Describing the earliest monks of Egypt St. Athanasius the Great (d. 373) wrote in his Life of St. Anthony: “… and truly it was like a land apart, a land of piety and justice. For there was neither wrong-doer or sufferer of wrong… but a multitude of ascetics, all with one set purpose-virtue.” The anonymous author of the 4th century History of the Monks of Egypt wrote: ”With them there is no solicitude, no anxiety for food and clothing. There is only the expectation of the coming of Christ in the singing of hymns.”
In the Eastern Christian tradition, monasticism has always been simply as the life of the Gospel lived fully. For the Christian Orient, this way of life has been seen as normal life, proper to all the faithful through baptism. It is normal, not in the sense that most people live it, but in the sense that it involves the accepting on earth of the life of eternity, the life of the angels, the life toward which the whole Church is proceeding in time until the fulfillment of all things in the parousia, the coming again of Christ.
Pope John Paul II has written: ”… in the East, monasticism Was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized… it was a symbolic synthesis of Christianity. ” (Orientale Lumen, no. 9)
The Life of Prayer
It is impossible, of course, to live the angelic. life without grace. So it is in the mystical, sacramental life of the Church that the monk is truly at home. The monk’s goal is the sanctification of ordinary life by the saturating outpouring of Divine Life in the Holy Spirit, from the Father through Christ. In practical terms the monastic life begins and ends in the Church, in the sacramental life of her mysteries, in her daily services and above all in the Divine Liturgy (Mass).
This mystical life of prayer must also be embodied in the ordinary things of daily life. In this the Byzantine monastic has all of Holy Scripture as his or her guide, and especially the Gospels. Our one “work” is to live the Gospel, to incarnate it on every level of our lives. Our ideal can be summarized in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:2-12) and in the command to “rejoice always and pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:16-17).
In our Byzantine tradition the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are seen as the means by which the monk may organize his life so as to incarnate the Gospel. In striving to organize his or her life solely for the pursuit of human perfection, the monk or nun can become a living icon of Christ in His divine, incarnate perfection. By giving the Church the charism of monasticism, the Holy Spirit demonstrates for all Christians that the life of the Gospel is real in every sense, real and worth striving for.
We value silence, because those who are truly poor in spirit love their own silence and emptiness in which there is room for the fullness of God’s presence. Silence is also indispensable for those who try to pray ceaselessly. The ascetic disciplines of fasting and penance, and the apostolic functions such as hospitality and alms-giving are aU ordered to reveal in monastic life the total abandonment to the God of the Beatitudes.
Unity of Eastern Monasticism
Unlike religious life in the West, Eastern monasticism has never branched out into different traditions based on the particular charisms of the founders of religious orders. Much veneration is, of course, due to the monastic writings of St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Theodore the Studite and other Fathers and Mothers of the Church, and to various monastic Typica (“Rules”). Yet Eastern monks have always been linked by the idea that their first founding document is nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, interpreted through Holy Tradition. When we look for “rules” and “constitutions” we first turn, not to legal documents, but to real people, to the perfect peace and justice of the first Church of Jerusale.m (see Acts 2:41-47 & 4:32-35), the perfect, loving obedience of the All-Holy Mother of God (Luke 1:38), and to the lives of our heroic monastic fathers and mothers.
The Eastern Monk in America
The Orthodox Churches in America have been blessed with many monastic foundations in the past century, the majority of them in the past decade. Among Eastern Catholics, however, only a few monastic foundations have been begun, and for all of us it is a great struggle to establish ourselves. It is time to take seriously the call from the Universal Church, articulated with regularity by Pope John Paul II, to restore authentic Eastern monasticism in our Byzantine Catholic Churches. His Holiness writes in Orientale Lumen (no. 27): ”With regard to monasticism, in consideration of its importance in Eastern Christianity, we would like it to flourish once more in the Eastern Catholic Churches, and that support be given to all those who feel called to work for its revitalization.”
The Pope stresses that this concern goes far beyond the Eastern Catholic Churches themselves. Members of the Latin Church should also support Byzantine monastic renewal: “This hope also concerns the territories of the Eastern diaspora, where the presence of Eastern monasteries would give greater stability to the Eastern Churches in those countries, and would make a valuable contribution to the religious life of Western Christians.”