Monasticism as Romance
Some people get romantic about monasticism, believe it or not. This isn’t to say that klobuks are the new sexy accessory this year, but many people who are thinking about monasticism are interested because they’ve had a rush of happy emotions that make them think this will be an amazing life for them.
This would be a good time to stop and define “getting romantic” here. In the most common sense, “I’m feeling romantic about you” means attraction. “Romantic” also means a tendency to have a torrent of emotions and to express them immediately and fully.
According to Wikipedia, the Romantic movement in the arts “stresses strong emotion as a source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror, and the awe experienced in confronting the sublimity in untamed nature and its qualities that are both new aesthetic categories.”
The romantic notion of monasticism is that at the monastery, the life of prayer is going to unleash your soul from its earthly bonds, and you’ll stop having feelings of self-doubt. You won’t get distracted by anything because you’ll have your prayer rope in hand at all times, which is a bulletproof vest against the devil. You’ll get right on your path to theosis (the process by which humans become holy) and before your hair turns gray you’ll be levitating and healing people just like St. Seraphim of Sarov.
This is the reason that most monasteries make you wait at least five years before they will tonsure you. You can be a novice and wear the black outfit and be treated like a monk or nun during the period of preparation (with the option of leaving at any time) but once you have been tonsured, you’re stuck.
Monasticism as reality
If you’re feeling attracted to monasticism, by all means, go and visit. You will benefit from the experience, I promise you that. You will learn discipline in both your prayer and in how you approach your daily life. You don’t have to do an all-at-once dive into the life described in the pages of The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus.
As you talk with the abbot or abbess about what goes on at the monastery, you’ll begin to understand that monasticism is about a complete turning of one’s spirit over to Christ through prayer, fasting and work. There’s only one way to find out if it’s for you, which is to give it time. I visited the Monastery of St. John in Point Reyes, Calif., several times, and the abbot, Father Jonah, explained that the first six months will be very challenging as everything you’ve ever done, things that have been done to you, and assorted lies you’ve been telling to yourself will all bubble to the surface and you’ll be forced to face it head on.
Father Jonah writes on the “Are you called?” section of the monastery’s Web site:
No one can run away from his problems by going to a monastery. Rather, in the quiet and undistracted life of the monastery, all problems come into agonizing focus so that they can be dealt with. Every passion, every habit, and every sin will become absolutely apparent. We join a monastery to repent: not to somehow try to make up for our sins, but to turn to God knowing our weakness and embrace a whole new lifestyle. Monastic life is not a life lived without responsibility. Rather, it is an empowering to fully accept responsibility for our life, to face one’s issues, and to be healed.
I love that idea of monasticism as context. Before I met my wife, the orderly, prayerful life of monasteries provided a context in which I could take my assorted problems from my life and offer them quietly to Christ. Without the distractions of living a secular life, I was able to take each of my problems and ask whether my approach to them really served Christ. I was a worrier, and usually what I needed to do was just let go of what was happening in my job and neighborhood. At the monastery, I realized that none of the eight choices I’d come up with for solving problems was really helpful, and I needed to simply be patient.
When I lived in San Francisco, I traveled by bicycle up to Point Reyes (a journey of 40 miles) seven or eight times and really benefited from the services and the monks. Then, the monks moved to Manton, darn it, and I had nowhere to run for quiet except the Old Cathedral in San Francisco, where Fr. Jonah’s godson, Fr. James (also a monk) is the priest. It provided some of the same experience, although with a lot more adjectives in the sermons. (Brevity is not Fr. James’ first quality.)
This church has low attendance, and no eligible ladies, which made it easier to concentrate. And then one came and sang in the choir. And I married her.
So I can’t tell you much more about what monasticism really is about. You need to visit a monastery and get chatting with the abbot or abbess. But, I can offer a few other tidbits of advice I picked up from monastics.
Back when I was still considering monasticism, I had a very helpful conversation with a nun named Mother Magdalena at Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, Pa. She told me that she gets “pretty hot under the collar” whenever anyone talks about what the “typical” nun ought to be. The stereotype of the future nun is a meek, shy girl who is not very pretty but likes going to church a lot.
“We’re supposed to be brides of Christ. Is there anything wrong with being a pretty bride?” she said. “You’re supposed to give your spirit to Christ. What’s wrong with giving Him a strong spirit?”
She also said, “For every 25 women we get here interested in monasticism, 24 of them get married.”
Father Jonah told me that the best way to prepare for monastic life is to live a godly life in the world. I remember I told him I was a conflicted soul over the fact that I was thinking about monasticism, and yet I still asked girls out on dates sometimes. He said, “That’s OK. I did that, too.”
That’s one preparation path you can take. Or, you might really know that monasticism is right for you. His godson, Fr. James, told me that when he knew he wanted to be Orthodox, he wanted to be a monk, and getting married wasn’t a question for him.
Either way, if you’re getting all anxious about which path to take, you’re probably overthinking things and just need to relax.
Monasticism as Escape
I think we’ve all been truly revolted by some experience at one time or another that makes us say “No, never, under no circumstances is this EVER happening again!” One example I can give of revulsion is when my father had a cold with a post-nasal drip. It lasted about two weeks, and every time he needed to cough something up, he had to search for a Kleenex. It was especially difficult to grab one while driving, so he kept a cup in the cupholder on the dashboard. He thought it was one of those little hygienic barbarities that one keeps secret, and it was his business. That is, until a week passed and Mom found the cup. YEEEECCCHHH!!! WHAT ON EARTH IS THIS DOING HERE?!?! was her reaction and no amount of explanation could get Dad out of trouble.
