"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

Monday 27 February 2017


This is  our monastery in England. Father Jonathan, who is the first monk you see in the video, is at present spending two months with us in Pachacamac Priory on the outskirts of Lima, Peru.  Father Luke who recently died, Father Paul who is now abbot, and I first went out from Belmont in 1981 to make the foundation in Peru.  Please pray for both communities.

Sunday 26 February 2017


As a preparation for Lent, here are two articles which ca help you improve your prayer life.   They are very different but complement each other.

The Liturgy Lived: The Divinization of Man | Jean Corbon, O.P.

my source: Ignatius Insight

This article is an excerpt from The Wellspring of Worship (Ignatius Press, 2005).

If we consent in prayer to be flooded by the river of life, our entire being will be transformed; we will become trees of life and be increasingly able to produce the fruit of the Spirit: we will love with the very Love that is our God. It is necessary at every moment to insist on this radical consent, this decision of the heart by which our will submits unconditionally to the energy of the Holy Spirit; otherwise we shall remain subject to the illusion created by mere knowledge of God and talk about him and shall in fact remain apart from him in brokenness and death. On the other hand, if we do constantly renew this offering of our sinful hearts, let us not imagine that our New Covenant with Jesus will be a personal encounter pure and simple. The communion into which the Spirit leads us is not limited to a face-to-face encounter between the person of Christ and our own person or to an external conformity of our wills with his. The lived liturgy does indeed begin with this "moral" union, but it goes much further. The Holy Spirit is an anointing, and he seeks to transform all that we are into Christ: body, soul, spirit, heart, flesh, relations with others and the world. If love is to become our life, it is not enough for it to touch the core of our person; it must also impregnate our entire nature.

To this transformative power of the river of life that permeates the entire being (person and nature), the undivided tradition of the Churches gives an astonishing name that sums up the mystery of the lived liturgy: theosis or divinization. Through baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit we have become "sharers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). In the liturgy of the heart, the wellspring of this divinization streams out as the Holy Spirit, and our individual persons converge in a single origin. But how is this mysterious synergy to infuse our entire nature from its smallest recesses to its most obvious behaviors? This process is the drama of divinization in which the mystery of the lived liturgy is brought to completion in each Christian.

The Mystery of Jesus

To enter into the name of the holy Lord Jesus does not mean simply contemplating it from time to time or occasionally identifying with his passionate love for the Father and his compassion for men. It also means sharing faithfully and increasingly in his humanity, in assuming which he assumed ours as well. In our baptism we "put on Christ" in order that this putting on might become the very substance of our life. The beloved Son has united us to himself in his body, and the more he makes our humanity like his own, the more he causes us to share in his divinity. The humanity of Jesus is new because it is holy. Even in its mortal state it shared in the divine energies of the Word, without confusion and in an unfathomable synergy in which his will and human behavior played their part. Jesus is not a divinized man; he is the truly incarnated Word of God.

This last statement means that we need not imitate, from afar and in an external way, the behavior of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel, in order thereby to effect our own divinization and become "like God"; self-divinization is the primal temptation ever lurking in wait. On the contrary, it is the Word who divinizes this human nature, which he has united to himself once and for all. Since his Resurrection his divinehuman energies are those of his Holy Spirit, who elicits and calls for our response; in the measure of this synergy of the Spirit and our heart our humanity shares in the life of the holy humanity of Christ. To enter into the name of Jesus, Son of God and Lord, means therefore to be drawn into him in the very depths of our being, by the same drawing movement in which he assumed our humanity by taking flesh and living out our human condition even to the point of dying. There is no "panchristic" pseudo-mysticism here, because the human person remains itself, a creature who is free over against its Lord and God. Neither, however, is there any moralism (a further error that waits to ensnare us), because our human nature really shares in the divinity of its Savior.

"Man becomes God as much as God becomes a man", says Saint Maximus the Confessor. [1] Christian holiness is divinization because in our concrete humanity we share in the divinity of the Word who married our flesh. The "divine nature" of which Saint Peter speaks (2 Pet 1:4) is not an, abstraction or a model, but the very life of the Father, which he eternally communicates to his Son and his Holy Spirit. The Father is its source, and the Son extends it to us by becoming a man. We become God by being more and more united to the humanity of Jesus. The only question left, then since this humanity is the way by which our humanity will put on his divinity–is this: How did the Son of God live as a man in our mortal condition? The Gospel has been written precisely in order to show us "the mind of Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5); [2] it is this mind with which the Holy Spirit seeks to fill our hearts.

According to the spirituality of the Church and according to the gifts of the Spirit given to every one, each of the baptized lives out more intensely one or other aspect of the mind of Christ; at the same time, however, the mystery of divinization is fundamentally the same in all Christians. Their humanity no longer belongs to them, in the possessive and deadly sense of "belong", but to him who died and rose for them. In an utterly true sense, all that makes up my nature–its powers of life and death, its gifts and experiences, its limits and sins–is no longer "mine" but belongs to "him who loved me and gave himself up for me". This transfer of ownership is not idealistic or moral but realistic and mystical. As we shall see, the identification of Jesus with the humanity of every human person plays a very large part in the new relationship that persons establish with other men; but when the identification is willingly accepted and when our rebellious wills submit to his Spirit, divinization is at work. I was wounded by sin and radically incapable of loving; now Love has become part of my nature again: "I am alive; yet it is no longer 1, but Christ living in me" (Gal 2:20).

The Realism of the Liturgy of the Heart

The mystical realism of our divinization is the fruit of the sacramental realism of the liturgy. Conversely, evangelical moralism, with which we so often confuse life according to the Spirit, is the inevitable result of a deterioration of the liturgy into sacred routines. But when the fontal liturgy, which is the realism of the mystery of Christ, gives life to our sacramental celebrations, in the same measure the Spirit transfigures us in Christ.

The Fathers of the early centuries tell us that "the Son of God became a man, in order that men might become sons of God". The stages by which the beloved Son came among us and united himself to us to the point of dying our death are the same stages by which he unites us to him and leads us to the Father, to the point of making us live his life. These stages of the one Way that is Christ are shown to us in figures in the Old Testament; Jesus fulfilled the prefigurations. The stages are creation and promise, Passover and exodus, Covenant and kingdom, exile and return, restoration and expectation of the consummation. The two Testaments inscribed this great Passover of the divinizing Incarnation in the book of history. But in the last times the Bible becomes life; it exists in a liturgical condition, and the action of God is inscribed in our hearts. Knowledge of the mystery is no longer a mental process but an event that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the celebrated liturgy and then brings to fulfillment by divinizing us.

Priceless Wisdom From Bro. Lawrence
Ken Curtis, Ph.D.

