"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

Saturday 9 August 2008

MONKS by Abbot Joseph of Mt Tabor Monastery (originally published in "Gladsome Light" 2003.

By Abbot Joseph of Mt. Tabor Monastery
(originally published in "Gladsome Light," Summer 2003)

"The monastic vocation is a mystery…
we are constantly rediscovering what it means to be a monk"
(Thomas Merton)

Monks are a curious breed. They don't really fit the mentality of the modern world. Monks are unknown or misunderstood or disdained or simply ignored by just about everyone, though they are appreciated and even loved by those who do understand. For some, the existence of monks is a comfort; for others, a prick of the conscience. In the eyes of some, monks are useless and dusty relics of an irrelevant past; in the eyes of others they are prophetic witnesses to the world. It is characteristic of the monk, however, that none of the above really matters a whole lot to him. He has a calling from God and he simply goes about following it.

The vocation of the monk can be called a "mystery" in two senses of the word. Primarily it is a divine mystery, that is, a reality proceeding from God, at once hidden and revealed, expressing in its essence something of the grace, wisdom, peace, and fruitfulness of God. Monastic consecration is a mystery akin to the sacramental mysteries of the Church, in which an inner change is effected through an outward ritual or symbol and hence becomes a wellspring of Divine Energy.

Yet this vocation is, to many (even sometimes to the monk himself), a "mystery" in the more common sense of the word. It is baffling, strange, something that cannot be figured out by rational analysis, something that eludes definition and even contradicts what many people regard as normal, sensible, and acceptable by the standards of today's world. Therefore I find myself searching in vain for adequate words to present to you the simple yet profound calling of the monk.

I do not wish to say much here about poverty, chastity, and obedience, though they are important parts of the foundation of monastic life. Very much is said about the vows in other places. (As I was writing that sentence, I accidentally typed "wows" instead of "vows." Perhaps that could be a beginning of a meditation on those gifts of God!) But the essence of the vows will be implied in much of what follows.

Essentially, the monastic life is a specific response of a restless heart to the call of the One in whom alone that heart can find rest. "Only in God is my soul at rest" (Psalm 61/62: 2). The Caller of Restless Hearts speaks to all, of course, but the monastic response is unlike most others. For the monastic way of life (unlike that of the Christian in the world) is not one that seeks to ennoble the elements of the secular life while simultaneously partaking of its joys and sorrows. It is rather one that endeavors to transcend the conventions of secular society in a single-minded, single-hearted pursuit of God – not for the sake of escaping the harsh realities of life through attaining mystical ecstasy, but for the sake of the transformation of the very world he has left behind, that the Light of Christ may shine on all who still may be living in the shadows of sin and death.

But even this way of speaking is not entirely accurate, for the use of terms like "endeavor" and "pursuit" may give the impression that the monk is trying to achieve something by his own effort or strength, rather than hoping to receive something (for himself and others) through his radical availability for the movement of the Spirit of God. For it is the vocation of the monk to be an empty vessel, a listening heart, a faithful servant – like the Virgin Mary, who could pronounce an unconditional "yes" to the will of God, because her heart was already wholly with Him. She loved humanity like no other, yet she was not enmeshed in attachments that would diminish her freedom and availability to offer her whole life to God.

Despite the impression one may get from reading literature on monastic life, it is not about a quest for personal perfection or self-mastery. As soon as the goal of monastic life becomes self-anything, the monk has lost his bearings and is on the road to pride, self-absorption, and ultimately a distaste for the things of God and hence a betrayal of his original calling.

There is, to be sure, a goal for which the monk offers his life, but it is not one that requires him to pay much attention to himself or his own inner states, even for the sake of "seeking holiness." A monk, like any Christian, should seek God. Holiness will follow all by itself if our one desire is simply God. The Indian mystic, Sundar Singh, who became a disciple of Christ, once said: "When people ask me, 'What made you a follower of the Master?' I can only answer: the Master."

