"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

PROBLEMS IN MODERN MONASTICISM Two Orthodox articles and One Catholic, with an Introduction


Here are three articles on the monastic life, two Orthodox and one Catholic (pinched from its monastery website). I chose the article from the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico because our Abbot Paul has been there, and he says that it is the monastery that he has seen most like our own Monastery of the Incarnation in Peru. However, having read the article, I would probably say that it is the most like what we want our monastery to be. We are alike in that we live and work within the monastery and, like them, we have no employees to help us.

Those of you well acquainted with monasteries will notice how similar the problems and questions on monastic life in the contemporary world are for Orthodox and Catholic monasteries.

Catholics will be surprised at the contrast between the Archbishop's balanced, intelligent and spiritually valuable treatment of monastic life and his fundamentally silly treatment of Catholicism.   I remember an exclamation of a Russian Orthodox deacon from Minsk in Belarus, "Why is it that the Russians are so anti-Catholic when they don't know any Catholics!! Most of us have relatives who are Catholics and all of us have Catholic neighbours, and we know we can't make such sweeping judgements about them.   The Russians, on the other hand, are doing it all the time!!"

The trouble with "establishment" Christianity, either in its Vatican or its Orthodox forms, is a tendency to turn God into a Canon lawyer who  actually thinks like a canon lawyer. 

  Cardinal Burke thinks that Christ's teaching on marriage and divorce is identical to the Catholic laws that govern marriage and divorce: thus a change in law will also always be a change in teaching.  He does not notice that Jesus was not giving a new version of the Law of Moses - it was a bit late for that because He was about to transcend it by His death and resurrection - but was applying to the problem of marriage and divorce his new commandment to love one another as he has loved us. It is about a self-giving, self-forgetting love that goes beyond law and has become the standard way of living for Christians, a law beyond law which transforms marriage.  Like the Beatitudes, it aims for the maximum, nothing less than our sharing in the divine life of the Blessed Trinity: it is the new law of love, the law of the Cross, and not simply a stricter version of the Law of Moses: the Law of Moses remains for those who are still under its yoke, divorce and all.  

The Orthodox recognise that the mercy that flows from the Cross of Christ and sets prisoners free is far greater than any law, whatever its provenance.  That doesn't mean that laws are unimportant: they are to be observed under normal circumstances; but they cannot be allowed to create circumstances in which people are trapped by their sin so that whatever they do will cause grave harm.   It is for the bishops to decide according to the pastoral circumstances.   Normally, the laws must be obeyed, and this is called acribia.  However, where people are trapped in their sin with no way out, then the bishops should resort to economia, because Christ saving us while we are yet in our sin is what the Christian Mystery is all about: God's mercy rides to the rescue.

 However, those who are set free must, in their turn, follow a life marked by the same unlimited forgiveness and mercy by which they have been liberated themselves: hence, Christ's teaching on marriage and divorce.

If the Orthodox Church has much to teach us about how mercy takes preference over law in moral matters, the Catholic Church since Vatican II implicitly applies the same principle of economia over acribia in ecclesiology.  I suggest that the Orthodox Church needs to do the same.  Where some fall into the temptation to put law above mercy is to put too much emphasis on "canonical" when talking of the importance of "canonical communion": the actual existence of valid sacraments depends on there being "canonical", according to the canons.   Thus, for many in the Russian Orthodox Church, the sacraments celebrated in the Kiev Patriarchate are simply meaningless ceremonies in a non-church.   We would say that the celebration of the sacraments oblige those who celebrate, whether they are aware of it or not, to an extremely close ecclesial relationship with all others who celebrate the same sacraments, and that these ecclesial relationships should be regulated by canon law so that  we may become what the sacraments want to make us; but sacramental life is more basic than legal relationships, being acts of Christ, just as mercy is more basic than law.

Christ promised that the gates of hell shall no prevail against the Church. When this threatens to happen, due to our stupidity, our pride or because of a simple mistake or because we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, Christ doesn't cut off whole populations from the sacraments without them even knowing about it or turn away from people who invoke his Name as though they were not there, or cease to speak through his Word to people who are eagerly listening.   The rules may have been broken, but God's mercy rushes in to heal the wound and to clear the way that has been blocked.   The rules have to be obeyed as soon as it becomes possible; but, in the meantime, the gate to heaven is open to all who call on the name of the Lord, and even to those who do not know how to, because the Incarnation makes it possible for all.

  Archbishop Arndt seems to believe that there was a mutual excommunication between East and West somewhere, at some time, perhaps in 1054, and all the sacraments in the West stopped working without anyone being aware of it, all preaching lost its force without any external effect to show that this was the case, and Christian holiness ceased to exist against all evidence to the contrary, because "salvation only exists within the Church" which can only mean the Orthodox Church.  

As one Greek saint said, "Orthodoxy without charity is the religion of the devil," and any view of Christ who would render his sacraments null and void because of events which most people in the West were largely unaware of and very few could influence, is a diabolical view of Christ contradicted by every line of the Gospel. 

 Catholics don't form a part of Archbishop Arndt's world, so it is not a view that does much harm in itself, although it helps explain why the Patriarch of Moscow must tread softly on ecumenical issues.   However, Archbishop Arndt does know what he is talking about on monasticism; and I have no hesitation to recommend the following article to you.

On Contemporary Monasticism: Interview with Archbishop Mark (Arndt)
Source: Rocor
my source: pravmir.com
One of the main problems faced by Christians and especially monastics today is that people are not used to restraining themselves, to enduring, or forcing themselves to do anything, to assume obligations, first and foremost to prayer.

– I’ve lived my entire life outside of Russia and cannot objectively evaluate Russian monasticism. I became a monk having seen the sort of monastic life which was impossible to have under the Soviets, so I grew up on the experience of monasteries abroad—Serbian and those on Mt Athos. But I see that today, a great deal in society—in any society—changes, and is constantly evolving.

In the West, those who enter monasteries are faced with difficulties based on the fact that Western people are educated in individualism, a striving for being special in some way, and for this reason it is difficult to share a monastic residential cell with someone else—more than that, it is almost impossible. That is why I often bless people to share a monastic cell only after a certain time period, allowing a person to live in the monastery for a few years first. From what I’ve seen, monasteries are set up differently in Russia. Common monastic cells, of course, are necessary: people must relate to each other and they know how to. Compared to the West, Russian monastics face other kinds of difficulties. For example, here, it is difficult to give a novice a cell without a private shower. But this problem is resolved differently depending on where you look. There are monasteries where everything is modern—I’ve seen this in Greece. And there are places where this would be impossible—and thank God. Because young people need to learn simplicity, in relating with others, in daily life, in personal needs, etc. Without a doubt, it is different in every country. Every society has its idiosyncrasies and difficulties which must be overcome.

One of the biggest problems we endure in the West is the universal attachment to computers , telephones , of which newer and newer models are always being offered. Such things are necessary for us monastics, too, but in monasteries, the use of such devices must be regulated. You must understand: a person who is dependent on a computer cannot pray properly. The prayer of such a person will always be superficial. That is why using modern technology must be restricted to certain times, restricted for spiritual purposes. When a monk is busy fulfilling his many obediences, it can be difficult for him to tear away from them during divine services or domestic prayer. That is why it is especially important to teach young people how to remove themselves from daily cares.