Priceless Wisdom From Bro. Lawrence

Brother Lawrence never wrote a book. After his death 15 of his letters and recollections of conversations with a colleague were gathered and published. Protestants as well as Catholics recognized the treasure that his life and counsel represented for Christians. John Wesley even included his work in the Christian library he published for his converts.
On the following pages we give an adaptation and paraphrased summary drawn from the letters, with some modernization for ease of comprehension. Sometimes we have combined similar thoughts from various letters. Hopefully your appetite will be stirred to want to read the whole, unedited comments. Most libraries would have an edition.
I did not find my way of approaching God in books on the spiritual life or from the experience of others. For example, I was talking a few days ago with a very devout person, and he told me how the spiritual life was a series of stages. First one begins with servile fear. Then one grows into the hope of the eternal life. This leads to the realization of pure love. Each of these has its own different steps, but at the end one arrives at a blessed state.
That isn't the way I went about it or understood it. In fact this kind of approach discouraged me. So when I devoted my life to God, I simply made a resolution to give myself completely to him the best way I knew how by turning from my sinfulness and seeking to love him.
At first I followed the normal pattern of observing the regular times set apart for devotions and kept my mind on thoughts of death, judgment, heaven, hell and my sins. This I did for some years. And I applied my mind towards God not only in the hours of prayer and devotion but throughout the day, even in my work, always believing that God was with me and in me.
So this is the way I began. But I have to tell you that for the first ten years I found it very difficult. I thought that I was not as devoted to God as I should be. My past sins seemed to be always pressing in on my mind. I fell often but would then get up again. It seemed sometimes as though everything, even God himself, was against me.
A Sudden Breakthrough
Throughout all this I still trusted God but at the same time wondered if I had to look forward to these troubles and struggles for the rest of my life. Then something happened suddenly that changed everything, and my troubled soul found a profound inward peace. Ever since that time I have simply walked before God in faith, with humility and with love and I apply myself diligently to do nothing that might displease him. I do what I can and then let him do with me whatever he wants.
So how can I describe what goes on in me? I am perfectly at peace with my situation. I want nothing but what God wants in things both great and small. I would not even take up a piece of straw from the ground if I thought he didn’t want me to but would run to pick it up out of love for him if that is what he wanted.
I have put aside all set procedures for devotion and seek only to continue in his presence. I keep myself there by giving heed to what I pay attention to and by my fond regard of God. This brings a sense of God's actual presence that is constant and silent but at the same time a secret conversation of my soul with God. This brings me great joy and inner rapture. Sometimes I feel such an overflowing sense of God's presence that I have to deliberately find a way to restrain and subdue myself when others are nearby.
So What Have I Learned?
It has been 30 years now that I have had full confidence that my soul has been with God, and there are a lot of details I could spread out before you, but let me just tell you how I look at myself before God, my king. First of all I have to admit that I consider myself the most wretched person. I am full of sores and corruption, and I know that I have committed all kinds of offenses against my king. I truly feel bad about this and openly confess to him my wickedness and ask for his forgiveness. Then I simply place myself in his hands so that he may do whatever he wants with me. And here is the amazing thing that I find: this king is full of mercy and goodness. He does not chastise or condemn me as he might. But it is as if he comes and hugs me, full of love and has me eat at his table. He even serves me with his own hands and gives me the key to his treasures. He loves to talk with me and take pleasure in my company. He makes me feel as if I am truly his favorite.
Being at the Bosom of God
So you can see why my practice of devoting attention to God along with my passionate love for him produces such satisfaction. Even an infant at its mother’s breast can’t match it. So I hesitantly call it a state of being at the bosom of God because it is so inexpressively sweet and pleasant. Yes, there are times my thoughts wander because of something that happens or through my own weakness but when I recognize it I immediately redirect my attention to God. The thought sometimes comes to me that I am like a stone in the hands of a sculptor who is making a statue. I like to think of God as the sculptor shaping me into his image. 
There are times in prayer when I find my spirit lifted up before God and kept in his presence without any effort on my part. I know some will say that this is a state of inactivity, delusion, and self-love. I will concede that it is a kind of Holy inactivity, but I cannot accept that it is delusion or self-love -- because the soul that enjoys God in this world is looking for nothing but God himself. So if this is delusion then I think it God’s job to remedy it. As for me I am content to let him do with me whatever he pleases. I only want to do what he wants and give him all I have.
Yes, there are times when one can get away from the divine presence. When that happens God recalls us -- sometimes even when we are absorbed in our regular day to day activities. When we become aware of such prompting from God, then we must respond with a lifting of our heart to him, or by an affectionate thought of him, or by simple words to him expressing our love.
It is my conviction that the practice of the presence of God is the center of the spiritual life. Whoever truly practices it will soon become spiritual. But to truly practice it, the heart must empty out everything else so God alone may possess the heart and do whatever he wants with us. There is nothing in all the world that we can find in life more pleasant and joyful then a continual conversation with God. Those who never experienced it cannot understand. But it is not for the pleasure to be gained that we should seek God's presence but pursue it out of love for him and because God wants us to.
If I were a preacher I would above everything else preach the practice of the presence of God. If I were a spiritual director I would advise the same. So necessary I think it to be -- and so easy, too.
If we really knew how much we needed the grace and assistance of God, we would never let him out of our sight. No, not for a moment.
No Fear, Holy Freedom, Avoid Excess
While I am with him there is nothing that I fear. The practice of God's presence is not physically exhausting. But at the same time we should deny ourselves some other legitimate pleasures in order to more fully devote ourselves to him. I do not mean by excessive disciplines. Remember we serve God in a holy freedom. Also keep in mind that he expects us to carry out our everyday responsibilities without trouble or disquiet.
It is not necessary to be in church to be with God. We may make an altar of our heart to which we can go from time to time to converse with him in meekness, humility, and love. When we make him the center of our life and attention, then even the sufferings we endure can be seen in a positive way and provide a certain satisfaction. The paradox is this: With God even suffering can be pleasant but without him even life's greatest pleasures can be as a cruel punishment.
We must learn to grow in God's presence by a process. It is step-by-step. Don't be locked into rigid formulas or rules or particular forms of devotion. Don't try to go faster than grace. One does not become holy all at once.
"We cannot expect to escape the many dangers around us without God's help. So we need to pray to him for his help continually. How can we pray to him without being with him? How can we be with him if we do not think of him often? And how can we think of him often unless it is a holy habit in our lives? You may think I repeat this too much. But this is the best and easiest way I know. We must know before we can love. In order to know God we must often think of him. When we come to love him, we shall also think of him often for our heart will be with our treasure.
"So think of God all the time -- during the day, at night, in your daily work, even in your leisure time activities. He is always nearby. Don't ignore him. If you had a friend nearby, you would not ignore him when he came to visit. Why then would you neglect God? In short, do not forget him. Think of him often. Adore him continually. Live and die with him. As a Christian this is our job and calling. This is what we are here for. It is glorious!
How to Look at Pain and Sickness
I do not pray that you will be delivered from your pains, but I do pray sincerely that God will give you strength and patience to bear them as long as he pleases. The world, of course, cannot understand this. They see no good at all in sickness and pain. But those who understand that sickness can be used by God to advance his purposes can find in it great sweetness and true consolation. In fact, we can go so far as to say that God is sometimes nearer to us in sickness than in health. He can use diseases of the body to bring healing to the soul. God knows what we need, and all that he does is for our good. If we really knew how much he loves us, we would be ready to receive anything from his hand, the good and the bad, the sweet and the bitter, as if it didn’t make any difference. So be satisfied with your condition even if it is one of sickness and distress. Take courage. Offer your pain to God. Pray for strength to endure; adore him even in your infirmities !
"I do not know what God is going to do with me. I am happy all the time and bear with whatever comes my way. I know I deserve the most severe discipline, and yet I find that I am filled with joy continually, joy that is sometimes so great I can scarcely bear it."