The goal of monastic life is nothing less than the transfiguration of all humanity and the whole universe unto the image of the crucified and glorified Christ. Every deified soul contributes immensely to the radical renewal and salvation of the world. It's not that monks think they can accomplish this on their own. They just know that this goal is God's will, and they want to sacrifice their lives for the fulfillment of God's purpose in creating us in the first place. So what do monks do to that end? A question that has often been put to us is: "What do you guys do?" We may begin by saying that our vocation as contemplatives is to pray and intercede and worship and work, to share in Christ's agony and ecstasy, and thus to help restore the fallen world to God's original dream. The inevitable rejoinder is: "OK, but what do you guys do?" So, seeing that they are looking for a more active or productive dimension to monastic life, we might say that we run a retreat house and occasionally go out to preach retreats or give conferences, publish a quarterly newsletter, or (as we did in the past) host a summer theological institute. "Yeah, but like, what do you do?" Sigh. guess we really don't do anything that would satisfy those who simply must see a product that will somehow justify our existence. Thomas Merton once said that the only justification for monastic life is the glory of God.

St Silouan of Athos had something to say about what monks do. "There are people who say that monks ought to be of some use in the world… but we have to understand the nature of a monk's services and the way in which he has to help the world. A monk is someone who prays for the whole world, who weeps for the whole world; and in this lies his main work… Thanks to monks, prayer continues unceasingly on earth, and the whole world profits, for through prayer the world continues to exist; but when prayer fails, the world will perish... Thus has the Holy Spirit schooled the monk to love God and to love the world...

"Though a monk takes thought for earthly things, so far as is needful for the life of the body, his spirit burns with love for God; though he labor with his hands, in mind he continues with God… He will keep a conscience pure in all things… He humbles his soul, and by humility repulses the enemy from himself and from those that ask his prayers… Just as the angels perpetually serve God in spirit, so too must the mind of the monk ever dwell in God, and day and night meditate upon the word of God… The world does not know how a monk prays for the whole universe – people do not see his prayers and how they are received by the Lord in His mercy."

So prayer is at the heart of the monastic vocation. Prayer is something that many people do not understand or do not value sufficiently. Even people who do pray may still not understand why one would wish to live a life of prayer. And there is also a more general attitude that is expressed in ways such as, "We've done all we can in this situation. There's nothing left to do but pray." Prayer is seen as a last resort, something one does as a kind of compensation for not being able to offer any practical help, something that is usually left to old ladies laden with prayer beads and holy cards, while those who really want to change the world get out there and make things happen.

Mother of God enthroned But people who have a deeper understanding of the mystery of the Body of Christ, of the profound and dynamic (though often invisible) interconnection of all created things and persons, will understand that prayer ought to be the first resort instead of the last. The ability to enter into communication and communion with the Ultimate Power and Wisdom and Personal Loving Sustainer, Origin and Destiny of the Whole Universe surely ought to merit some regard from those who would like to change the world for the better. When we say that a monk prays for the world, we are saying that "in his stillness he holds the whole of humanity close to the healing presence of God" (Andrew Louth).

St Silouan understood this, so he entered a monastery where he could learn to pray without ceasing. A few other people understand this, and they try to keep prayer at the heart of their lives. Monks are called to change the world, that is, they are called to pray.

Yet there are a couple of other things that monks have to do, although these, like everything else, are still related to prayer: monks have to go to work and go to war.

Work is an important dimension in the life of monks, even though we don't do the 9 to 5. Actually, our day is more like the 5 to 9, starting early and going in and out of periods of prayer and work of various sorts until evening brings the deep silence. Whether it is manual or intellectual labor, the monk is required to give the best of his time and talents to the service of God and the community, to be productive and to avoid idleness at all costs. We know from the parable of the talents that slackers get the boot when it's time to pass out rewards. In recent years, much has been written on the dignity of work, but monks have known this all along. Monks have learned to combine prayer with work, and anything that is compatible with prayer is thereby ennobled, especially when it is consciously offered as a gift to God.

Study is a kind of work as well. The mind has to be exercised along with the body and the spirit. Historically, monks have often been among those who have advanced the intellectual and cultural life of the Church and even of the secular society. Yet there is no college degree required for entering a monastery (not ours anyway!), only a heart that is willing to serve, to pray, to work, to grow, and to do all for the glory of God. But if the mind is not given anything to stretch its capacities to understand the marvelous works of God, it will atrophy, and the spirit will soon follow.

