Orthodox America

  A Life “Not of This World”

Various paths to salvation and the essence of monastic life

 Dear brother in Christ!

    Thank you for your warm greetings. In my own day, when I was studying at the Academy, I went through a state like the one that you are now experiencing. What shall I tell you about it? If we turn to the lives of the saints we see that they all approached the same goal by means of the most varied paths. Some were saved in the world, others in the desert. Some were devoid of education, others were excellently educated. Therefore we should not be troubled because '.:e live in the world and do not shun education. We shall merely try to live according to God's will everywhere and in all situations.

    "They say, as I have heard," said St. Nicetas Stethates, "that it is impossible to acquire virtues without withdrawing some distance and running away into the desert, and I was surprised that they had taken upon themselves to determine a location for that which is indeterminable. For, if proficiency in virtue is the restoration of the soul's strength to its primordial nobility and the integration of the main virtues for the proper functioning cf the soul according to its nature, then this does not come to us from without, as something foreign, but as something inborn in us from creation, through which we enter the Kingdom of Heaven which is, according to the word of the Lord, in us. Thus the desert is superfluous and we can enter the Kingdom without it, through repentance and the keeping of the commandments. Thus it is possible that God's dominion can be present in any place, as the divine David sang: "Bless the Lord, all His works in all places of His dominion" (Ps. 103:22)." (Philokalia, vol. V. First Century. 72). Thus it is possible to be a monk in the world also, according to the very words of St. Nicetas Stethatos.

    "Being a monk does not mean being away from people and from the world, but it means keeping away from the desires of the flesh and fleeing to the desert of passions [i.e., entering dispassion] in order to renounce oneself. When a great man, whom I mentioned to you previously (Abba Arsenius), was told: Run from people and you will save yourself, this was said precisely in this sense. For we see that even after he had fled from the world, he settled among people, traveled through populated places, and lived with his followers. But at the same time he diligently maintained internal retreat from sensual relations and he never suffered any harm from being among people. Another of the great Fathers (St. Macarias) made this appeal when leaving an assembly: Run, brothers. And when they asked him what they should run from, he pointed to his lips.' (Philokalia vol. V, First Century, 76)

    "Every way of life is blessed in all dealings and actions carried cut for God's sake and according to God," said Symeon the New Theologian (Philokalia vol. V, chap. 100).

    Therefore, in principle and according to the teachings of the Holy Fathers, there is no need to be despondent if, due to the conditions of our life, we are forced to seek salvation, even in the monastic order, in the world. I will, however, write a separate letter about how this is accomplished in practice.

Sincerely devoted to you,

Archbishop Theophan


Instructions to a young man aspiring to monastic life 

    "What should I do in situations," you ask, "when there arises or is foisted upon me an opportunity to make someone' s acquaintance? The fact of the matter is that the abundance of friends I already have bothers mea great deal and it is particularly difficult to carry on friendship with people who are lacking in faith, have no faith at all, or do not go to church. Yet I have quite a few such friends," you write. If you are preparing for monastic life then you must be very cautious in your relations with friends. You must abstain from friendships that bring you no profit and even more so from those that bring you harm. You can either gradually curtail them or decisively break them off all at once, whichever way seems most expedient to you...

    "Clouds," said Isaac the Syrian, "block the sun and loquacity darkens the soul which has begun to be enlightened by prayerful contemplation. If even useful words, when they are not curtailed, shade the soul, how much more so do empty words? The soul is debased by many long conversations even though it guards itself with the fear of God. Meeting people who are worldly in soul, who have renounced all matters of God, creates anxiety. An uncurtailed conversation even with one's spiritual brethren can be harmful, but it is harmful even to look at worldly people from a distance" (Word 85).

    You should give up going to the theater and the cinema. You may read non-spiritual books as long as they serve some purpose. It is better to go for walks in the park when there are no half-dressed people and no music there. Finally, I will answer your question about the meaning of the words of set purpose in the rite of tonsure in the phrase "See that thou art desiring of set purpose the betrothal of this great and Angelic Habit." In the Greek text there is a word which means free will or decision, Here the person who is performing the tonsure is asking: Is it according to his own will that he who has bean led to tonsure has decided to accept tonsure to the monastic life?

Archbp. Theophan 

(Translated by Antonina Janda from a collection of Archbishop Theophan's letters published by Holy Trinity Monastery)

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