– Maybe this is an awkward topic to discuss, but they say that there is a decline in monastic life in the West, especially among Catholics. Can you comment?

– Yes, there is a certain weakness, there are faults which must be battled and overcome, but I would not say it is in decline. Such things happen in every society, at any time, and we dare not fall into despair, into a paralyzed state. We must labor so that everything takes its proper place. The Lord gives us enormous opportunities. The possibilities we now have, especially in Russia, were few and far between in the past—it would be better to say that this is a very rare moment in time. We should therefore take action. Let us not be pessimistic, but look for the positive today, on this basis we can build something good.

As far as Catholic monasteries are concerned, there is indeed a decline. In my opinion this is partly a result of the general attitude of Western society which has strayed far from its Christian roots, but also a result of the fact that Roman Catholics do not have a solid foundation for spiritual life, because they abandoned the unity of the Church. Outside the Church there is no salvation.

– In your opinion, is it necessary for monastics to examine the regulations and way of life of other monasteries abroad? Or is there a model for establishing monastic life that everyone should follow?

– There can be no set models to follow in Christian life! If everything is standardized, Christianity, as a rule, dies out. One should not simply copy someone or something—everything is individual. For example, nature itself is completely different in Greece than in Russia. This leads to various needs and problems in the monasteries of these countries. But it is always useful to acquaint oneself with the ways and customs of other monasteries, learn something beneficial, or compare to one’s own ways. One must look at the positive aspects of different monasteries and communities and emulate them if there is a need.

– Vladyka, in your opinion, what is the main problem in the spiritual life of modern man, of a monk?

– One of the main problems faced by Christians and especially monastics today is that people are not used to restraining themselves, to enduring, or forcing themselves to do anything, to assume obligations, first and foremost to prayer. For some reason we stubbornly and persistently chase after sin, but good deed—alas! One of the ancient Church fathers said that prayer is more difficult than hewing rocks. A person today is raised to want everything right away, in abundance and cheaply. We have a consumerist society, everything is desired quickly and easily. But this doesn’t happen, since whatever is quick and easy to obtain is usually not appreciated. Only by obtaining something through great effort and persistence does a person value it highly. That is why persistence in prayer demands just such an approach, and, I think, this is one of the main obstacles faced by modern man, who is not used to achieving anything through patience and painstaking effort.

The Jesus Prayer is necessary for modern man! No Christian can get by without this prayer.

– Is the Jesus Prayer accessible to contemporary man?

– Of course. Moreover, it is absolutely crucial! Not only Christians in general but especially monastics need it. But there must be the desire and persistence, patience and love for Christ.

– The frescoes in Sretensky Seminary depict not only all the Russian saints, but even ascetics who have not yet been canonized, and there is a portrait of Feodor Dostoevsky along with Nikolai Gogol. You often speak of the influence Feodor Mikhailovich had on you, noting that he was one of the most Christian authors in Russian literature. What is your opinion of the role of literature and art on personal spiritual development?

– The Lord employs various means to bring us to know the truth. Good literature is one of these, bringing mankind towards Himself, it is one of the main means that turns the mind and heart to God. A Christian must know and read such writers as Dostoevsky—such reading enriches him spiritually. But when a person has already grown into the Church, there is no need for distraction by lay literature. It is better to read the Holy Fathers.

– Can monastics read lay literature? Is it beneficial?

– To a very limited degree, since if a person did not read literature before joining the monastery, it means he came unprepared. In general, it seems to me, a novice can read such things, but it is better for a monk to avoid it. A monk should be occupied with other things.

– If a monastery lacks a spiritually-experience guide, if there is no opportunity to reveal one’s thoughts to a spiritual father on a daily basis, what is to be done? In particular, this is the situation in some women’s convents.

– In my opinion, a spiritual father should be secondary in a convent—the abbess must be the one with whom a nun should share her thoughts. Or an abbess can appoint a senior nun to counsel the younger sisters. In any case, I think, it is better when a nun can talk to someone of the same sex, not to a man. A priest, a spiritual father is provided to take confession, which is somewhat different than revealing one’s innermost thoughts. Of course, an abbess can summon any spiritually-experienced person for the nuns to talk to. But such a person should display a great deal of tact and approach with caution so as not to interfere in the internal matters of the monastic community. In the Holy Land, two large convents are under my care. Of course, I do provide some counsel to the sisters, I hold discussions with them, but I always stress that at the end of the day, the abbess must rule. Unfortunately, in many monasteries they underestimate the importance of an abbess or elder nun.

– You mentioned that the monastic path must be chosen with great caution. What did you mean, exactly?

– It is necessary to maximally exclude one’s own will and accept God’s instead. In other words, to rely not on one’s own knowledge and limited mind, but on the fact that the heart will accept the Will of God, the heart will open up to the “dew” of the Holy Spirit which will allow the person to discern good from evil, what is beneficial and what is not.

– And the greatest aids for this are the Mysteries of Confession and Communion?

– Yes, primarily. I would say that this is a whole system within which a person should live and develop: prayer, the Mysteries, the revelation of thoughts, Confession, etc. We must emancipate ourselves from the state of that fragmentation which invaded human life as a result of the Western, Roman-Catholic false teachings. Fr Justin (Popovic) once said that the main sin of Catholicism is Papism, and the main sin of Protestantism is that each has its own pope, and that is even worse. This breakdown and emphasis on the human element are completely useless for salvation. It hinders spiritual development, since man is at the forefront, and in the end, there is no room for God. Even if he thinks that he is giving himself over to the Will of God, in reality it is not the case at all—it is self-delusion which will always be an obstacle to communion with God.

– How is one to tell what the Will of God is? One of the fathers of the Church said: “In order to fulfill the Will of God, one needs to know what it is, which is a great and difficult task.”

As long as a person is guided by his own will and his own mind, he cannot hear the call of God.
You understand, the most important thing in monastic life and in the life of a Christian in general is obedience. A person can attain true, genuine obedience only through humility and meekness. Only in this case will he be able to heed the voice of the Lord, to hear the Will of God. A closed, hermetic life demands great experience in obedience, which is possible specifically within a monastic community. In monastic life it is rare to go into seclusion very quickly, this is done only after many years of social life, during which a person suppresses his own ego and obtains the habit of obedience.

– How does one choose a monastery?

– If a person strives for monasticism, he must heed this call and make a conscious choice of a monastery to join. There are various kinds of monasteries . In the Orthodox world, each monastic community has its own identity and characteristics. One must choose according to the heart. Some like physical labor, others are drawn to contemplation. So in choosing a monastery, one should be oriented by individual preferences. For instance, [smiling] it took me eight years to choose.

– How should Christians react to the terrible epidemic of the genocide of our brothers and sisters in Christ in Syria, Metochia, Kosovo and Serbia? Is this active Islamization or the actions of radical extremists, bandits who only assume the mantle of Islam? His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, during a Liturgy in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow read to his Russian flock the epistle of the Antiochian Patriarch, in which he painfully called to the whole world for help, stressing that the situation is at such a horrifying stage that help is needed not only through prayers to God, but in action. But in Christian society the reigning opinion is that we can help exclusively by prayer.

