Monasticism: A Witness to Christ, Not the Norm for all Christians

From time to time, a debate rears itself up in Orthodoxy in America about the role of monasticism in the Church.  The critics of the monastic dominance of the church are accused of being anti-monastic, but at least for some critics it is not monasticism as such which is the problem, but only that monasticism is sometimes put forth as normative – the only way to measure whether someone is being truly Christian or not.   Additionally, monasticism which is a celibate way to follow Christ is oft presented as a more perfect way to be Christian which results in a change in the Church’s purpose and goal from making disciples of all nations to making monks of all Christians.

I’ll venture the opinion that monasticism at its root was never intended to be normative, but always represented an extreme as well as a prophetic element in the church.  Monasticism specifically chose to reject normative behavior including marriage and the owning of property in order to demonstrate the possibility of following Christ outside the bounds of normally accepted civilization.  Monasticism is taking seriously Christ’s call to deny oneself, to take up one’s cross in order to follow Him.   It takes so seriously the resurrection that it calls one to die to this world and to live for Christ.

Consider the role of St. John the Forerunner in the Gospel.  He was a wild man, an extremist, and for many monks a model.  He was truly a prophet.  He was unique and in no ways normative for believers.  People came to him confessing their sins and seeking God’s forgiveness.   They didn’t however go out to imitate him – he was one of a kind.  He did have disciples, though there exact role is not detailed in the scriptures.  But his disciples did begin looking at Christ, because that is where John drew their attention, and to whom he sent them. 

Jesus himself did not tell his disciples to imitate John or John’s disciples.  He did not point to John as an example of normative behavior for believers.   In fact Jesus and his disciples were rather accused of being drunkards and gluttons when compared to John and his disciples.  John’s disciples end up following Jesus, not the reverse.

Jesus recognize the value of John, the greatest man born of woman, said Jesus.  Still, Jesus did not point to John’s lifestyle as normative or even desirable.  Jesus permitted Himself to be baptized by John (thus fulfilling His role as servant), but Jesus obviously does not follow John’s lead or example, whereas monastics did – going into the desert to live an uncivilized life.

Monastics in the early church did follow John the Forerunner’s prophetic role.  Monasticism did not grow in reaction against atheism, but really as a prophetic reaction against imperial/state Christianity.  Monastics were a prophetic witness to the church that the faith need not and should not be watered down to accommodate it to the norms of a state religion.  Monasticism was anything but normative, rather standing out as a criticism of what imperial Christianity became and showing that it was possible to follow the radical demands of the Gospel by living away from the civilized world and from domesticated Christianity.

Interestingly, it seems to me, that efforts to make monasticism normative were always efforts to tame it and to reign in on its prophetic nature, to co-opt monasticism to make it conform to societal norms. 

Today, those who make monasticism to somehow be normative for Orthodox do the same.  By equating monasticism with traditionalism pointing to it as some form of normative Christianity, they rob it of its prophetic power to challenge popular or mass or cultural Christianity’s values and lifestyle.  

Rather than pointing to monasticism as the norm for fasting or for doing liturgical services, Orthodox ought to look at monasticism as a prophetic challenge – does our lifestyle and our values really conform to the Gospel?  Is it possible for us to become better disciples of Christ?  Is it possible to follow Christ and hold nothing back?  What are the extremes to which love demands we go – to forgive our brothers and sisters seventy times seven?  To love our enemies?  To treat everyone as a neighbor?  To sell our possessions to follow Christ?  To be charitable even to the least important people?  To lay down our lives for our friends, but never to kill for them?  To constantly and always practice self denial and always to put others ahead of ourselves and our own interests?

These are things that monastics can and should be witnesses of – the possibility of actually doing these things now and in this world, not just in some future heaven.  But this isn’t being conservative and traditionalist; rather it is being radically futuristic – completely following the ideas of the Kingdom of Heaven, now on earth.   It is not being oriented to the past, but to the future eschaton, and to live according to the values of the “upside-down” Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus describes in His parables:  the kingdom of heaven is like…..

And it isn’t normative at all, but a unique and special calling to a prophetic way of life.   Monasticism above all should never have as its goal to have lordship over anybody, for it is a witness to the evangelical life of brotherhood, service, humility.   Because monastics are to give all possessions away to follow Christ in their ascetic manner, they won’t be examples of charity and generosity or hospitality in their daily existence.  Such behavior is a different calling and a different charism. It is in these areas that the laity has to become a rule of faith and examples of the Christian life to one another and to be their own models of normative Christian behavior for husbands, wives, parents, families and children.   This is exactly where monasticism is not normative behavior for Christians but  a unique, special and prophetic witness to how to be Christian and celibate.    Monasticism is a particular way to follow Christ, for those gifted and called to this lifestyle, but it cannot be normative for those who are called to follow Christ through the blessing of the sacrament of marriage.