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Friday 24 February 2017


Greek Orthodox in Africa Move Toward Restoring Deaconesses

Icon image of St. Olympias the deaconess 
(Public domain via CNA)

The Patriarchate of Alexandria may become the latest Church to restore the ancient order of deaconess.
Nicholas W. Smith and Peter Jesserer Smith
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa has announced its first formal step toward restoring the ancient office of deaconess. A commission of bishops will now examine how the restoration would unfold in the modern era.

But should the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate eventually restore the office, it is not foreseen that this could serve as a modern-day precedent for the Catholic Church to ordain women deaconesses.

According to the statement released by the patriarchate, the bishops decided on Nov. 16, the second day of their holy synod, to move forward with reinstituting deaconesses. This was after a presentation by Metropolitan Gregory of Cameroon, who “spoke on the institution of deaconesses in the missionary field,” followed by an involved theological debate and discussion.

“On the issue of the institution of deaconesses, it was decided to revive it and elect bishops on tripartite committee for detailed consideration,” the patriarchate’s media release stated.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria and All Africa is just one of the 14 Eastern Orthodox Churches, so any decision that it takes on deaconesses would be limited to its jurisdiction. However, George Demacopoulos, a professor of theology at Fordham University and co-director of its Orthodox Christian Studies Center, told the Register that the decision is significant for the world of Orthodoxy, which has been discussing the restoration of the deaconess for decades. The patriarchate is second in prestige only to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and could encourage other Orthodox Churches to move in this direction.

Demacopoulos predicted that the patriarchate commission will examine how to implement the will of the synod and restore the office of deaconess in a modern context. But he acknowledged that others have read the statement as saying only that the bishops will look into the matter. Either way, it is a significant step forward.

“There’s absolutely no doubt the female diaconate existed in the early Church: In the third, fourth, and fifth century, it was significant,” he said.

However, he cautioned that an incomplete historical record makes a determination of the full scope of their duties difficult.

In the Greek Orthodox Churches, he said, deaconesses had a liturgical role to the extent that certain Churches had choirs of deaconesses for the Divine Liturgy. Deaconesses served as catechists for women who were considering conversion, assisted at baptisms for female adult converts and distributed the Eucharist to female shut-ins.

Demacopoulos said the historical record indicates that the female diaconate was reserved for celibate women and only for those over 40 years old. While the ordination rites for deacons and deaconesses in the Greek Orthodox tradition are almost identical, they were parallel institutions — not interchangeable roles, Demacopoulos explained.

The female diaconate died out around the 12th century, he said, although, beginning in the 19th century, there were sporadic efforts in Eastern Orthodoxy to revive the institution. In more recent times, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has encouraged discussion toward its restoration throughout Orthodoxy.

Oriental Orthodoxy’s Deaconesses

The Coptic Orthodox Church most recently revived the office of the deaconess under the previous Coptic pope, Shenouda III, in 1981.

Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, told the Register that the women’s diaconate in the Coptic Church provides an opportunity for women who discern active service in the Church as consecrated celibates.

While the Latin Catholic Church developed within the established framework of monastic life communities for men and women that could be contemplative or active, in the Coptic Church, monasteries for men and women have always been ordered toward the contemplative life.

Before the re-establishment of the office of deaconess, said Bishop Angaelos, “There wasn’t an avenue for them to serve [in public]. If they went into a convent, they would be in a prayerful life in a contemplative order.”

“This way,” he added, “we offer an alternative to young women who want to serve in a community, but who also want to be part of a celibate order.”

In the Coptic Church, the role of active ministry, seeing to the needs of its members and dependents, has been filled by deacons and deaconesses. In many ways, the process resembles that of becoming a religious sister in the Latin tradition. Bishop Angaelos explained that, typically, young women are drawn to the vocation of deaconess, although widows have become deaconesses as well. Celibacy is part of the ministry these women embrace, and they serve the day-to-day needs of their communities.

But unlike deacons, the deaconesses have no liturgical function in the Coptic Church. Bishop Angaelos said it uses the term “consecration” rather than “ordination” regarding deaconesses, since they are never in line for priestly orders.

The Armenian Apostolic Church also has a long history of deaconesses, with the practice becoming more important at different times through the centuries, noted Father Daniel Findikyan, professor of liturgical studies at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary in Armonk, New York.

Father Findikyan told the Register that deaconesses were not present everywhere in the Armenian Church, but they had once been particularly strong in parts of modern-day Iran, and deaconesses are among its saints and martyrs.

The women who become deaconesses in the Armenian Church are all nuns, he explained, and so live celibate lives. Father Findikyan explained the deaconesses are ordained with the same rite used to ordain men as deacons, and they actually exercise the same liturgical privileges. He said they serve alongside male deacons on the altar and can chant the Gospel during the Divine Liturgy.

“Ordaining a nun a deaconess would have given her a real, tangible liturgical presence in ministry, at the altar, with the priest, which they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said.

He said the Armenian Church saw its own revival of the deaconess in the 1960s in Istanbul. At that time, he said, the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople selected a group of nuns who were involved in orphanages and charity work to be ordained sub-deacons, and he ordained their abbess a deacon.

The Catholic Church

The steps taken by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Alexandria come as the Catholic Church under Pope Francis takes a renewed look at the history of deaconesses in the early Church.

While Pope St. John Paul II stated definitively in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) that the Church has “no authority whatsoever” from Jesus Christ to ordain women to the priesthood, he did not declare anything definitive regarding women and diaconal ordination.

Part of what fuels the continuing discussion among Catholic scholars about deaconesses is that while the Eastern Churches have tended to retain a broader use of the word “ordination,” the Latin Catholic Church’s scholastic theology over time restricted the term to refer to participation in the progressive degrees of holy orders (deacon, priest and bishop).

“The whole understanding of ordination changed so dramatically, it’s just not the same thing anymore,” Gary Macy, a theology professor at Santa Clara University and co-author of Women Deacons: Past, Present and Future, told the Register. “There was a good understanding of ordination back then; it’s just a different [understanding] now.”

In the Medieval West, he explained, as the 11th-century reform movement gained steam, “ordination became tied specifically to the Eucharist.”

The Second Vatican Council later clarified in Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, that priests and bishops are ordained to a ministry of priesthood, but deacons are ordained “unto a ministry of service.”

The Vatican’s International Theological Commission, in its 2002 document “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles,” concluded that deaconesses “were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons” and reaffirmed the Church’s tradition holding “[t]he unity of the sacrament of holy orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the bishop and the priests on the one hand and the diaconal ministry on the other.”

The document also noted that while deaconesses did exist in the Western Church prior to the 11th century, “It should be pointed out that in the West there is no trace of any deaconesses for the first five centuries.”

The 2002 commission’s view tends to affirm the conclusion advanced by Sister Sara Butler, of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, author of The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church, that when the Church had ordained women, it ordained them to their own order of “deaconess” and not to the diaconal grade of holy orders. Others, such as Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, have argued that the Church ordained both men and women to the same diaconal order, while only men could be candidates for priestly ministry.

The 2002 Vatican document stopped short of making a definitive statement on the question of deaconesses in the Catholic Church and whether the office should or could be restored.

Pope Francis

The Catholic Church’s special commission on the history of deaconesses has just begun to examine those questions more thoroughly with its first round of meetings on Nov. 25.

