Monasticism and Life in the World

From the Letters of St. Ambrose of Optina

January 3, 1879 …

In our last letter of December 14, you wrote that you cannot find any books applicable to your situation. You say that all books discuss monasticism, and that you are not a nun but are simply living near a monastery. In response I would say this to you: the Gospel teaching is given to everyone in common, and everyone is obliged to fulfill it. Monasticism stemmed from the desire to live exactly according to the Gospel teaching. This is terribly difficult amidst the noise of the city and the cares of life in the world, which hinder such a precise fulfillment of the Gospel teaching, even though everyone is called to this. Monastics are distinguished from laymen in that the latter are permitted to live in a state of matrimony, while the former choose to remain unmarried. Read more often the Gospel of Matthew, from the beginning of the fifth chapter to the end of the tenth, and try to live according to what is written there. Then your life will be marked by harmony, and you will find peace of soul.

January 11, 1879

Peace to you and God’s blessing, and a strengthening towards good. On January 3 I briefly wrote to you that monastic life by no means differs from the Gospel teaching, and that those living in the world differ from monastic s only as concerns their married state. About married people, however, St. John of the Ladder writes that they are like those whose hands and feet are bound with fetters. Although even these can walk the path of righteousness, it is only with difficulty; they often stumble and fall and become sorely wounded as a result. The unmarried–and particularly monastic–state offers greater facility in the fulfillment of the Gospel teaching. It is for this reason that monasticism was established by the Holy Fathers.

You are now in the middle, between the world and monasticism. The middle path is everywhere approved, and for you–both on account of your upbringing and your weak constitution–it is in many ways appropriate. Only try to live according to the Gospel commandments. Above all, judge no one about anything, so that you yourself will not be judged …..

In my letters I’ve always had one aim –to dispel your misconceptions about monasticism and spiritual life in general, which you formed while still living in the world. You have perhaps heard it said that even apparently correct theory does not always coincide with practice. One’s own experience, when it follows the experience of spiritual people in the past, is a good instructor, provided we check our life against the Biblical and patristic teaching.

You laid for yourself and your life a rather strange foundation: I wanted so, I thought so, I intended so… You are not the only one; many desire a good spiritual life in the simplest form. Few, however, (they are rare, in fact) fulfill their good desires in actuality; they are those who hold tightly the words of Holy Scripture: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), and who, entreating the help of God, try to bear the griefs and illnesses and various discomforts visited upon them without murmuring, always keeping in remembrance the words of the Lord Himself: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. (Matt. 19:17)

And the most important of these commandments are: “Judge not and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:17). Besides this, those who want to be saved must bear in mind the words of St. Peter Damascene, that salvation is accomplished between fear and hope…

To live in a simple hut without humbling oneself will not lead to any good. It is better for someone who is weak in soul and body to live in a comfortable cell and to humble himself, blaming and reproaching himself for such comfortable and spacious quarters. Only few, and those possessing a strong constitution, can without harm lead an austere life, and endure cold and hunger and dampness and sleeping on the ground. According to the words of St. John Damascene, those who are weak in body derive more profit from humility and thanksgiving than from physical labors and podvigs to which they are unequal.

You are adversely affected by the harsh words of such people who, in your opinion, should speak differently. St. John Climacus writes that God providentially leaves some flaws even in spiritual people so as to bring them to humility.

If you wish to set yourself on a firm path toward salvation, try above all to pay heed to yourself alone, and leave everyone else to God’s Providence and their own will, and don’t concern yourself with instructing anyone. Not in vain is it said: Each man begetteth himself shame or glory according to his deeds. This will be most beneficial, meat conducive to salvation, and, what’s more, more peaceful.

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