– I reject the expression “help exclusively by prayer.” That we Christians are only capable of prayer is a false notion. Of course, prayer is our foundation and greatest strength. But if we think that all we can do is pray, we will go astray. Yes, we must pray, but we must also understand that people are often forced by circumstances to soften one’s language. If the Antiochian Patriarch says this, he bases it on the experience of his own nation, where Christians and Muslims always lived in peace. I think that it is incorrect to say that there are only extremists at work there. Reading the Quran, you will see that all of this lies at the foundation of Islam. Extremism exists, of course. Other Eastern hierarchs openly state that they have known about this particular aspect of Islam all their lives. I often serve in Jerusalem . There, for instance, on the feast of the Holy Trinity, right next to the church a muezzin cries from his tower that they believe in the One God Who has no children, no Son and Holy Spirit, etc. He has no compunction to do so, thought these people are not really extremists. What is this? Open, unabashed propaganda against Christianity! They know full well what they do, spewing these slogans during the main Christian holiday of the Pentecost, the celebration of the birth of the Church Herself.

Islam is at its core anti-human. Look at Ramadan—this is the mortification of the human being, of the human body. I saw how people were taken to hospitals during their observance of Ramadan. All day they eat nothing, drink nothing even during baking heat, and at night the cram there stomachs to the point of losing consciousness—it is madness! One must look truth in the eye: this is all anti-human, it is directed against humanity.

Yes, there were times when Muslims tried to live in peace with their neighbors, they even acknowledged that we Christians are people, too. But for many, those times have passed, and now they reveal who they really are.

– In other words, when some say that what is happening in Syria and other fundamentally Christian nations, it is only political, not a religious war against Christianity, it is untrue? Regardless, can we say that the Christians who are murdered for their faith today are martyrs.

There is an intentional war being waged against Christians. Kosovo was the first in the list of such genocide from Christian territory. Then Chechnya. Understand what happened, a Christian nation was simply given away to the Muslims. The destruction of churches continues, tortures, wild fanaticism, murder. Kosovo, Chechnya, Syria, Egypt…

– The next goal for these people, whether they are extremists or not, is to declare Russian Muslim. What are we to do, strengthen our prayers?

– The most important thing is to be real Christians. This means constant participation in the Mysteries of the Church. If the Lord grants someone the crown of martyrdom, it means the person earned it and must accept it with dignity.

Practical Aspects of Observing Monastic Vows in an Urban Monastery

 Abbess Maria (Sidiropoulos). Photo: Stefmon.ru.

Speech by Abbess Maria (Sidiropoulos) of St. Elizabeth Convent in Buchendorf, Germany, of the German Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, read at the round table “Particilarities of Monastic Life in Urban Monasteries” (St. Petersburg, Russia, August 8-9, 2017).

St. Ephraim the Syrian said “It is not tonsure and garb that makes the monk, but a heavenly desire and Divine living, because in this lies perfection in life.”

God’s commandments are the same for both monastics and laypersons.

Emulating Christ and deification are the meaning of earthly life for every person who calls himself a Christian. Asceticism, sorrows, deprivation, spiritual purity, obedience to God are all necessary not only for monastics but for laity. The life of every Christian is or most become parallel to the life of a monastic. But the laws of parallel lines prohibit them from intersecting…

Monastic tonsure is called a “second baptism,” during which hair is clipped, just as during the Mystery of Baptism. The vows made during monastic tonsure do not differ from those made during baptism, except, of course, the vow of chastity that monks and nuns make. But simply refusing married life does not comprise true and ideal chastity; ideal virginity applies not only to the body but to the soul.

The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit, said Holy Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7:34). In order to observe a vow of chastity, one must fast, pray and avoid contact with the opposite sex.

All of us, monastics and laypersons, in daily prayer to the Lord, utter the words: “hallowed by Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” We ask of God not wealth and domination over our neighbor, but “our daily bread,” and obedience to God’s will, so that the Lord would take reign in our hearts, which is achieved through perpetual repetition of the Jesus prayer. We likewise beseech Him “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one,” that is, to preserve us from spiritual faltering. In other words, we can say that with these words monastics and laypersons ask for virtues which in principle comprise the monastic vows: obedience, poverty, virginity.

The monastery (Ησιχαστειριо), as a place of prayer, was originally connected to the concept of quietude. But this understanding extends to the sphere of spiritual peace. External quiet is required only for engendering the easy and quick achievement of inner silence. Regardless of whether the monastery is high in the mountains, in a distant wilderness or in the center of urban chaos, the monastery walls serves its purpose: it protects, defends the inner life of the monastery from external influences not only visibly, but spiritually.

If the monastery has walls but its gates remain open from dawn until dusk for visitors, then the world and temptations will pour into the monastery. And this is for material gain [from pilgrim donations—Trans.] which pale in comparison to that which we lose—the prayer that we accumulate and the mental concentration of the souls entrusted to us. So even if a monastery church is the only one in town, it is wise to limit visiting times.

Some monks who live in noisy cities are guardians of historic sites, for instance, in the Holy City of Jerusalem. But even there, though these sites are meant for veneration for people from all over the world, pilgrims and tourists, they must guard against mobs of visitors. The gates to such monasteries must remain closed for large portions of the day.

The conditions under which one can preserve one’s monastic vows in urban monasteries depend on many internal and external factors. The monastery’s regulations, especially in urban communities, must offer its residents time for seclusion for prayer and spiritual reading. If a monk is given this opportunity after evening prayer, when he has little strength after the day just passed, then he may succumb to slumber from exhaustion. In our convent, we find solitude for the daily prayer rule during the day, two hours before the beginning of vespers, while we still have strength, and this time allows us to refresh in our minds the life of a saint that will be commemorated in church that evening. In practice, this is an foretaste of the coming divine services, for the smooth transition to evening prayer. Adherence to one’s vows is not an external matter, for we are called upon to tend to our mouths and our eyes to achieve our goals, but the main condition and foundation of the fulfillment of vows, both in the city and in secluded hermitages is to recite the Jesus Prayer unceasingly, which is the basis upon which the monastic life is built.

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation (Matthew 26:41), the Lord cautions us. As St. Isidore of Pelusium explains: “In these words of the Savior we must understand: pray so that temptation does not consume us. If the Savior had said what some people assume, that is, that you must pray lest you fall into any temptation at all, this would make no sense; for the Prophets, and the Apostles as well as other successful pious men all succumbed to great temptations. On the contrary, it might be impossible not to fall to temptation at all, but not to be conquered by them is in fact possible. So many of those who suffer ignorance in this matter can become inconsolable when facing hardship, meanwhile those who are guided by piety deflect misfortune not only by enduring temptations courageously but by pondering victory over them.”

When we utter the most sweet name of Jesus, then our mind, occupied with prayer, has neither the time nor the inclination to think of anything else, so that the very invoking of the name of Jesus Christ has the power to heal and purify the mind and heart from earthly bonds and protect us from failure and temptations.

Can anyone who finds himself in the midst of temptation not be tempted? No, of course not.

We are given examples of times when even during terrible persecutions and brutality against the Church of Christ, people would elect the path of monasticism. They lived and labored on par with laypersons in the cities, and such environments did not hinder them from fulfilling their monastic vows, for they were people of prayer, they burned with love and zeal for the ascetic life, for which they were glorified by the Church. In order the obtain such heartfelt fervor, people today must expend great effort, deny the temptations of the internet and constant flow of news from around the world, read Holy Scripture from a book, and not on a smart phone. Having a cell phone in your hand offers the temptation of reading the news of the day.