Pope Francis has suggested that active religious sisters in the modern era are already fulfilling the role of the deaconesses from the early Church. The Holy Father has also expressed open reluctance to make any moves that would “clericalize” the laity.

However, he agreed, in response to a query from a sister from the International Union of Superiors General in May, that it would be helpful for the Church “to clarify this point.”

Nicholas W. Smith is a Register correspondent.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter. 

Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria performs first consecration of deaconesses

On the feast of the Saint and Great Martyr Theodore of Tyre, 17 February 2016, the day on which His Beatitude Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa celebrates his name day, a festive Divine Liturgy was celebrated at the Holy Church of St Nicholas, within the Missionary Centre of Kolwezi.

Together with the Alexandrian Primate concelebrated Their Eminences Nicephorus, Metropolitan of Kinshasa, Innocent, Metropolitan of Burundi and Rwanda, and the local Metropolitan Meletios of Katanga, accompanied by the Clergy of the Hy Metropolis.

As the official site of the Patriarchate reports, His Beatitude the Patriarch spoke during his homily about the Great Martyr St Theodoros, emphasising the confession of martyrdom before the persecutors of faith and his love for Jesus Christ.

At the end of the Divine Liturgy the Primate of the Alexandrian Throne consecrated the Catechist elder Theano, one of the first members of the Missionary staff in Kolwezi, to “Deaconess of the Missions” of the Holy Metropolis of Katanga and read the prayer for one entering the “ecclesiastic ministry” for three Nuns and two Catechists, in order for them to assist the missionary effort of the Holy Metropolis, particularly in the Sacraments of Baptisms of adults and marriages, as well as in the Catechetical department of the local Church.

Note that it is the first time in the history of Missions in Africa that these consecrations have been done.

The Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Alexandria restored the deaconess ministry during its working session held in November 2016.

Several holy women who fulfiled the deaconess ministry are enlisted in the Orthodox Calendar, among whom the most well known are St Tatiana (January 12), St Olympias (July 25), and St Foebe (September 3).

Tuesday 21 February 2017



This talk was given to the congress of Abbots when Timothy Radcliffe was 84th successor to St Dominic as Master of the Order.  It says something of the esteem in which he was held, that the Benedictine abbots would want to listen to a Dominican talking about their Benedictine vocation!!

It is a great honour for me to be asked to speak to this Congress of Abbots. I want to say a little about the role of monasteries in the new Millennium. I feel so little suited to speak about this that I wonder whether I ought to have accepted the invitation. I did so just as an act of gratitude to St Benedict and those who follow his rule. I was educated – more or less – by the Benedictines for ten years, at Worth and Downside Abbeys, and I have the happiest memories of those years. Above all I remember the humanity of the monks, who helped me to believe in a God who was good and merciful, though very English! I probably owe my religious vocation to a great-uncle who was a Benedictine, Dom John Lane Fox, whose vitality and enthusiasm for God was a great gift. And finally, I would like to thank God for that good Benedictine and friend, Cardinal Basil Hume.

Benedictine abbeys have been like oases in the pilgrimage of my life, where I have been able to rest and be refreshed before carrying on the journey. I did my diaconate retreat in Buckfast Abbey, and my retreat before ordination to the priesthood in Bec-Hellouin in Normandy. I spent holidays at La Pierre qui vire, and Einsiedeln, and celebrated Easter at Pannenhalme in Hungary, visited Subiaco, Monte Casino, Monte Oliveto and a hundred more abbeys.

Everywhere I have gone, I have found crowds of people who were visiting the monasteries. Why are they there? Some no doubt are tourists who have come to pass an afternoon perhaps hoping to see a monk, like a monkey in a zoo. We might expect to find notices that say “Do not feed the monks”. Others come for the beauty of the buildings or the liturgy. Many come hoping for some encounter with God. We talk about “secularisation”, but we live in a time marked by a deep religious search. There is a hunger for the transcendent. People look for it in eastern religions, in new age sects, in the exotic and the esoteric. Often there is a suspicion of the Church and all institutional religion, except perhaps for the monasteries. Still there is a trust that in the monasteries we may glimpse the mystery of God, and discover some hint of the transcendent.

Indeed it is the role of the monastery to welcome these strangers. The Rule tells us that the stranger must be welcomed like Christ. He must be greeted with reverence, his feet must be washed and he must be fed. This has always been my experience. I remember going to visit St Otilien, when Bishop Viktor Dammertz was Abbot. I was a poor, dirty, hitch hiking English Dominican student. And I was taken in by these very clean German Benedictines, and washed, scrubbed, my hair was cut. I was almost respectable when I left to take to the road again. It did not last for long!

Why are people so drawn to monasteries? Today I would like to share with you some thoughts as to why this is so. You may think that my thoughts are completely crazy, and proof that a Dominican can understand nothing of the Benedictine life. If so, then please forgive me. I wish to claim that your monasteries disclose God not because of what you do or say, but perhaps because the monastic life has at its centre a space, a void, in which God may show himself. I wish to suggest that the rule of St. Benedict offers a sort of hollow centre to your lives, in which God may live and be glimpsed.

The glory of God always shows itself in an empty space. When the Israelites came out of the desert, God came with them seated in the space between the wings of the cherubim, above the seat of mercy. The throne of glory was this void. It was only a small space, a hand’s breadth. God does not need much space to show his glory. Down the Aventine, not two hundred metres away, is the Basilica of S. Sabina. And on its door is the first known representation of the cross. Here we see a throne of glory which is also a void, an absence, as a man dies crying out for the God who seems to have deserted him. The ultimate throne of glory is an empty tomb, where there is no body.

My hope is that the Benedictine monasteries will continue to be places in which the glory of God shines out, thrones for the mystery. And this is because of what you are not, and what you do not do. In recent years astronomers have been searching the skies for new planets. Until recently they could never see any planets directly. But they could detect them by a wobble in the orbit of the star. Perhaps with those who follow the rule of St Benedict it is similar, only you are the planets which disclose the invisible star which is the centre of the monastery. The measured orbit of your life points to the mystery which we cannot see directly. “Truly, you are a hidden God, O God of Israel.” (Is. 45. 13)

I would like to suggest, then, that the invisible centre of your life is revealed in how you live. The glory of God is shown in a void, an empty space in your lives. I will suggest three aspects of the monastic life which open this void and make a space for God: First of all, your lives are for no particular purpose. Secondly in that they lead nowhere, and finally because they are lives of humility. Each of these aspects of the monastic life opens us a space for God. And I wish to suggest that in each case it is the celebration of the liturgy that makes sense of this void. It is the singing of the Office several times a day that shows that this void is filled with the glory of God.

Being there
The most obvious fact about monks is that you do not do anything in particular. You farm but you are not farmers. You teach, but you are not school teachers. You may even run hospitals, or mission stations, but you are not primarily doctors or missionaries. You are monks, who follow the rule of Benedict. You do not do anything in particular. Monks are usually very busy people but the business is not the point and purpose of your lives. Cardinal Hume once wrote that, “we do not see ourselves as having any particular mission or function in the Church. We do not set out to change the course of history. We are just there almost by accident from a human point of view. And, happily, we go on ‘just being there’” . It is this absence of explicit purpose that discloses God as the secret, hidden purpose of your lives. God is disclosed as the invisible centre of our lives when we do not try to give any other justification for who we are. The point of the Christian life is just to be with God. Jesus says to the disciples: “Abide in my love” (Jn 15.10). Monks are called to abide in his love.

