In With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, Elder Paisios says, “You must know that a hard-working man will prosper no matter what he does. A hard-working family man would also make a good monk, and a hard-working monk would also make a good family man.” The Elder says this in the context of a conversation he is having with his nuns toward the end of his life. He is speaking about men and women who want to join a monastery because they “are too lazy to get married.”
Marriage and the married life is a lot of work. Monasticism and the monastic life is also a lot of work. Whether in marriage or monasticism, the Christian life is work. Certainly the specific work in marriage and in monasticism is somewhat different, but not nearly as different as most people think. Monks have to wash dishes and clothes, vacuum rugs and do something to earn their daily bread. Married people have to go to church services, say their prayers, fast and strive for holiness. In both marriage and monasticism you have to get along with the people you live with, even as they change and grow in ways you did not expect. You have to obey, you have to compromise, and you have to change and grow in ways you did not expect. You never get everything you want (and sometimes none of what you want), and you can’t just be left alone.
Both marriage and monasticism are a life-long commitment to a relationship, or set of relationships, that is designed by God Himself to change you. Both marriage and monasticism will make you like Jesus, if you are a “hard-working” person. Yes, each has it’s advantages and disadvantages. Yes, it is easier to focus on different kinds of work in one calling versus another. A monk has more time to pray. A layman has more opportunity to give alms. Etc. etc. But to find salvation in either, one must give him or herself completely. It is just as possible to be a selfish, ego-driven, addicted monk as it is to suffer such maladies as a married person. Laziness leads to decay no matter where one finds oneself. Similarly, there are many married people who are becoming saints (even if their names seldom make it into the synaxarion). Many saintly monastics credit their spiritual life to the foundation laid by their saintly parents.
The grass is always greener somewhere else.
I find encouragement in Elder Paisios’ words. As a married person, I sometimes imagine how I might be different if I were a monk. Probably those differences would be minor and mostly external. The effort I put into my relationships (with God and others) as a married person is probably about the same as it would be if I were a monastic. The willingness with which I repent and acknowledge my mistakes, and the peace and trust in God I manifest when I don’t get my way: these too would be the same whether I were a monk or a married person. It seems to me that God is not limited by our circumstances. We are the ones who limit what God can do in our lives.
Whether married or single, in the world or in the cloister, God’s arm is not too short to save (as it says in Isaiah), but it is our sins that have made a separation. The answer is usually not a change of venue, it is a change of heart, but that takes a lot of work.