The monastic community, being an organism of the Holy Church, when healthy also possesses a robust immune system, just like the human body does. So a monk, as part of a monastic community and truly loving the monastic way of life, upon facing temptation can avoid the devil’s snares. He is helped, if you will, by his “monastic immunity,” which kills or resists the virus which attempts to infect his mind.

For all that is in the world, wrote the beloved disciple of Christ, is the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). This triple evil must be defeated by chastity, poverty and obedience. That is why true monasticism demands the fulfillment of three vows: virginity, poverty and obedience.

The monastery, a place of prayer and silence but located in a noisy city is fated to develop in “climatic conditions” hostile to prayer, if it is not separated into areas accessible and inaccessible to visitors.

Although monasteries may all differ in external ways, all monasteries contain people who labor in common thought, interests and goals—Christ. Sooner or later they will see Christ in the image of their brother, they will access Him through ascetic labors, fasting and inner peace. They will also see Christ in the face of a pilgrim, with whom he may not even speak, but whom he will join in prayer. But many pilgrims think that if a monastic doesn’t talk to them, the monk or nun is cold, haughty and condescending. On the contrary, if a monastic doesn’t speak to pilgrims, he is passing them by physically but not spiritually; without allowing them entry into his mind, he makes them a place in his heart, for he will pray for them in his cell.

St. Barsonophius the Great says: “Not all who live in a monastery are monks, only those who do the work of a monk.” It is not the task of a monastic to befriend pilgrims, the main work of a monk is to live in obedience, prayer, adhering to his monastic vows. An elder once told a monk: “Better they call you unwelcoming and brusque than they praise you and you fall into the prelest’ [self-deception] of pride…”

Socializing with pilgrims can be very dangerous, especially early in one’s monastic life. Pilgrims may unwittingly become the instrument of the devil and remind and stoke in the soul of the monk memories of earthly life.

Striving for perfection and to fulfilling Divine commandments is the nourishment for a monastic, whose path ascends to one’s own personal Transfiguration. Laypersons who may have the same desires walk along a horizontal path, knowingly or not immersed in the cares of daily life.

I can share one experience, though our convent is not an urban one. We are blessed by God to be located in a town of 700 people, 20 kilometers from Munich, but our monastery is the only Orthodox convent in Germany. Our practices show that while performing missionary work in a foreign land, where interest in Orthodox Christianity is growing, although we rarely turn away pilgrims, still, from 12-2 pm and during cell prayers from 4-6 pm, we close our doors to visitors. Before vigil, we open the doors, and after compline we close again. Our nuns do not have blessing to commune with pilgrims.

Our residents do not have personal effects or phones. The nuns do not have blessing to receive gifts from pilgrims or relatives. If they get a package in the mail, they must bring it to me and receive blessing as to what to do with it. Knowing the weaknesses of each nun, I sometimes give my blessing to share the gifts with one nun or another, or keep something for herself and give the rest for common use. In order to prevent the sisters from becoming attached to material goods, they do not have blessing to bring anything into their cells without the abbess’ blessing. By our rule, the nuns cannot and do not have their own money. Going to town for groceries is done by the nuns only once a week, usually on Mondays.

In one of his lectures, our spiritual father [Archbishop Mark of Berlin and Germany] noted the difference between monastic vows and consumption in society today:

the vow of poverty contrasts with the desire for unlimited consumption of material goods;
the vow of chastity contrasts with sexual promiscuity;
the vow of obedience contrasts with the unlimited “personal freedom” which leads one to self-confirmation at any cost.
The goal of monasticism is achieved through the voluntary fulfillment of Christian commandments and the fundamental monastic vows, which are based on Holy Scripture:

the vow of poverty: Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me (Matthew 19:21);
the vow of chastity: For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it (Matthew 19:12).
the vow of obedience: Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24).

The Role of Monks in the Church
from the Monastery (Catholic) of
Christ in the Desert.

O that today you would listen to His voice.—Psalm 94When I am lifted up I shall draw all men to myself.—John 12:32I have loved you with an everlasting love.—Jeremiah 31:3
All men and women are called to holiness, to be holy as God is holy. This is the source and goal of our human dignity. Some are called to serve the world by devoting all their energies to preaching the Gospel and tending the poor and needy. Some are called to bring new life into the world through married love. A few, however, are called in love to follow a road less traveled, to give themselves over to God alone in joyous solitude and silence, in constant prayer and willing penance. Such are the monks of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, whose “principal duty is to present to the Divine Majesty a service at once humble and noble within the walls of the monastery” (Perfectae Caritatis §§ 7 & 9).
In responding to God’s call to holiness, a contemplative monk fulfills an important role in the Church: he visibly witnesses in his life to the absolute priority of God to any created thing. The contemplative life, then, is the highest form of life that a Christian may live. It is called “the angelic life,” because our contemplation of God will continue in heaven and throughout all eternity. The life of the contemplative monk is already a foretaste of what is to come.
It is for this reason that Christ looks at a man with love and invites him to leave everything he has and to follow Him, to surrender radically to God in His mission for the salvation of mankind. (Mark 10:21). As the monk grows closer to God in love, he both draws God closer to the world and the world closer to God. Thus it comes about that we, too, even though we abstain from exterior activity, exercise nevertheless an apostolate of the very highest order, since we strive to follow Christ in the inmost heart of His saving mission.
Some website visitors read through this vocations section just to learn more about the monastic life at Christ in the Desert. They often wish to support us so that this life can be offered to a world greatly in need of such vocational opportunities, especially for the youth of today. You may do so here and be assured of our gratitude.

Our way of Life at the Monastery

The word monk (from the Greek μοναχός) refers to singleness of heart. A monk is single in several senses: by being celibate; by being single-minded or pure of heart in his dedication to God; and also by a desire for a simple life focused on the ‘one thing necessary’, as Jesus calls it, for eternal life. (Luke 10:42). In modern language a monk lives a life of integrity (wholeness) which he finds in relation to God. Importantly as well, a man desiring to become a monk does not enter an order, but a specific monastery. Thus the way of life or charism of a particular monastery is of greatest importance in the process of discernment.

Our Abbot Philip has declared:

 “Monastic life, as lived at Christ in the Desert, is relentless.” 

That mirrors the fact that we must be relentless in our search for God every day. When men come to join our community, sometimes they are in for a rude awakening because our life is so very active. One person called it a daily marathon — and it is. Contemplative life does not mean sitting around and thinking about God all day long or even being on our knees and praying to God all day long. Rather, contemplative life for us is the challenge of remembering God in all that we do, say and are during the whole day — while we go about the normal things that monks do. Those normal things are common prayer, common work, common meals, meetings, private prayer, Scripture reading — and of course, some sleep!

The first thing that will strike any visitor to our monastery is that we pray constantly. Christ in the Desert is only one of a handful of monasteries of men in the Americas that still faithfully prays the full psalmody every week as we were instructed to by St. Benedict. (RSB 18:23). Beginning in the early morning, well before sunrise, the monk’s day of prayer begins, when all of nature is silent and the monk is free to meet the living God. Because we gather in our Abbey Church eight times a day to chant the Psalms and celebrate Mass, it is only natural that the monk is molded by this rhythm and his whole life becomes a prayer taken up into that of Christ and the Church far beyond the limits of his understanding. He thus stands before God with and on behalf of all people.