Our world is a market place. Everyone is competing for attention, and trying to convince that others what they sell is necessary for the good life. All the time we are being told what we need so as to be happy: a microwave, a computer, a holiday in the Caribbean, a new soap. And it is tempting for religion to come to the market place and to try to shout along with the other competitors. “You need religion to be happy, to be successful and even to be rich.” One of the reasons for the explosion of the sects in Latin America is that they promise wealth. And so Christianity is there, proclaiming that it is relevant for your life. Yoga this week, aromatherapy next week. Can we persuade them to give Christianity a try? I remember a lavatory in a pub in Oxford. There was a graffito written in tiny letters, in a corner of the ceiling. And it said: “If you have looked this far then you must be looking for something. Why not try the Roman Catholic Church?"

We need Christians out there, shouting along with the rest, joining in the bustle of the market place, trying to catch peoples’ eyes. That is where Dominicans and Franciscans, for example, should be. But the monasteries embody a deep truth. Ultimately we worship God, not because he is relevant for us, simply because he is. The voice from the burning bush proclaimed “I am who I am”. What matters is not that God is relevant to us, but that in God we find the disclosure of all relevance, the lodestar of our lives.

I think that this was the secret of Cardinal Hume’s unique authority. He did not try to market religion, and show that Catholicism was the secret ingredient for the successful life. He was just a monk who said his prayers. Deep down, people know that a God who must show that he is useful for me is not worth worshipping. A God who has to be relevant is not God at all. The life of the monk witnesses to the irrelevance of God, for everything is only relevant in relation to God. The lives of monks bear witness to that, by not doing anything in particular, except abide with God. Your lives have a void at their centres, like the space between the wings of the cherubim. Here we may glimpse God’s glory.

Perhaps the role of the Abbot is to be the person who obviously does nothing in particular. Other monks may get caught up in being bursar, or infirmarian, or running the farm or the printing house, or the school. But perhaps I can be so bold as to suggest that the Abbot might be the person who is guardian of the monks’ deepest identity as those who have nothing in particular to do. There was an English Dominican called Bede Jarret, who was Provincial for many years, a famous preacher, a prolific writer of books. But he never appeared to do anything. If you went to see him, then I am told that he was usually doing nothing. If you asked him what he was doing, then I am told that he usually replied, “Waiting to see if anyone came”. He perfected the art of doing much while appearing to do little. Most of us, including myself, do the opposite; we ensure that we always appear to be extremely busy, even when there is nothing to do!

When people flock to the monasteries, and look at the monks, and stay to hear Vespers, then how may they discover that this nothingness is a revelation of God? Why do they not just think of monks as people who are either lazy, or without ambition, uncompetitive failures in the rat race of life? How may they glimpse that it is God who is at the centre of your lives? I suspect that it is by listening to your singing. The authority for that summons is found in the beauty of your praise of God. Lives that have no especial purpose are indeed a puzzle and a question. “Why are these monks here and for what? What is their purpose?” It is the beauty of the praise of God that shows why you are here. When I was a young boy at Downside Abbey, I must confess that I was not very religious. I smoked behind the classrooms, and escaped at night to the pubs. I was almost expelled from school for reading a notorious book, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, during benediction. If one thing kept me anchored in my faith, then it was the beauty that I found there: the beauty of the sung Office, the luminosity of the early morning in the Abbey, the radiance of the silence. It was the beauty that would not let me go.

It is surely no coincidence that the great theologian of beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar, received his earliest education at Engelberg, a Benedictine school famous for its musical tradition. Balthasar talks of the “self-evidence” of beauty, “its intrinsic authority” . You cannot argue with beauty’s summons or dismiss it. And this is probably the most resounding form of God’s authority in this age, in which art has become a form of religion. Few people may go to church on a Sunday, but millions go to concerts and art galleries and museums. In beauty we can glimpse the glory of God’s wisdom which danced when she made the world, “more beautiful than the sun” (Wisdom 7). In the LXX, when God made the world, then he saw that it was kala, beautiful. Goodness summons us in the form of beauty. When people hear the beauty of the singing, then they may indeed guess why the monks are there and what is the secret centre of their lives, the praise of glory. It was typical of Dom Basil, that when he talked about the deepest desires of his heart, then he talked in terms of beauty: “what an experience it would be if I could know that which among the most beautiful things was the most beautiful of them all. That would be the highest of all the experiences of joy, and total fulfilment. The most beautiful of all things I call God.”

And if beauty is truly the revelation of the good and the true, as St Thomas Aquinas believed, then perhaps part of the vocation of the Church is to be a place of the revelation of true beauty. Much modern music, even in Church, is so trivial that it is a parody of beauty. It is kitsch which has been described as the “pornography of insignificance” Maybe it is because we fall into the trap of seeing beauty in utilitarian terms, useful for entertaining people, instead of seeing that what is truly beautiful reveals the good.

I hope that you will not think it too bizarre if I say that I believe that the monastic way of life is in itself beautiful. I was fascinated when I read the rule to see that it says at the beginning that, “It is called a rule because it regulates the lives of those who obey it.” The regula regulates. At first that sounds all too controlling for a Dominican. In my experience, it is very hard to regulate the friars! But perhaps regula suggests not control so much as measure, rhythm, lives which have a shape and a form. Perhaps what it suggests is discipline of music. St. Augustine thought that to live virtuously was to live musically, to be in harmony. Loving one’s neighbour was, he said, “keeping musical order” . Grace is graceful and the graced life is beautiful.

So once again it is the singing of the liturgy that discloses the meaning of our lives. St Thomas said that beauty in music was essentially linked to temperantia. Nothing should ever be in excess. Music must keep the right beat, neither too fast nor too slow, keeping the right measure. And Thomas thought that the temperate life kept us young and beautiful. But what the Rule appears to offer is especially a measured life, with nothing in excess, though I do not know whether monks stay any younger and more beautiful than anyone else! The Rule admits that in the past monks did not drink at all, but since we cannot convince monks not to drink, then at least it must be in moderation. Nothing to excess.

I am reminded of my Benedictine great-uncle who had a great love of wine, which he was sure was necessary for his health. Since he lived to be almost a 100 then perhaps he was right. He persuaded my father and uncles to keep him well supplied with a daily bottle of claret, which I suppose could be called moderate and in accordance with the Rule, a hemina (Chapter 40). When he smuggled these back into the monastery, the monks always wondered what caused the clinking noises in his bag. Elaborate explanations were prepared in advance with the help of his nephews!

When we hear monks sing, we glimpse the music that is your lives, following the rhythm and beat of the tune of the Rule of St Benedict. The glory of God is enthroned on the praises of Israel.