Any other requirements? Oh yes, one also has to be willing to fight. A monk may be a pacifist when is comes to the wars of men, but in the arena of the soul he must continually fight the good fight, for the battle is with the "spiritual hosts of wickedness" (Ephesians 6: 12). The monk is on the "front line" of the spiritual warfare, starting with his own inner life and expanding to the cosmic battles of principalities and powers. Look at the face of an old, experienced monk, and you will see not merely the marks of aging, but war wounds: tracks of tears and the lines of long, silent struggles. But in his eyes there will still be burning the fire of love for God and the unshakable confidence that all things are accomplished, all enemies vanquished, through the grace of Christ who strengthens us.

"Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2Timothy 3: 12). This "persecution" may at times take the form of attacks from outsiders and visible enemies, but more often than not the monk is persecuted by the invisible enemies, the powers of darkness and his own inner "demons" that must be exorcised by unceasing prayer and unswerving fidelity to the word of the Master. So, far from a boring (or even tranquil!) life, the monastic journey is a dangerous adventure, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, but always with a deep undercurrent of peace and joy, for the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and the hope of heaven is ever alive.

All of the above we do, not as solitary individuals, but as members of a body – the monastic community and the whole mystical Body of Christ. When the branches are connected to the Vine they are thereby connected to each other as well. Solitude and silence are indispensable for the monastic vocation of prayer and seeking God, but the more "outgoing" side of brotherly love, communication, and cooperation is also an important part of the whole picture. Part of the work of a community that is really alive in Christ is to continually seek the balance, amid the inner and outer vicissitudes of life, between silence and speaking, liturgy and contemplation, solitude and community, cloister and hospitality – in short, all the ways the monk must both bear fruit and share fruit. He has freely received and so must freely give, though always keeping vigilance over the inner treasure of the heart, the life of grace within.

Looking back over this article, I see that I haven't really said much at all, haven't gone beneath the tip of the iceberg. I have touched on several essential points, but monasticism is still more profound, and hence elusive. It exists concretely only in the hearts of those who actually walk that path, who dare to delve into the Mystery, who are willing to pay the price (which you never know beforehand) of living a life which has no sense whatever apart from the mystifying, attracting, demanding, loving, all-embracing presence of the living God.

Come what may, despite all changing trends and fashions, despite all the pendulum swings in the life of the Church and the mentality of the world, and in the midst of the sin and sorrows of life, "monks must be as trees which exist silently in the dark and by their vital presence purify the air" (Thomas Merton).


* We keep a gentle silence every day until supper, except on Sundays and Feasts (days of joy and sharing).
* "Poustinia" every Wednesday, i.e. a whole day of silent retreat and fasting and prayerful seclusion.
* We celebrate the full cycle of the Divine Office, as did the Early Church, with daily Divine Liturgy.
* We keep all liturgical home-customs, and teach them to our people.
* We follow all the fast periods of ancient Monasticism, and profit highly of their blessings.


Holy Transfiguration Monastery is an autonomous monastic community under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Catholic Metropoly in the U.S. and of the Eparchy of St. Nicholas in Chicago.


It is hard to describe or to summarize life. Life must be lived and experienced in practice. This applies to a Monastery which is an anticipation of the Kingdom, a mystery of the presence of the Beloved who is the Great Unseen, in faith, hope, and love. We can only try to approach it through various "channels" of life, put down in the following six points, the fruit of a practical experience of many years. Therefore, they should be meditated upon slowly, with a listening heart, as an invitation to share this life with us.

1. The Vertical Dimension of this life consists in a total openness for God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - in order to share His intimate life and creative love, the source and meaning of all real life. This openness is not abstract or self-made. It is embodied and nourished by a fitting lifestyle, built up by several elements, e.g. an atmosphere of praise and deep prayerfulness, a strong, personal and shared prayer life, fervent worship and sacramental life, a climate of peace and gentle silence (necessary to stay under the Word and to be attentive to the whispering of the Spirit, as well as to respect the work of God in others), and relative seclusion as the natural medium of this lifestyle, like water for the fish. This is contemplative life, the basic dimension of all Christian life and of our very being, our existential openness for the loving God.