Secondly, at least four hours of the monk’s every weekday is spent in labor.

 As the Rule says: “The Brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading … when they live by the work of their hands … then they are truly monks,” (RSB 48).

The Monastery of Christ in the Desert has no employees; all of its day to day work is done by the monastic community. The work engaged in by the monks any day might include cooking for the community, working in the vegetable gardens and on the grounds, painting cells, building walls, cleaning the guesthouse, working in the leather or tailor shops, clearing brush or making rosaries.

Thirdly, no guest leaves the Monastery of Christ in the Desert without noting the peace of the place and the joy of the community. The life of a faithful contemplative monk is joyfully lived in silence, prayer, work and contemplation while holding the deep needs of the world in his heart. The monk has the joy and support of living in the company of like-minded men, men who believe in prayer, who delight in serving their brothers and giving a witness to God’s love for mankind in the presence of our loving God.

How Can I Discern My Vocation?

My words are addressed to you especially, whoever you may be, whatever your circumstances, who turn from the pursuit of your own self-will and ask to enlist under Christ…”(RSB: Prologue)

The great mysteries of our faith, such as the Incarnation and the Trinity, are realities of profound beauty for the believer. A vocation, on the other hand, is not so mysterious. When speaking about a life of celibacy, Our Lord simply concludes: “He who is able to choose this, let him choose it.” (Matt. 19:12). A vocation is primarily a matter of choice — both ours and God’s. While God has called all Christians to holiness, He invites those who can accept a life of poverty, chastity and obedience to choose that life. Since it is an article of faith that none of us can undertake any good thing without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, (Council of Orange, 529 A.D. Canon 7; John 15:15), we can know with assurance that any wholesome desire to live the monastic life is a gift of God.

So if at some level you feel drawn to the monastic life, there are three simple and practical things that you can do to determine that such a prompting is from God.

The first is to avail yourself of grace. Participate in the sacraments fully, attending daily Mass if you are able, and going to Confession frequently. Develop your prayer life. Thank God for His great kindness and the many gifts He has given you. Pray that He may help you to be as generous with your life as the Father was in giving His Son to us. And if you are really bold, ask God to bless you with a religious vocation.
Secondly, and in line with prayer, acknowledge God as a Father who truly loves you and wishes to shower you with graces. Since you are God’s child, humbly ask Him to make His will known to you. Be assured He will answer you, as He will do anything that we ask in Christ’s name. (John 14:14). The way God often speaks affirmatively to us is by granting us the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22).
Thirdly, when Our Lord called His first disciples He told them to “come and see” how he lived. So get to know monastic life. Read the Rule of St. Benedict (especially the Prologue and Chapter 58). Read the lives of saintly men and women whose lives may inspire you. Do not be afraid to reach out to the Vocation Director of the monastery and discuss with him your sense of your vocation. He will be able to encourage you and help you think over carefully what is involved. And a natural thing to do is to come and see how monks live. Arrange to spend some time at the monastery, experiencing the rhythm of prayer and work of the monks.

A Prayer of Discernment–by Thomas Merton
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I actually am doing so. For I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you, and I hope that I have the desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadows of death. I will not fear, for you will not leave me to face the perils alone. Amen

Stages of Formation

After the community comes to know a prospective candidate, he can be invited to live with us for a time in the cloister. Once in the monastery he will participate fully in the life of the community. This stage is referred to as the Observership, and it usually lasts for a month or two depending on each individual. Next comes Postulancy, which is a period of one year. Postulants wear a simple black tunic (cassock) and leather belt, and attend classes with the novices and participate fully in the work and prayer of the monastery.

If the Abbot and his Council determine the postulant is ready, the postulant may petition the community for entry to the novitiate. The Novice receives a new monastic name along with the black tunic, belt and short hooded scapular. During this period of formation he will study the Psalms, chant, liturgy, monastic history and the Rule of Saint Benedict.

During initial formation (Observership, Postulancy and Novitiate) the brothers live in the Old Cells and St. Antony’s Novitiate, both of which are north of the main dormitory cloister of the monastery proper. St. Antony’s has its own chapel where the brothers in initial formation do Lectio Divina (sacred reading) together in common, as well as a gym. In addition to weekly classes, on Sundays and Solemnities the brothers in formation go on hikes together, play volleyball or, in summertime, swim in the Chama River.

At the end of the one year of novitiate, when the Chapter — that is the monks in solemn vows — approves his petition, he may make Simple Vows for one year. At the time of his Simple Profession he is clothed with a black tunic and the long scapular of the professed monks. Classes for the simply professed cover a wide range of topics, including monastic and Church history, liturgy, patristics, philosophy and theology — allowing the monk to focus on a particular field of interest. Simple Vows are renewed each year, normally lasting for a period of three years.

The next stage in a monk’s life begins with his Solemn Profession. This commitment is for life. A Benedictine monk takes the vows of Obedience, Stability, and Conversion of Life. (RSB 58). It is at this point that the monk is given a long black choir robe, known as the Cuculla or Cowl, and assumes the responsibility of a chapter member, those who meet with the Abbot and vote on important matters in the monastery.

God has blessed our monastery with many wonderful vocations. It is perhaps because of our humble way of life and great fidelity to monastic tradition that we have attracted so many vocations. Currently we have six postulants, ten novices and six brothers preparing for Solemn Vows, and during the last 25 years we have made three monastic foundations (two in Mexico and one in Texas) and have helped revive four other contemplative monasteries.


Test the spirits to see if they are from God.
–John 4:1
A vocation involves three parties: God who calls, the person who is called, and the Church which, guided by the Holy Spirit, determines whether the call is genuine. In this case, the Church is represented by the Abbot and Community. The testing of a vocation is an interplay of human and divine freedoms and, of necessity, takes some time.

There are, however, some objective criteria which are essential for a genuine vocation to our monastic life. A candidate must be male, single, Roman Catholic, and have received the Sacrament of Confirmation. He must be free from all binding obligations to his family and should not be in debt. In addition to this he should have lived a good, moral, Catholic life for a number of years and, normally, have shown that he is capable of earning his own living. Our life is joyful and rewarding, but it is also demanding, and therefore a candidate needs robust mental and physical health and an ability to live with others in community. Usually he will be between 20 and 35 years of age. He will need the intellectual ability to gain spiritual benefit from two hours of spiritual reading (Lectio Divina) a day and to be able to participate fully in the Mass and Office. Count Montalembert, in his Monks of the West (1872), said that to be a good monk one needs the characteristics of simplicity, generosity and a sense of humor. That still holds true today.

If you are interested in a vigorous monastic life with much prayer and emphasis on seeking God, if you are drawn to common prayer with brothers who are seeking God, if you can accept obedience and humility, then perhaps this is the community for you. If you would like information about joining the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, please contact our Novicemaster or fill in the inquiry form below.

Friday, 15 September 2017



Along with the majority of our readers, "I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church," as is proclaimed in the Creed, but I do not believe in the schisms that divide us, at least, not in the same way as I believe in what the Creed proclaims.  I know they exist and would not cross any line that is forbidden to cross by any of our sister churches: I respect them too much. However, I know these barriers were erected by us human beings because our opinions of each other had passed beyond the limits of our charity into the darkness of self-satisfied ignorance. As the Divine Liturgy implies, because we had ceased to love one another, we became unable to sing the Creed together with one mind; and we called this inability "orthodoxy".