That story is about finding something gooey and gross at an unexpected moment, but sometimes we have an experience so frustrating, so revolting in our relations with other people that we want to run and run fast. For example, when I was a teacher, the class clown’s mother tried to put The Moves on me once. Another such experience is when I told my ex-girlfriend that we shouldn’t spend time in one another’s apartment very long for fear Something Might Happen. “Don’t worry about that,” she said, “I just came back from the doctor and she said that I’m infertile.” (This girl later got married to someone else and had a couple of kids.)
These kinds of visceral emotions, I think, are what led to the invention of the word “Yuck.” There’s nothing wrong with having them, but if we go through major life changes because of them, we’re in for trouble. If we think that by running away to a monastery, we’ll never have to deal with that kind of event again, we’re probably stuck in a romantic fantasy about monasticism.
Sometimes it’s not just one experience, but a series of them that push your “Yuck factor” up to the point where you want to run away. When I lived in Pittsburgh, there was only one grocery store chain in town, Giant Eagle, and every checkout stand was full of trashy magazines. Glamour and Cosmopolitan seemed to be in a competition as to which could use the most absurd adjectives with “orgasm.” The accumulation of all the references to cheap sex made me think, “If this is what sex is about these days, there’s no point to it.” And, I wanted to run off to the monastery.
Instead, I ended up spending the rest of the year buying kosher food because the kosher grocery in our neighborhood had no magazines.
Be careful with how strongly you say “the world is evil, I need to get out of it.” If you start saying that flesh is evil, or that the material world as a whole is bad and we need to separate from it, then you’re dabbling in Gnosticism, which is going to give you far worse problems than feeling awkward around girls.
Monasticism as Excuse
There is one last temptation I should mention with monasticism, and it’s a really lame thing to do. That is to use it as a line to get rid of people of the opposite sex. If a weird boy or girl is attracted to you, just say, “I am not interested in having a relationship with you.”
I say this from experience because there was this girl whom I didn’t have the nerve to come right out and say, “I do not want to date you.”
So, I said, “There are some things I’ve got to work through in my life, and it may be that monasticism is my true calling.” And then I started rambling on about all of the monasteries I’d visited in Ukraine and what great awakening experiences they were for me, and how it was a holy calling, blah, blah, blah, but I really like talking to you and want to stay friends, blah, blah, blah… and I closed with a cheesy smile.
The truth was, at that point in my life, my interest in monasticism was pretty topical. That was before I had actually met any English-speaking monks, and the monks I knew in Ukraine kept trying to convince me of the dangers worldwide Jewish-Masonic conspiracy, which was centered in the U.S. Evidence of the conspiracy could be found in the fact that it is impossible to order a non-kosher meal in New York City. But, they were sure that God would bring justice as there was a prophecy that America was going to be completely flooded over. Zealots such as these gave me some pretty harsh reservations about becoming a monk as I did not believe in such bizarre conspiracies.
Uh… I’m getting off-topic. So, when I told this girl I felt called to be a monk, it was kind of a sideways slam. What I meant was “If we lived in a medieval village and my choices were to enter into a forced arranged marriage with you or join the monastery, I’d join the monastery.”
Lame, lame, lame. Don’t do this. One, it’s mean, two, you’re going to get repaid for this, as it says in Psalm 7:15-16:
He made a pit and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate.
I dug my own pit.
A couple of months after I used the aforementioned lame line on the “nice girl” whom I could never love, I met a beautiful tall young lady at a church event. As the event wound down and we prepared to go our separate ways, she looked at me right in the eye and told me how much she liked talking with me. I got her e-mail address. She lived 200 miles from me.
We wrote to each other regularly for the next couple of months. She let me know that her favorite book was Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. I went to the library and checked it out. Then she invited me to visit her and meet her parents. So, I got on the Greyhound bus and in my euphoria, was actually able to read half of this dreadful piece of chick lit. I got up to the point where the women are wondering why Willoughby doesn’t visit again.
I got to her town. The parents seemed to like me, as did her friends, but the girl told me that she’s really called to be a nun.
“Wow,” I said with the same cheesy smile, “That’s an amazing calling. I know that I’ve thought about that, too…” (While thinking: No I haven’t really, but why did you have to bring me all this way to tell me that?)
I got back on the bus home, wrote a thank-you letter to the girl’s parents for letting me stay in the upstairs room, sent it, went to the library in the middle of the night and chucked Sense and Sensibility into the return slot with great force. As far as I know, Mrs. Dashwood ended her life a widow with spinster daughters in that little house. Maybe they all became nuns.
Annoyed as I was, I have to admit that it did cure me of a couple of romantic notions about girls that I’d been carrying with me. One was that I thought that if I knew about books and topics that interest a girl, talking about them with her would charm the socks right off of her. No, it doesn’t. It makes you look like a nerd. And, if you’re reading chick lit, it makes you look gay. Another romantic notion was that by invoking the name of Christ and the monasteries that follow Him, you can reject someone who loves you without it hurting. No, that’s awful, regardless of whether you’re being rejected or doing the rejection.
Monasticism is responsibility — taking responsibility for who you are, and responsibility for praying for the whole world. That’s not small task, but you have to be willing to try. Whether you get married and take on responsibility for your spouse or you are tonsured, you have to give it all your heart, without condition or reservation. How many icons does your church have of Saint Bob the Indecisive?