Going nowhere

The lives of monks puzzle the outsider not just because you do not do anything in particular, but also because your lives go nowhere. Like all members of religious orders, your lives do not have shape and meaning through climbing a ladder of promotion. We are just brethren and sisters, friars, monks and nuns. We can never aspire to be more. A successful soldier or academic rises through the ranks. His life is shown to have value because he is promoted to being a professor or general. But that is not so with us. The only ladder in the Rule of St Benedict is that of humility. I am sure that monks, like friars, sometimes nurse secret desires for promotion, and dream of the glory of being cellarer or even abbot! I am sure that many a monk looks in the mirror and imagines what he might look like with a pectoral cross or even a mitre, and sketches a blessing when no one looking – he hopes! But we all know that the shape of our lives is really given not by promotion but by the journey to the Kingdom. The Rule is given, St. Benedict says, to hasten us to our heavenly home.

I am reminded of a very beloved Abbot who used to come and stay with our family every Christmas. He was admirable in every way, except a slight tendency to take being an Abbot rather too seriously, unlike anyone present today I am sure. He expected to be met at the railway station by the entire family, and for all six children to genuflect and kiss the abbatial ring, on platform four. This reverence was so ingrained in my family that a cousin of mine was reputed to often genuflect when she took her seat in the cinema. Every time our family Abbot came to stay, there would be the annual fight of the candle sticks. He strongly maintained that as an abbot he had a right to four silver candle sticks, but my father always insisted that in his house every priest had the same number of candlesticks!

For most people in our society, a life without promotion makes no sense, for to live is to be in competition for success, to get ahead or perish. And so our lives are a puzzle, a question mark. They apparently lead nowhere. One becomes a monk or a friar, and need be nothing more ever. I remember that when I was elected Master of the Order, a well known journalist wrote an article in the NCR, which concluded remarking that at the end of my term as Master, I would be only 55. “What will Radcliffe do then?”, he asked. When I read this I was deeply disturbed. I felt as if the meaning of my life was being taken from me, and forced into other categories. What would Radcliffe do then? The implication was that my life should make sense through another “promotion”. But why could I do except go on being brother? Our lives have meaning, because of an absence of progression, which points to God as the end and goal of our lives.

Once again, I wish to claim that it is in the singing of the Office that this claim makes sense, by articulating that longer story of redemption. Earlier this year, I went into the Cathedral Church of Monereale in Sicily, beside the old Benedictine abbey. I had little time free but I had been told that whoever goes to Palermo and does not visit Monreale arrives a human and leaves a pig! And it was an astonishing experience. The whole interior is a dazzling jigsaw of mosaics, which tell the history of creation and redemption. To enter the Church is to find yourself inside the story, our story. This is humanity’s true story, not the struggle to get to the top of the tree. This is a revelation of the structure of true time. The true story is not that of individual success, of promotion and competition; it is the story of humanity’s journey to the Kingdom, celebrated every year in the liturgical cycle, from Advent to Pentecost, which climaxes in the green of ordinary time, our time.

This is true time, the time that encompasses all the little events and dramas of our lives. This is the time that gathers up all the small defeats and victories, and gives them sense. The monastic celebration of the liturgical year should be a disclosure of the true time, the only important story. The different times in the year – ordinary time, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter – should feel different, with different melodies, different colours, as different as the spring is from the summer, and summer from the autumn. They have to be distinctive enough to resist being dwarfed by the other rhythms, the financial year, the academic year, the years we count as we grow older. One of our brothers, Kim en Joong, the Korean Dominican painter, has made wonderful chasubles, which explode with the colours of the seasons.

Often the modern liturgy does not communicate this. When one goes to Vespers, it could be any time of the year. But in our community in Oxford, where I lived for twenty years, we composed antiphons for every season of the year. I can still hear these when I travel. For me Advent means certain hymn tunes, antiphons for the Benedictus and the Magnificat. We know that Christmas is drawing near with the great O antiphons. Holy Week is the Lamentations of Jeremiah. We have to live the rhythm of the liturgical year as the deepest rhythm of our lives. The monastic liturgy is a reminder that where we are going is to the Kingdom. We do not know what will happen tomorrow or in the next century; we have no predictions to make, but our wisdom is to live for that ultimate end.

Perhaps I would add one final nuance. It is easy to say that the religious lives for the coming of the Kingdom, but in actual fact often we do not. The liturgical years sketches the royal road to freedom, but we do not always take it. According to St Thomas, formation, especially moral formation, is always formation in freedom. But the entry into freedom is slow and painful, and will include mistakes, wrong choices, and sin. God brings us out of Egypt into freedom of the desert, but we become afraid and enslave ourselves to golden bulls, or try to sneak back to Egypt again. This is the true drama of the daily life of the monk, not whether he gets promoted up the ladder of office, but the initiation into freedom, with frequent collapses back into puerility and enslavement. How can we make sense of our slow ascension into God’s freedom, and our frequent descents back into slavery? Once again, it is perhaps in again music that we may find the key.

St Augustine wrote that the history of humanity is like a musical score which gives a place for all the discords and disharmonies of human failure, but which finally leads to a harmonic resolution, in which everything has its place. In his wonderful work, De Musica, he wrote that “Dissonance can be redeemed without being obliterated” . The story of redemption is like a great symphony which embraces all our errors, our bum notes, and in which beauty finally triumphs. The victory is not that God wipes out our wrong notes, or pretends that they never happened. He finds a place for them in the musical score that redeems them. This happens above all in the Eucharist. In the words of Catherine Pickstock, “the highest music in the fallen world, the redemptive music….is none other than the repeated sacrifice of Christ himself which is the music of the forever-repeated Eucharist” .

The Eucharist is the repetition of the climax in the drama of our liberation. Christ freely gives us his body, but the disciples reject him, deny him, run away from him, pretend that they do not know him. Here in the music of our relationship with God, we find the deepest disharmonies. But in the Eucharist they are taken up, embraced, and transfigured into beauty in a gesture of love and gift. In this Eucharistic music we are made whole and find harmony. This is a harmonic resolution that does not wipe out our rejection of love and freedom, and pretend that they never happened, but transforms them into steps on the journey. In our celebrations we dare to remember those weak apostles.

So the meaning of the monk’s life is that it goes to the Kingdom. Our story is the story of humanity on its way to the Kingdom. This we enact in the annual cycle of the liturgical year, from Creation to Kingdom. But the daily drama of the monk’s life is more complex, with our struggles and failures to become free. The annual symphony of the journey to the Kingdom needs to be punctuated with the daily music of the Eucharist, which recognises that we constantly refuse to walk to Jerusalem, to death and Resurrection, and choose unfreedom. Here we need to find ourselves every day in the music of the Eucharist, in which no disharmony is so crude as to be beyond God’s creative resolution.

The space inside

Finally, we come to what is most fundamental in monastic life, what is most beautiful and hardest to describe, and that is humility. It is what is least immediately visible to the people who come to visit your monasteries, and yet it is the basis of everything. It is, Cardinal Hume says, “a very beautiful thing to see, but the attempt to become humble is painful indeed” It is humility that makes for God an empty space in which God may dwell and his glory be seen. It is ultimately, humility which makes our communities the throne of God.

It is hard for us today to find words to talk about humility. Our society almost seems to invite us to cultivate the opposite, an assertiveness, a brash self confidence. The successful person aggressively pushes himself forward. When we read in the seventh step of humility that we must learn to say with the prophet, “I am a worm and no man”, then we flinch. But is this because we are so proud? Or is it because we are so unsure of ourselves, so unconfident of our value? Perhaps we dare not proclaim that we are worms because we are haunted by the fear that we are worse than worthless.