If God had abandoned us, this would have been a terrible error, a victory for Satan, and a large part of the Christian world would have been swept clear of God's grace.   But Christ promised that where two or three are gathered together in His Name, He would be in our midst; that if anyone asked for the gift of the Holy Spirit, it would be granted; that He would be with us until the end of time and that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church.  Moreover, at the very centre of history is the Cross, with the Holy Spirit pulsating outwards to all human beings and human events everywhere; with the crucified Christ stretching out to all sinners, bringing about humility where once there was pride, a humility that allows us to share in his sacrifice.   Also, in spite of our unworthiness, Christ has allowed us to humbly  him by celebrating his Eucharist down the ages; and it is here where we become his body that we find our visible unity in Christ which none of us can destroy because it is not our work but His. 

Whoever celebrates the Eucharist celebrates with all others who celebrate, or have celebrated or will celebrate the Eucharist, because there is only one Eucharist.  The ecumenical problem is how to live out in our everyday ecclesial life what we celebrate in the Eucharist.  For us Catholics, at this moment, Pope Francis is leading the way.

After Pope Francis attended the Armenian Orthodox Mass during his visit to Armenia, he said,
“We have met, we have embraced as brothers, we have prayed together and shared the gifts, hopes and concerns of the Church of Christ,” Francis told Karekin on Sunday, after taking part in an Orthodox Divine Liturgy staged at the headquarters of the Apostolic Church in Etchmiadzin.

“We have felt as one her beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one,” he said.

He said that, even though he could not communicate, he felt the beating heart of the Catholic Church in the Eucharist, and that, in that experience, Catholics and Armenians together, "We believe and experience that the Church is one."

It is as assertion of absolute unity in Christ through the Eucharist that is contradicted by the schism.  It is an urgent challenge to Catholics, Armenians and anyone else who finds themselves in this position, like Fr Peter Heers and the Greek Orthodox, to try to solve the problems that keep us apart.  This teaching doesn't justify the schism, but shares out both the blame and the responsibility to love one another that the Eucharist implies and, within the context of ecclesial love, to jointly seek the solution. It means that

 Schism contradicts the deepest self of every church that is involved.  

Schism must be tackled because it makes the Church invisible to the world. Only unity in love makes it visible to   ordinary people (Jn 17, 21)

In this post, the only papal visits that shall be mentioned are those to Armenia and Egypt.  This isn't because his meetings with the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow, or his meeting with the head of the Assyrian Church are any less importance.  In fact, his friendship with Patriarch Bartholomew is extremely important as is hisdesire for a friendship with Moscow.  But there is enough material to show us what Pope Francis' ecclesiology is, what doctrine underpins the ecumenical dimension of his pontificate.   He considers it the first task of the Petrine ministry to work for unity, both within and without the Roman Communion, whether people believe in the papacy or not.  There were different understandings of the papacy in the first thousand years, but that didn't stop the pope exercising his ministry.  That wasn't a problem, and it shouldn't be now.

There isn't anything here about his attitude towards Protestants whose separation from ecclesial structures were much more radical and involved the rejection of Tradition in favour of sola scriptura.  Pope Francis says that the absolute essential for being a Christian is a personal relation with Christ.   In this relationship, Christ always gives himself to the believer fully, motivated by divine mercy and - to quote Luther - in actu fidei Jesus Christus adest.  Hence, there is already an implicit connection with and benefit from the celebration of Mass from which history has excluded them, and this benefit is mediated to them through their own ecclesial structures, even through their communion services that are, from a Catholic point of view, are objectively invalid.   This is already implicit in Catholic practice that will give to a Protestant holy communion in cases of extreme need if he believes in the real presence, but not if his own objectively invalid sacrament is available.   We don't know how God benefits them through their communion service, but we do know that God is infinite in his Mercy and Christ is infinite in his divine ability to act, so we can hope for the best.   The basis for Pope Francis' whole theology about anything is the absolute generosity of God's Mercy in every concrete circumstance. This is the reason why he accepts the Orthodox distinction between acribia, strict observance of the Church's rules, and economia, an appeal to the overall purpose of the Christian Mystery - the salvation of each person.   Both are important - the Church cannot do without either - and, in the Church, it is up to the bishops in each region to decide, not the individual conscience. However, in cases outside the Church's control, God's Mercy has the last word.

my source in this blog

I don't know if Pope Francis has ever read Thomas Merton or whether Thomas Merton ever helped to mould Pope Francis's ideas; but I do know that understanding one will help us to understand the other.   The basic belief of both is in the incarnate God whose presence and salvific activity finds its fullness of expression in the Catholic Church.   The Church is uniquely Catholic and true because it is the body of him who is the universal Cause and Source of salvation.   However, they are both conscious that, when God became man , he was united to the whole human race by the power of the Spirit.

 A change took place at the very heart of each human being, at the point, deep down, where God's creative action across time and space results in each person's continued existence .   At the very point where Infinite Love loves us into existence, a link was made  by the Holy Spirit at the Incarnation between each person and Christ, a link that unites us all to Christ and to what he did to save us.  This link allowed Christ to take all our suffering and all our sin on himself, and gave his sacrifice the capacity to be our sacrifice too, his death and resurrection to be ours.   Thus, in Christ, the whole human race became one in a new way, an organism brought about by Grace.

The moment when Father Louis (Thomas Merton) realised this has become famous.   Here is his own account of his experience:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you.Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and “understood” by a peculiar gift.
He wrote on another occasion:
Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true. ”
He also said that Christ is everywhere, absolutely everywhere, and we must dig to find him in every situation.

 As a Desert Father put it, just as a change in the weather affects both good and bad alike, so Christ's death and resurrection brought all human beings into a radically new situation.   However, it is a situation which we must poritively choose whenever the opportunity arises.
We were brought into the world without our consent; but, as far as possible, we will be saved by Christ only in so far as we consent to his action in us.

 To this end, Christ founded the Church which proclaims the Truth and celebrates the Christian Mystery, becoming one body with Christ, Christ's visible presence on earth.   It is the place where the Christian life can be consciously chosen and lived.   It is also the place for absolute values arising from our relationship with the absolute authority of God. We can assent to them because membership of the Church offers us the possibility of sharing in Christ's mind, mainly through our sharing in the Liturgy and in Catholic Tradition.   Hence the Church is a place for clear, authoritative teaching.  

In contrast, we live in a world in which each person has to decide what is good and pursue it, find out what is bad and reject it.   No one is exempt from this; no one can stop thinking and simply passively accept other peoples' judgements.   In the words of Thomas Merton, we must all stand on our own feet.   Even when we come to realise the necessity for a teaching Church with clear moral principles, we arrive at that position, swimming against the current, by our own individual choice, by following what we believe to be good and rejecting what we believe to be evil.   Cardinal John Henry Newman came to accept the authority of the Catholic Church,  but only after a long pilgrimage and a chain of highly personal decisions.

