Monasticism and the Byzantine Church

By Father Peter Knowles

This an edited and partial version of the homily
given at the annual Van Nuys Eparchial Pilgrimage, to Holy Resurrection Monastery, October 27, 1997.

In Saint Matthew's Gospel, Christ question the crowds: «What did you go out into the desert to see?» What did you want to find in the wilderness? What did you expect? And he chose three examples of what they might have found. Did you go off just expecting to see dry reeds trembling in wind? Or did you expect to find there people of notability and importance; people dressed, as he says "in soft garments," such as usually frequent kings' houses and in places of authority? Or, did you expect to find, were you in fact perhaps looking in the howling wilderness for a prophet?

"Prophet" is a very strange word. Usually we take it to mean someone who is going to tell us the future, but it also means someone who speaks on behalf of another: a prophet is a spokesman, an interpreter. In Scripture he is one who speaks for God, and explains the things of God to those around him.

Such was Saint John, Baptist and Forerunner of Christ. In the dimly shaped forms of sign and symbol, John was the interpreter and spokesman of Him, Who was yet to arrive: preparing the way for Him who even then, was on the point of entering on the road of his active and public life, his cousin, Christ.

What were you searching for in the desert? he asked. Whatever you may have been expecting to find, you in fact discovered a prophet there.

But now what is it that you have come out into this desert to find? What do you expect from this place of wilderness? In 1995 the Pope wrote and published a remarkable document (Orientale Lumen), incredibly sharp, clear and very deep — richly deep description of oriental life, Eastern Church life, your life. It is your life as inheritors of the tradition of Byzantium, and of the traditions of Constantinople. He described it and took as a model for this life, monasticism: the life of a monk or of a nun.

Why? You might think, "It has nothing to do with my daily concerns, with my family life." But, for a Christian who lives in the authentic Byzantine tradition, it is vital to understand the role and the form of life, the activity and the vocation, if you like, of a monk or of a nun. This monastic life, says the Holy Father, is a point of reference for all the baptized: for those of the East as of the West.

How can a monk or a nun be a point of reference? Someone who does not have the cares of family life, or of activity and busy-ness in the world, in that outer wilderness that is the human world today? Yet that is just what the Pope said: monasticism is a point of reference and a prophetic sign where spirituality and theology meet.

By spirituality he means that development of the individual as he becomes more and more an initiate into the mystery of the Trinity By theology is not meant here theology as done in a library, read from books or even as taught in seminaries or in the theological lecture halls. Rather His Holiness means the reality, the existential reality of Christian life. That reality which is knowledge that comes from meeting God as He exists, revealed to us in Christ and His Church.

Where precisely is this meeting point between spirituality and theology? The pope tells us it is in the worship of the Church. At no other time is the Church so much the Church, so authentically the Church, as when she is at worship, the common worship of liturgical prayer.

That is the moment, the one moment in which the Church stands, breathless and on tiptoe, in the actual grasp — almost the actual grasp — of the reality of the Holy Trinity's gift to us of life in Christ through the sacrament that is Christ. At no other time, in no other situation, in no other place, is the Church so much the Church as during worship. And that is the prophetic point of reference of which the Pope speaks in Eastern monastic life.

Monasticism is so much the point of reference, that if you want to see what the reality of the Church is, you find it unencumbered, with everything unnecessary cutaway, within the life of a monastery, the life of a monk or of a nun.

There is nothing magic, there is nothing romantic in this life. Just the contrary, there can be nothing so monotonous or boring on the surface but only on the surface. The whole of the life of a monk or of a nun is centered in the worship of God. It is not a life primarily for personal development, nor for the personal acquiring of virtue, nor for the acquiring of some deep, mystical state. No. The reality and the prophetic truth of monastic life is giving oneself in the wilderness away from the world, to this life of worship where the Church is most actually, realistically itself: in the sacrament of worship.

This is what the pope means when he says monasticism is a point of reference for all the faithful. The monastic desert is the true home of prophecy.

You should not, when you see a convent of nuns or a monastery of monks, think mainly that you are looking at good men or good women. They may or may not be; that is their own duty, obligation and responsibility. What is important is rather that you have in the monastery or convent the opportunity for seeing how the Church really is when all the busy-ness of an outer wilderness of a torn and sick world is pushed back.

Yes, you do come to the desert and you do see the reeds shaken by the wind. But you see something more besides! You are allowed for a time to breathe that life which is the community life given to liturgy and common worship.

The services of the Church make up ninety percent of the life of a monk or of a nun. That is why they come to a desert. That is why they give up family life. That is why they give up everything else, that they may be, in this way, be creative of a prophetic sense by providing a prophetic opportunity for the whole Church to suddenly look in a mirror and see what they are as members of the Church. The mirror is the desert of monks and nuns…

But in future years what will you come out to see? What will you come out into the desert to learn? What will draw you into the desert? God-willing, through the powerful intercessions of the Mother of God, the Searcher and Finder of those who are lost, you will see a continuation of that same life. But you cannot expect anything more when you come again to this desert than what you have today, than what you have now.

Monastic life, once it takes upon itself the role of prophetically celebrating the reality of Christ in the sacraments of the Church, has completed its role and purpose. You cannot ever expect to find any greater knowledge, any greater experience, than that which you find today. There is nothing more. It will always be just like this.

For the individual nun, for the individual monk, it is always just like this. Day after day, after year after year and decade after decade. Here is the prophetic reality, the "spokesman" reality of monastic life within the desert that has to be, must be, the true environment for the life of monk or nun. Always this; always just what you see today. Come out at any time into this desert and always you will see what you see now around you.

Why? Because today, and from the first day that any monastery starts, always it has reached its climax when it has given itself to the sacramental mystery of Christ, showing us the Trinity under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Ghost and with the prayers of the Mother of God.

This is what you should hope for. This is what you should pray for. I will not say that monks and nuns should not pray for the rest of the Church! But I do say that the rest of the Church must most ardently, and sincerely, pray for the welfare of monks and nuns because this life, the monastic life, is lived in a desert and it is surrounded with reeds and weeds that tremble and shake in the wind.

There is nothing else; nothing else unless we penetrate and see the center of it the Holy Trinity, God Himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is what you must pray for. You must pray for the monks. Let them pray for you; they will do that. But you must pray for the monks, if you do not, you may come out into this desert and find it a howling waste of emptiness and desolation.

Yours is the choice, and also the obligation. But yours, too, is the honor to do that and in this way to keep the whole life of your own diocese, your own Eparchy here, alive, vibrant and alive with the grace of God.


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Last modified on Sunday November 14, 2004 at 12:58 PM EST