How are we to build communities which are living signs of humility’s beauty? How can we show the deep attractiveness of humility in an aggressive world? You alone can answer that. Benedict was the master of humility, and I am not sure that it has always been the most obvious virtue of all Dominicans! But I would like to share a brief thought. When we think of humility, then it may be as an intensely personal and private thing: Me looking at myself and seeing how worthless I am, inspecting my own interiority, gazing at my own worm-like qualities. This is, to say the least, a depressing prospect. Perhaps Benedict invites us to do something far more liberating, which is to build a community in which we are liberated from rivalry and competition and the struggle for power. This is a new sort of community which is structured by mutual deference, mutual obedience. This is a community in which no one is at the centre, but there is the empty space, the void which is filled with glory of God.. This implies a profound challenge to the modern image of the self which is of the self as solitary, self-absorbed, the centre of the world, the hub around which everything gravitates. At the heart of its identity is self-consciousness: “I think therefore I am”.

The monastic life invites us to let go of the centre, and to give in to the gravitational pull of grace. It invites us to be decentred. Once again we find God disclosed in a void, an emptiness, and this time at the centre of the community, the hollow space which is kept for God. We have to make a home for the Word to come and dwell among us, a space for God to be. As long as we are competing for the centre, then there is no space for God. So then humility is not me despising myself, and thinking that I am awful. It is hollowing out the heart of the community of to make a space where the Word can pitch his tent.

Once again, I think that it is in the liturgy that we can find this beauty made manifest. God is enthroned on the praises of Israel. It is when people see monks singing the praise of God, then we glimpse the freedom and the beauty of humility. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that good harmonious music went with building a harmonious community . Music heals the soul and the community. We cannot sing together if each person is striving to sing more loudly, competing for the spotlight. We make music together. In a similar way, I am sure that singing together in harmony, learning to sing one’s own note, to find one’s place in the melody forms us as brethren, and shows to other people what it is like to live together without competition and rivalry.

What is the role of the Abbot in this? I hesitate to say, since in the Dominican Order we have only ever had one Abbot, a certain Matthew, and he was rather a disaster, so we have had no more Abbots since. But perhaps the Abbot should be the person who keeps open the space for Christ at the centre. To put it musically, he refuses to drown out the voices of the other monks, to grab the principal role, to be the Pavarotti of the Abbey. He will let the harmony rule. You can see how a community lives together when you hear it sing. And you can see immediately how different are Benedictines and Dominicans in our way of singing!

The climax of humility is when one discovers that not only is one not the centre of the world, but that one is not even the centre of oneself. There is not only a void in the centre of the community where God dwells, but there is a void at the centre of my being, where God can pitch his tent. I am a creature, to whom God gives existence at every moment. In the mosaics in Monereale, we see God making Adam. God gives Adam his breath and sustains him in being. At the heart of my being I am not alone. God is there breathing me into existence at every moment, giving me existence. At my centre there is no solitary self, no Cartesian ego but a space which is filled with God.

Perhaps this is the ultimate vocation of the monk, to show the beauty of that hollowness, to be individually and communally, temples for God’s glory to dwell in. You will not be surprised that I think that this is shown through the singing of the praises of God. And here I am really going beyond what I am competent to talk about, and will only have a go because it is fascinating. If you think I am talking nonsense, then you are probably right!

Every artistic creation echoes the first creation. In art we get our closest glimpse of what it means for God to have made the world from nothing. Its originality points back to that origin of all that is. Every poem, every painting, sculpture or song, gives us a hint of what it means for God to create. George Steiner wrote that “Deep inside every ‘art-act’ lies the dream of an absolute leap out of nothingness, of the invention of an enunciatory shape so new, so singular to its begetter, that it would, literally, leave the previous world behind.”

In the Christian tradition this has been especially true for music. St Augustine said that it is in music, in which sound comes forth from silence, that we can see what it means for the universe to be grounded in nothing, to be contingent, and so for us to be creatures. “The alternation of sound and silence in music is seen by Augustine as a manifestation of the alternation of the coming into being and the passing into non-being which must characterise a universe created out of nothing” . We hear in music, to quote Steiner again, “the ever-renewed vestige of the original, never wholly accessible moment of creation……the inaccessible first fiat” This is the echo of the big bang, or as Tavener said, the preecho of the divine silence.

At the heart of the monastic life is humility. Not, I suspect, the grinding depressing humility of those who hate themselves. It is the humility of those who recognise that they are creatures, and that their existence is a gift. And so it is utterly right that at the centre of your life should be singing. For it is in this singing that we show forth God’s bringing of everything to be. You sing that Word of God, through which all is made. Here we can see a beauty which is more than just pleasing. It is the beauty which celebrates the burst of creation.

To conclude, I have argued in this conference that God’s glory always needs a space, an emptiness, if it is to show itself: the emptiness between the wings of the cherubim in the Temple; the empty tomb; a Jesus who vanishes in Emmaus. I have suggested that if you let such empty spaces be hollowed out in your lives, by being people who are not there for any particular reason, whose lives lead nowhere, and who face your creaturehood without fear, then your communities will be thrones for God’s glory.

What we hope to glimpse in monasteries is more than we can say. The glory of God escapes our words. The mystery breaks our little ideologies. Like St Thomas Aquinas, we see that all that we can say is just straw. Does that mean that we can just be silent? No, because monasteries are not just places of silence but of song. We have to find ways of singing, at the limits of language, at the edge of meaning. This is what St Augustine calls the song of jubilation, and it is the song of this Jubilee year.

“You ask, what is singing in jubilation? It means to realise that words are not enough to express what we are singing in our hearts. At the harvest, in the vineyard, whenever men must labour hard, they begin with songs whose words express their joy. But when their joy brims over and words are not enough, they abandon even this coherence and give themselves up to the sheer sound of singing. What is this jubilation, this exultant song? It is the melody that means our hearts are bursting with feelings that words cannot express.. And to whom does this jubilation most belong? Surely to God who is unutterable?”

1. In praise of Benedict p. 23 2. Aidan Nichols OP The Word has been abroad. Edinburgh 1998 p.1 3. To be a Pilgrim Slough 1984 p.39 4. George Steiner Real Presences, London 1989, p.145 5. De Musica VI. xiv 46 6. Catherine Pickstock, “Music:Soul, and city and cosmos after Augustine” in Radical Orthodoxy, ed John Millbank, et al., London 1999, p.276, footnote 131 7. ibid, p 265 8. To be a Pilgrim Slough 1984 p67 9. cf Pickstock, op cit. p. 262 10. op cit. p 202 11. Pickstock op cit p. 247 12. Steiner, op cit, pp 210, 202 13. On Ps 32, Sermon 1.8

What Role Does Monasticism Play in the Life of the Church?
my source: Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church

 Photo: pravmir.ru, Vladimir Khodakov
We must mention the fact that we have a strong Church in North America today thanks largely to the efforts of the nine obedient monks who set out on the longest, and possibly the most dangerous, mission the Church ever undertook.
Photo: pravmir.ru, Alexander Buriy

You are not alone in asking that question. In a world where everything that is done has to have a “purpose” monasticism seems, on the surface, to be quite useless.

Every time I hear this particular question I am tempted to answer with another question: what role does the laity have in the Church? Or, since only about five percent of men in the Church are clergy, what role to the other ninety-five percent fill?

