Becoming a Monk
Ascetic Life: Christian Ideals and Personal Challenges
While every Christian is called to take up his cross and follow Christ, it is an especially wonderful thing to become a monk, to strive for the realization of the highest Christian ideal of complete self-dedication to God. This is a difficult life and not for everyone, total honesty and discernment, based on experience guided by a monastic spiritual father, is essential.
As monastics, we renounce the world, the things of this world, the ties we have to it. All of our relationships are restructured, so that we put nothing and no one before our love and service of Christ. While anyone can embrace the ascetic life, and every Christian must to some degree, the monastic life is not for everyone. The monastic life is designed to root out selfishness and egotism, along with self-will and the other passions.
Monasticism is the way of Christian perfection, the direct confrontation and war with ourselves, to exorcise and excise everything in us that is contrary to Christ, and requires great strength and spiritual sanity.
For many, the asceticism of honorable Christian marriage and family, the way of life in the world and the struggle to remain faithful to Christ and raise children as Orthodox Christians, is the path most suitable for the rooting out selfishness and egotism as the couple struggle and help each other on the way to salvation.
For yet others, life experiences in the world have left their lives deeply scarred and broken; some with diseases and addictions; others with psychological illness or disorders. These are heavy crosses. To add the cross of monasticism to them would be an asceticism too much for them to bear, making it better for them to live in the world, working out their salvation being faithful in a parish.
One cannot join a monastery expecting to be taken care of. A monastery is not a retirement home where one can live a life of leisure on the labor of others. It is not half-way house, homeless shelter or addiction treatment program. If this is your motivation, it will fail. A monastery may have ministries to people with these issues; but they cannot become monks unless those issues have been dealt with and are long resolved and in the past.
The life of a monk is one of prayer and work. It is always lots of work.
The Scriptural maxim is at the heart of the monastic ethos: He who does not work shall not eat.
Each brother needs to pull his weight through his work, attendance at services, and entering into community life. Each contributes according to his ability to the common life.
Monastic repentance is a life of being shaped and molded by the Tradition and by obedience, which means:
- Renouncing of the old self, and detaching from the identity, behaviors and attitudes that characterize life in the world
- Cutting off the will, and cutting off all behaviors contrary to Christianity: being rude, contradictory, arrogant and conceited, self-willed
- Living according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:19-24).
The monk crucifies his flesh and dies to the old man, which is corrupt through the passions of the flesh: The old man, who we were in the world, is put to death, and we have to leave him to rot in the grave.
This is the meaning of a life of repentance.
So who CAN become a monk?
Anyone committed to renounce himself, his life in the world, and embracing the life of obedience and self-denial for the sake of Christ.
Men are called to monastic life by God, and by circumstances in life.
If God is calling us, what can we do but say: Let it be to me according to Thy will. If it is the circumstances of life, perhaps that is God’s way of calling us?
On a practical level, it requires men who can work hard in whatever they are assigned to do, be obedient to the abbot without contradiction, and push themselves for the sake of their brothers. The goal is to form a united community that lives in synergy together, with the will of God.
One of the great contemporary monastic fathers, St. Ignatiy Brianchaninov, wrote that before becoming a monk, you should lead a God-pleasing life in the world. This means having been loving and obedient to your parents, not rebellious and self-willed; stable, with a solid job, debts paid, and stable relationships. It means that you have preserved your purity, at least to a great extent, and have not lived in fornication, either serial (hook ups and one night stands), or playing house with a live-in girlfriend.
A God-pleasing life means you have been honorable in your friendships and relationships, and have not given yourself over to addictive substances and behaviors. For people who have lived in a state of purity and sobriety, it is an easy transition to monastic life. For those who have not, repentance is life-giving but can be very painful. Everyone needs to repent of their past to some degree; some have a tougher road than others.
People can come to monastic life at any stage. However, 20-25 is best. It allows you to form your identity in the monastery. After 30, it gets more and more difficult, and we become set in our ways, and our personality crystalizes by 35. Obedience becomes more and more difficult over 25. While there are many who do come to the monastic life later, of necessity, their success entails a wholly different set of expectations.