In Pope Francis's interview with Scafari,  the following dialogue took place:
He [the Pope] is still smiling and replies: "Proselytism is a solemn foolishness, it makes no sense. We must get to know each other, listen to each other, and increase the understanding of the world that surrounds us. It happens to me that after one encounter I have the desire for another, because new ideas emerge and new needs are discovered. This is important: to get to know one another, listen to one another, broaden the circle of thought. The world is covered with roads that come together and draw apart, but the important thing is that they lead toward the good."
Your Holiness, is there a single vision of the good? And who establishes it?
"Each one of us has his own vision of good and also of evil. We must incite him to proceed toward that which he thinks is the good."
Your Holiness, you have already written about this in the letter you addressed to me. Conscience is autonomous, you said, and each must obey his own conscience. I think that this is one of the most courageous passages spoken by a pope.
"And I repeat it here. Each one of us has his own idea of good and of evil, and he must choose to follow the good and fight the evil as he understands them. This would be enough to improve the world."
Pope Francis is only following the teaching of John Henry Newman who wrote: "It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing."   He also said,"I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards."
Thomas Merton also put emphasis on the individual's personal quest.  He wrote:

In the last analysis, the individual person is responsible for living his own life and for 'finding himself.' If he persists in shifting his responsibility to somebody else, he fails to find out the meaning of his own existence.
Both Pope Francis and Thomas Merton choose dialogue as the main means for communicating with the world around them.   Teaching Catholic Truth about faith and morals is only apt for those who have attained enough communion in Christ and the Church for the teachings to make sense.   When this is not so, and it is not so for most people in the modern world, what Pope Benedict called the "Tyranny of Relativism" is often the only option.   Hammering away at them with our absolute prohibition of abortion, for example, will not convince them.  Neither will hiding our conviction that abortion is wrong.   However, there are other, more basic subjects that have to be agreed between us for our conviction against abortion to make sense to them

What drives both Pope Francis and Thomas Merton to dialogue is the conviction that Christ is already present anonymously in the people who are struggling to discover what is good and reject what is evil, even when they are in disagreement.   We look for Christ in them, look for common ground; knowing that, if we discover this common ground and the work of grace in them, we will also learn more about what it is to be a disciple of Christ.   Humble obedience to Christ, wherever he is, and however he presents himself, is the secret of growth.   The dialogue partner of Pope Francis is "modern man"; while the dialogue partner of Thomas Merton was, so often, Buddhist and Hindu holy men.   Dialogue can only take place if we believe that, in Christ, God united himself to the whole human race, and that God's activity in the heart of each human being complements the Church's task of proclaiming the Gospel.  What is offered by God to all is a reality above and beyond words: in the heart, God acts at  deeper level than the place where words are formed; and, in the proclamation by the Church, it is not the arguments so much as the witness of those who proclaim the Gospel that tells people that there is a Reality beyond the message that reveals itself through the message, nothing less than a share in the divine Life.
We are used to Popes who teach faith and morals as though all those who listen are sufficiently "Catholic" to simply accept what they say because they share the same faith as the Pope.   For some time, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have urged the necessity for a New Evangelisation.   Perhaps they did not realise that it would be necessary to speak to the "de-evangelised" in a different way from the way they were accustomed to speak to the faithful.   That is what Pope Francis is doing.

by Yelena Ambartsumian
my source: Public Orthodoxy

Ahead of Pope Francis’s recent visit to Armenia (June 24-26), there was much speculation as to whether he would again use the word “genocide” in reference to the massacres of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. The prepared remarks, released by the Vatican, appeared to omit that politically charged designation—instead opting for words such as “tragedy,” “slaughter,” and “immense suffering.” Nevertheless, once in Armenia, Pope Francis departed from the prepared text and said, “Sadly, that tragedy, that genocide, was the first of the deplorable series of catastrophes of the past century, made possible by twisted racial, ideological or religious aims that darkened the minds of the tormentors even to the point of planning the annihilation of entire peoples.”

Turkey responded by suggesting that Pope Francis and his Papacy possess “all the reflections and traces of [a] crusader mentality.” Last year, after Pope Francis had referred to the massacres as what is “widely considered ‘the first genocide of the 20th century’” at a centennial commemoration in Saint Peter’s Basilica, Turkish President Recep Erdogan swiftly condemned the Pope and recalled Turkey’s ambassador to the Holy See for ten months.

Given this context, Pope Francis’s visit to Armenia came at a critical time.  Armenia is a landlocked country of about 3 million people. It is bordered by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Georgia. Two of its borders—those with Turkey and Azerbaijan—have been closed to Armenia since the majority-Armenian populated region of Nagorno Karabakh sought independence from Azerbaijan and reunification with Armenia in the early 1990’s. That conflict remains unresolved: in April of this year, Azerbaijan tried, unsuccessfully, to take back Nagorno Karabakh by force.

In many ways, Armenia’s isolation transcends its current physical boundaries. Even though the Armenians were the first people to accept Christianity as their official religion (301 AD), their church has been sacramentally independent of Roman and Eastern Christianity since its rejection of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Despite the pressures from its geographic and economic isolation, however, Armenia has demonstrated to the rest of the Christian world that it takes its moral responsibilities seriously. Indeed, Armenia has welcomed 20,000 refugees from Syria over the past few years.

The sites chosen during Pope Francis’s visit have both religious and political significance to the Armenian people. Most evident of this was Pope Francis’s trip to Khor Virap with Karekin II (Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians). Khor Virap (meaning “Deep Pit”) is the site of Armenia’s conversion to Christianity: it is where Saint Gregory the Illuminator was imprisoned for thirteen years before miraculously healing King Tiridates of a mysterious illness and then baptizing the King. Khor Virap is also the vantage point of Armenia’s great territorial losses.  If one looks toward the west, one can see Mount Ararat—a symbol of Armenia—which is now located within the closed borders of modern-day Turkey. At Khor Virap, Pope Francis and Karekin II released white doves toward Turkey, as a gesture of peace. In fact, throughout his visit, Pope Francis repeatedly called on Armenia and Turkey to reconcile.

Pope Francis’s visit was also ecumenically important.  Reflecting on his time praying with Karekin II, Pope Francis said, “We have felt as one [the Church’s] beating heart, and we believe and experience that the Church is one.”  Karekin II, addressing the faithful in Gyumri, Armenia, noted that “Gyumri and the church of the Holy Mother of God (Yotverk) became a tangible provider and preacher for ecumenism, years before the modern definition of ecumenism was established.”  Indeed, throughout the Soviet period, the parish was a refuge for Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians alike.

Cementing the ecumenical purpose of the trip, at a final Mass on June 26th, Pope Francis said, “May an ardent desire for unity rise up in our hearts, a unity that must not be the submission of one to the other, or assimilation, but rather the acceptance of all the gifts that God has given to each,” and then asked Karekin II to, “Bless me, bless me and the Catholic Church, and bless this path toward full unity.”

Pope Francis’s respect for and handling of the Armenian Church demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the Armenian people. After centuries of constant external pressure, the Armenian self-identity has developed in a way that looks largely inward.  Indeed, due to Armenia’s vacillating status as a regional  power, buffer state, and finally a subjugated and persecuted people, the Armenians have learned to rely on themselves and to distrust others.