2. The Horizontal Dimension of this life follows from the fact that the Second Commandment is equal to the First and its proof. We want to share the blessings of this vertical dimension, in a deep openness of heart and mind, with like-minded Brothers whom the Lord calls together for the same life, to build up a genuine "family of Jesus," bound together by the same ideas and in a lasting commitment. Therefore, this sharing in the same love and life of prayer and work, of joys and hardships, is expressed as the second dimension of that lifestyle: forgiving and bearing each other's burdens, as Christ bears ours; earning our living by our work, in simplicity of heart and in identifying with the poor; and all this under the loving care of Mary, the Mother and "Landlady" of our Monastery, in the setting of unspoiled beauty and living close to nature.

Photo - The sanctuary at Pascha
Sanctuary at Pascha

3. Extension of both vertical and horizontal dimensions to all those whom the Lord will send our way, who are in search for the same closeness to Jesus, for communion with Him and for the new life in the Spirit. These are all those who want to share, for a specified time, in our life of prayer (vertical) and brotherhood (horizontal). To these we extend monastic hospitality in the form of retreats, as well as remaining open to all, e.g. in our Sunday Divine Liturgy and the fellowship meal that follows. Thus we open up and reach out, not only through our all-embracing prayer and loving sacrifice - bearing the burden of the world with Jesus - but also by the limited yet genuine sharing of our life with the lay people, while keeping out the spirit of the world and without becoming an active community.

4. In all this, we want to go back to Primitive Monasticism and the Early Church community of Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35. Not because of a romantic philosophy or a flight from reality into a bygone past, but because both are meant by God as norms for all ages, as Vatican II has taught: primitive monasticism as the norm of all religious life, and the early Church as the norm of all Christianity. In this perspective, it is imperative to take the Gospel seriously as our primary Rule of life, above any other Rule. Likewise, by holding to the deeper values of our Fathers in monasticism, we profit from nearly 2000 years of wisdom and experience. Therefore, our roots in the Gospel and our faithfulness to the wisdom of the Fathers are a source of strength in this time of crisis.

5. To some, the four preceding points may seem to exclude each other. But, while other Orders feel called especially to live one of the two channels of life (active or contemplative), perhaps the special meaning and promise of Mt. Tabor consists in having succeeded in reconciling these two apparently opposite values into a balanced harmony. Thus, for example, the vertical dimension of a strong prayer life is reconciled with the horizontal dimension of a genuine openness to others in a loving concern. We can build up a "family of Jesus" and carry the burden of this world only when we are first eager to stand before the face of the Living God, for the Trinity of divine Persons is the Source of all shared life and love. We are able to bridge these apparent opposites because of our belonging to the great family of Eastern Monasticism and the Eastern Churches' tradition where all these channels have flowed together into one stream of life without interruption since early monasticism and Gospel times. Experience has taught us that the shortest and surest way for us to share in the fullness of the Gospel (for us this means authentic monastic life) is in the Eastern Church.

6. We are monks taking the needs and hopes of our times very seriously, as Our Lady herself has done through her motherly yet urgent calls to conversion, communicated in her approved apparitions. Our seclusion is not a running away but the full embrace of Reality in its deepest aspirations. For it is remarkable that the components of the renewal that the Holy Spirit is bringing about in the Church and in the world are indeed the basic values of monastic life at Mt. Tabor: prayer, worship, sharing as a family, intimate involvement in the creative love of the Holy Trinity in the Spirit of Jesus. But this also means that the above program has to take shape (as it has already done for over 25 years) in great pain as in the pains of childbirth. This gives Mt. Tabor a monasticism at large a prophetic task in the Church and in the world, witnessing to the higher values which give meaning and purpose to human life and society as well. By identifying with the poor and defenseless, in imitation of Jesus Himself, we know that we will in some ways share in His rejection, but we also know that the world cannot survive without the charism of the Monk. We are thus very vulnerable, like the Anawim, like Jesus Himself, yet we are supported by the grace and peace of the Holy Spirit and comforted by the presence and prayers of our heavenly Mother. We take the Beatitudes seriously while preparing and already anticipating the Coming of the Lord. This life demands a lasting commitment and hence a certain maturity.

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