We do not come into the Church, the Body of Christ, in order to have a specific “role”. We are all a part of that Body for the sake of our salvation. A small percentage are called to serve in the deaconate, the priesthood, and the episcopacy, where a definite “role” is fulfilled through their cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit who “completes what is lacking”. It is the Lord Himself who calls these men to serve as clergy.

So what about monastics? What “good” does monasticism do when these people go off into a monastery instead of using whatever talents they might have in a parish, on a diocesan level, as missionaries, or doing other philanthropic work through the Church to help people. Instead, they just stay in their monasteries, sometimes going out to speak at a conference here or there, but then they go back to their monasteries.

An apparent waste of talents and efforts.

There is one reason for someone to become a monastic, and one reason only — love for the Lord. If someone enters the monastic life for any other reason, however seemingly virtuous that may be — to learn iconography, Church music, or even to become a spiritual guide — they will either leave the monastery or have to change their objective. When one learned nun in eastern Europe was asked if the many young sisters that were in the monastery had come for the right reason and not just to escape the poverty and hardships of village life, she answered, “Some may have come for the wrong reasons, but they can only stay for the right reason.”

Even those seeking to become spiritual elders or leaders have to change their scope. Everything in the monastic life is directed at a hum­ble life. There is nothing wrong with being an elder or offering useful spiritual counsel, but that is something that comes (if at all) after many years and only to those who are truly humble and repentant.

Most of our readers have seen the wonderful movie “Ostrov” / “The Island”. Those who have not seen it, should. Think of the contrast be­tween Fr. Anatoly and Fr. Job. Fr. Anatoly was humble and in a constant state of repentance, and the Lord granted him the grace of healing and guiding others; Fr. Job, by his own admission, wanted to be the one to whom pilgrims would come and seek counsel and healing, but that was not given to him for it would have made him proud.

The monastic life is one seeking salvation in a more intense man­ner than those living in the world. In many ways, the Orthodox Chris­tians in the world are much stronger than those of us in the monastic life. In the world, you must balance a “worldly” life of raising a family, job, school, etc, with life in the Church. In our present day, in a non Or­thodox culture, that consists of having one foot in the world, and one foot in the Church — a delicate balancing act! In the monastery, there is no need for maintaining such a balance — everything is the Church and life directed only toward Christ. It is much simpler in that aspect. There is no question regarding fasting or observing feast days. There is one calendar and measure of time and that is the Church calendar — not civil holidays or school schedules, etc.

So then, back to the question: what purpose does monasticism have in the Church?



In its life of work and prayer, every monastery has to support itself financially. Contrary to what some may think, the diocese or central Church administration does not financially support the monasteries. Each monastic establishment strives to have their financial support come from within its specific confines and through the labors of the monks/nuns. Yes, donations from individuals, parishes, and Church organiza­tions form a large portion of the necessary financial running of the mon­asteries, but the monastics still labor to maintain the physical structures and properties, as well as doing things that produce an income. Projects vary from one monastery to another, but often include painting icons, sewing vestments, running an Orthodox bookstore on the premises of the monastery, hosting retreats and visitors, and sometimes going out to speak at a conference or retreat, writing and publishing books, baking prosphora for parishes, etc. We hope that some of these efforts are useful to the faithful, and we are likewise very grateful for the income generated which allow us to be where we are.

Originally, the early monastics simply went off into the desert where some remained unseen for the rest of their lives. Yet even in such a remote and hostile environment, in their “aloneness” they prayed, not only for their own souls but for the entire world. It would often happen that when someone from “the world” would come into the desert to speak with one of these early ascetics, the first questions the ascetic would ask was “how/who is the emperor?” “What is the state of the Church?” “Is there peace or persecution?” In other words, these lone monks were not only concerned about the state of the Christians and those in the world, but were intensely praying for them!

That, if there is one, would be the main “purpose” of monastics — to pray for the salvation of their own souls, for the forgiveness of their own sins, and for the souls and forgiveness of everyone! Every monastery, even one as small and remote as ours here in Lake George, has thousands of names of people to be commemorated daily in the monastery church. Phone calls, letters, e-mails (for those monasteries that have internet), and personal requests for prayers and candles to be lit are a normal and regular occurrence at monasteries.

Just as those early Christians trudged out into the desert to seek counsel from the monastics living there, or to spend time peacefully in the organized monasteries that formed, so in our own day people make pilgrimages to monasteries on a regular basis. Some come simply to see, others to help with physical labor, but the majority come seeking a quiet place in which they truly “lay aside all earthly cares” and be in the presence of God, beseeching the Lord to work in their lives. Sometimes this involves speaking with one of the monastics or elders, but often answers to dilemmas and problems come to these people who quietly await and discern the Lord’s will.

Traditionally, our bishops were chosen from among the monastic ranks. In North America, this pool is quite limited, but in other Orthodox countries, this is still quite the practice. Again, however, no man goes into the monastery with the intention of becoming a bishop; in fact when a monk/hieromonk is called from the monastery to serve in this high calling, it is almost always the case that he answers that call in great sadness.

There is great debate today, as throughout history, as to how visible and how vocal monastics should be in the life of the Church. The monastics are apart of the Church and in most jurisdictions the superiors are considered as delegates at official Church meetings —, decisions made at these meetings of the entire body of Christ affect them as much as they affect the parishes and Church organizations. Generally, those abbots/abbesses who attend such meetings are silent unless there is a true need for them to speak.

This, too, has historical roots. Saint Anthony himself left his be­loved desert to go into Alexandria and speak out against the Arian her­esy. St. Theodore the Studite was one of the foremost defenders of the holy icons during the iconoclastic controversy, for which he was impris­oned and tortured, but never capitulated to heresy. Even today, it is the monastics who speak out when even prominent “theologians” teach something that is contrary to the Faith.

Finally, we must mention the fact that we have a strong Church in North America today thanks largely to the efforts of the nine obedient monks who set out on the longest, and possibly the most dangerous, mission the Church ever undertook. St. Herman, St. Juvenaly, and their other seven companions left Valaam Monastery, under obedience and certainly not seeking fame or honor, to travel the entire breadth of Rus­sia and cross the Bering Sea to come to Alaska. When Saint Herman found himself the only surviving one of those missionaries, he did not turn back, but continued his life of work and prayer in remote, and often inaccessible, Spruce Island.

We can ask, “what good was he doing there? What role did he play in the life of the Church?” He was not a priest, so he could not serve Divine Liturgy or any of the sacraments; he rarely left his little enclave on Spruce Island; he did not write instructive books (that we know of). He looked after the orphans of Spruce Island, but even that he eventu­ally entrusted to another. He did not build a magnificent church or mon­astery. He did not have monastic disciples or a community of monks on Spruce Island when he died. What was he doing there for so many years? He was simply living the monastic life of work and prayer. None of us today would say that it was a wasted life.

That is the legacy we have inherited.

In our very organized way of life in North America, it is interest­ing to note that monasticism arose, not from a committee decision, nor from any kind of a council that thought something like monastic life would be useful to the Church. No, it was a grass roots movement in obedience to Christ who told the rich young man who asked how to be saved, if you will, sell all that you have…and come, follow Me.

This article was originally published in “The Veil” (Volume 19, Number 2, Dormition Fast 2012), a publication of Protection of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Monastery. 

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