The Armenian identity thus conceives of its people’s inherent uniqueness, based on a common ethnicity, language, religion, and historical experience. Armenia’s adoption of Christianity coupled with its independence from Byzantium—its powerful neighbor—helps to explain this paradoxical self-identity. As historian Nina Garsoian writes, “The conversion of Armenia to Christianity was probably the most crucial step in its history.  It turned Armenia sharply away from its Iranian past and stamped it for centuries with an intrinsic character as clear to the native population as to those outside its borders, who identified Armenia almost at once as the first state to adopt Christianity.” Moreover, the creation of the Armenian alphabet in the early 5th century helped to further homogenize and differentiate Armenian culture from its Christian neighbors, allowing its churches to conduct their Liturgies in Armenian, rather than in Greek or Syriac. Centuries later, the persecution and massacres of the Armenian people during the Ottoman Empire’s decline, undoubtedly, pushed the Armenian identity further inward. The vast territorial losses that accompanied these massacres left the surviving Armenian population clinging to the highlands of modern-day Armenia and, failed by the great powers, to each other.

Pope Francis appeared fully cognizant of this history and underscored these themes when he addressed the Armenian people, stating, “Your own people’s memory is ancient and precious. Your voices echo those of past sages and saints; your words evoke those who created your alphabet in order to proclaim God’s word; your songs blend the afflictions and the joys of your history. As you ponder these things, you can clearly recognize God’s presence.  He has not abandoned you.” Pope Francis also challenged the Armenian faithful to strive for unity, so that—with the assistance of God’s mercy—we might all overcome divisions.

Thus far, Pope Francis has shown the Armenians that he stands with them and is willing, despite political pressure, to challenge Turkey’s denialist narrative. While Armenia has been understandably reluctant to look outside of itself or beyond its diaspora, the country would be well served to continue to strengthen its ties with Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church. This visit was a promising start.

Yelena Ambartsumian is a graduate of the Fordham College at Lincoln Center Honors Program (2010) and Fordham Law School (2013).

by Massimo Faggioli                                my source: Public Orthodoxy

Pope Francis’ trip to Egypt (April 28-29, 2017) has been one of the most important and difficult for this pontificate, given the international political situation and the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt and of all Christians between Africa and the Middle East. It is not easy to look at this trip through one single interpretive lens, and therefore it requires the attempt to read it in the context of the pontificate.

A first level was the trip of Francis as expression of the modern magisterium of the pope of the Catholic Church on the relationship between religion as defensor of human rights and political rights in an age of evident crisis of faith not only in God, but also in our fellow human beings – the crisis of democracy. Interestingly, in his speech to the strongman of Egypt, general Al Sisi, and to the political authorities, Francis quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 but also from the Egyptian Constitution of 2014, delivering a blunt reminder to Egyptian political authorities: “It is our duty to proclaim together that history does not forgive those who preach justice, but then practice injustice.” Francis walked a very fine line between the need to avoid the impression of a papal blessing of the post-Islamist regime of Al Sisi in Egypt, more friendly to Christians than the brief period of Morsi on one side, and on the other side the need not to be silent before the disturbing record of the present regime in terms of the respect of democratic rights and of freedom.

The second level was the inter-religious relations. Pope Francis had to deal with the difficult legacy of the Regensburg address of Benedict XVI in 2006, which was a typical example of the divided and mutually opposed and deeply misguided, ideological receptions of Ratzinger’s most important public pronouncements (similarly to what happened to the famous speech on the “two hermeneutics of Vatican II” of December 2005). For hardliner, “occidentalist” Catholics the Regensburg speech was the gold standard of the Catholic response to Islam, while for some Muslims it was the manifestation of the crusading mentality of the Vatican. Despite the attempts to frame Bergoglio’s response to the invitation to the peace conference organized by Al Azhar as “Francis’ Regensburg speech”, the tone and the content were significantly different. In his speech to the international peace conference at Al Azhar, Francis quoted from the Second Vatican Council (the declaration Nostra Aetate on non-Christian religions and the constitution Gaudium et Spes on the Church in the modern world) and from John Paul II’s visits to Egypt in 2000 and from the first interreligious meeting of prayer in Assisi in 1986).

There is then the third level of the ecumenical and ecclesial relations, where the intra-Catholic and the inter-Christian relations are more interconnected than before. There are technical aspects of his visit and agreement with Pope Tawadros II that will have to be evaluated in time, especially about re-baptism: “Today we, Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II, in order to please the heart of the Lord Jesus, as well as that of our sons and daughters in the faith, mutually declare that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other.” In this respect, also pope Tawadros has to deal with the “dubia” raised through the media by his opponents.

What is most important is that Francis’ visit to Egypt has confirmed the complex nature of the ecumenical dimension of this pontificate, where we can see three kinds of ecumenism. The first ecumenism is that of bilateral relations between Churches: commissions of theologians and prelates who discuss documents that the Churches will have to approve or reject, or approve and put in a drawer. Francis sees a role for this ecumenism of bilateral commissions and official joint declarations, but without being driven or bound by this kind of relationship that is typical of the ecumenism of the post-Vatican II period and which has brought significant fruits, especially on the basis of relations of the Catholic Church with Lutherans, Anglicans, and Orthodox, but also with non-Chalcedonian Churches (the 1973 Common Declaration of Pope Paul VI and the Pope of Alexandria Shenouda III). Francis is aware of the different roles of the official ecumenical dialogues and of the ecumenical dialogue that is related to his “ecclesiology of the people”: an ecclesiology of the people endowed with an infallibilitas in credendo (exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of November 24, 2013, par. 119) – the people’s infallibility in the foundations of its faith. The ecumenical relations between different Churches need solemn acts and official texts, but without the reception of them by the people they would be meaningless. Francis knows that post-Vatican II ecumenism has been made and received by the lay Christian faithful and that there is no hermeneutical re-discussion of Vatican II that can stop this progress.

Then there is a second type of ecumenism, of which Francis has often spoken: “the ecumenism of blood” (from the beginning of his pontificate: see his interview with Andrea Tornielli of the Italian newspaper La Stampa, 14 December 2013), the brotherhood and sisterhood of Christians of every church and theological tradition in the face of persecutions, especially in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. On this score, it is significant that the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, joined Francis in Egypt in a show of solidarity with Coptic Christians.  Martyrdom as a theological source is redefining ecumenism more than the theological and ecclesiastical systems in the West can comprehend. The issue of refugees escaping persecution is a humanitarian and political issue, but also an interfaith and ecumenical one. From discussions about “Eucharistic hospitality” (giving communion to Christians who are members of another Church, not Catholic-Roman) we have moved on to the problem of hospitality tout court of those who (including many Christians, Catholics and not) flee from death and destruction: it is not a theologically less relevant question than that of Eucharistic communion. Christianity is now put to the test more by its response to the humanitarian crisis of today than by the dogmatic obstacles in the full communion between Churches.

Finally, there is the third type of ecumenism, the one it is most difficult to speak in the Catholic Church, for it is the most difficult and delicate: intra-Catholic ecumenism, among Catholics of devotions and different “obediences” and idiosyncratic identities. Francis insistently called to dialogue and rejection of sectarianism between Churches, but also within the Catholic Church. Francis has repeatedly appealed to the various Catholic movements to coexist in local churches without temptation to occupy spaces or claim primogeniture rights. His trip to Egypt was a powerful reminder against the Catholic temptation to see Christianity through a West vs. East lens: it has been a subtle message against the Catholic “Orientalization” of the Eastern Churches – the temptation to see in them something like a museum of exotic, pre-modern and anti-modern Christianity – as well as against the Catholic “Occidentalization” of itself – Catholicism as an essentially Western religion. In this sense, Francis’ ecumenism is challenging different kinds of Catholics certainly not less than non-Catholic Christians.

Massimo Faggioli is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.

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