each Catholic order has its peculiar robes - same with Buddhist monks, and whatever counterparts to monasticism exist in Hinduism and Sufi Islam. Since the beginning of the world, wherever there were people there was religion, and wherever there was religion, there were religious orders that dressed in special robes.

      Get over it, ye 60s modernists! The Byzantine cosplay is normal human behavior. The notion that everyone should wear matching boring modern clothes is communism - it is the monasticism of Chairman Mao.

    6. Appealing to "normal human behaviour" is hilarious, particularly here.

    7. Andrew, I think the 60's catholic experemints shows that "dressing down" doesn't solve the "liturgical dress-up" pretentiousness / empty aesthetics.

    8. Michael L., thanks for the link. Having read it, both Metropolitan Jonah and Sister Vassa seem to explain away Fr. Schmemann's disdain for monasticism as being attributed to a general lack of (canonically acceptable to the OCA) monasteries at the time. Perhaps that's fair enough.

      Yet it's interesting how Sister Vassa points out that Fr. Schmemann's views on monasticism took a turn towards disdain at about the time he wrote his book on liturgical theology (probably the most destructive book he wrote). Perhaps this is because his biggest critics of that book were monks. Insightful also are Sr. Vassa's comments about Fr. Schmemann's disdain for repentance and hearing confessions, and how he shockingly overlooks and misses the central topic of repentance in regards to monasticism.

      Yet to say that he somehow supported monasticism is curious. What are the examples? Sorry, I completely fail to see the fruit of his support for monasticism. Even Metropolitan Jonah recalls the seeming incongruity of himself starting a monastery and having been a student of Fr. Schmemann.

    9. "...about Fr. Schmemann's disdain for repentance and hearing confessions, and how he shockingly overlooks and misses the central topic of repentance in regards to monasticism..."

      Joseph, you clearly are not a fan of Fr. Schmemann for reasons you have not stated. That said it is typical of *most* priests to "disdain confession" and what passes for Orthodox pietistic repentance in today's (and yesterday's) church. Several reasons for this, including a generalized immaturity in the Faith on the part of most parishioners, the conflation of emotional/mental health with spiritual disease, unhealthy dependency/codependency and "therapeutic" confession/repentance, etc. etc.

      In the end Fr. Schmemann was not a moralist or moralistic thinker. Allow me to say that again for emphasis, Fr. Schmemann was not a moralist. Far far (far far) too much of Orthodox piety, *especially* on part of those who identify (in the end in a rather modern and thus anti-Christian fashion) with what they perceive/believe to be monastic piety, life, and "repentance", have in fact *reduced* Christian repentance to a moralism. This is something that Fr. Schmemann correctly saw as an *inversion* of what monasticism was originally and should be about, and during his life was just about all there was too it. Even today though things are better it still is all to common and the "majority opinion" as it were.

      Fr. Schmemann correctly saw that for the 99.99% of us who don't live in monasteries, it is the local parish and liturgical life (and by extension family, work, and life "in the world") where we work out our salvation, and this pietistic "monastery of the heart" tendency among too many Orthodox is a Romanticism and delusion - it actually works against our real repentance and salvation.

      Sr. Vassa points to, probably correctly, to Fr. Schmemann's not mentioning repentance in relation to monasticism. What she fails to see is that Fr. Schmemann's critique is at once more subtle and insightful: the problem is not true monastic repentance, but this false romanticism which is most Orthodox persons only relationship to said repentance. The "incongruity" Met. Jonah mentions is only on the surface, because he has a sense of this false monasticism (e.g. his byzantine drag quip)...