The Role of the Monastic
Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green · January 14, 2009
Audio length: 11:01
Today Frederica is at the Hermitage of the Holy Cross in Wayne, WV, with her guest Fr. Seraphim. Who should be a monk and how does the monastic life contribute to the salvation of us all?
FMG: I’m here at Holy Cross Monastery in Wayne, West Virginia. A Russian Church Monastery here in a “holler”—a sort of bowl in the mountains, where a valley comes to an end with the mountains rising on all sides. It’s a lovely monastery. Fr. Seraphim, you were saying that it was founded in 1986 in St. Louis, and then moved to this location. Would you say something to listeners—those who are new to Orthodoxy or outside Orthodoxy—on the question, “Why monasticism?” It can look like a self-indulgent choice—you just go off, take it easy, and other people support you—but it’s very much not that way.
Abbot Seraphim: That’s correct, it’s not that way at all. If you want to avoid problems—you’ve had an unhappy relationship or you just don’t seem to know your place in life—the last place you want to go to is a monastery. What happens in a monastery is that whatever’s going on inside of you is going to come out. We want it to come out. If you live in the world you can hide from yourself very well. You can stay busy with work, with your social life, with all sorts of things and never really deal with what’s going on inside of you. With a monastery you can’t because you have plenty of time to be by yourself in your cell, where you have a prayer rope—you pray—and your spiritual reading that you do every day. If there’s something inside of you that’s dark or ugly or unresolved it’s going to come out.
Now, it’s good that it comes out, because that’s part of the whole healing process. That’s part of why the monastery has confession of thoughts; the fathers will come with something that’s really troubling them—if they’re having a judgmental thought about a brother, or a memory they can’t get rid of—they come and confess it. What this does is that it brings it out into the light. The demons don’t like this; they love secrets. They love to say to you, “Don’t tell your spiritual father this, this is just between us, keep it that way.” Then it can grow and fester inside of you. In a monastery you have a daily confession of thoughts to get rid of those sorts of things. I don’t have any special gifts—I’m not clairvoyant—but by saying your thoughts out loud to your spiritual father, they lose their power over you.
That’s what we’re looking for—to be freed of that—and that’s what happens. In a monastery if you’re running away from things, it’s the last place to go to because it will catch up with you there, more so than in the world. You can’t hide in a monastery. That’s good, because once it comes out, healing can take place, and then you can grow in your spiritual life, closer to Christ. Monks work very hard to pay our bills. That’s the way God wants it, and that’s the best thing for us Americans. We work very hard, and we pray hard. Our days are very full and busy.
Again, it’s not a place to come to if you want an easy life or if you want to be supported and cared for; that’s not what happens in a monastery.
F: Could I follow up by saying that some people might listen and think, “Well that’s great for the monks; they get to work through their psychological problems, but how does this benefit the world?” How does God use this labor, that they undergo to be purified? Does it just end with them, like working out at health club—they feel better? What good does that do for God’s church and the entire world?
S: I can quote the most striking and obvious example—St. Seraphim of Sarov, who said, “Acquire the peace of God in your soul, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” By a monk purifying himself and living a life of repentance and prayer, the whole world is changed. The way to begin change is to change yourself. If you change yourself it really does affect everyone around you. The most effective evangelistic tool that the monk has is his life—the very witness of who he is. When he walks through the world on a shopping trip or something, just the way he dresses and the way he looks witnesses to something. The monk who doesn’t marry and doesn’t have a successful career—he’s not making any money and doesn’t own anything at all—and yet he has happiness and he has peace… the life that he is living is a witness to everyone that these things are not the key to peace or happiness.
The Fathers call the monastic life the very heart of the Church, the very foundation of the Church, and this is precisely why: if you remove monasticism from the church, you don’t have that witness that there’s something other than this life, there’s something greater than this life, and that you can live for that.
Marriage is an honorable state, and a good state, but there’s another state: the state of virginity and chastity for the sake of Christ. The witness to that in our day and age, at this particular time, is especially important. We live in a time that is especially preoccupied with carnal things, and most marriages sadly end in divorce. The monk stands as a witness to that. He also stands as a witness to fidelity by remaining faithful to his vows and staying in his monastery in an age where everything is changing and there’s a consumer mentality. He says that great peace can be found in making a commitment to something—but not just something—in the monk’s case, a commitment to Christ. It’s a commitment of his whole life to Christ in an age when most people don’t make commitments to anything except, sadly, the pursuit of pleasure.
So the monk, no matter whether anyone sees him or not, changes the world. We have a certain amount of contact with the world at our monastery. Many pilgrims come here—men and women come—and they stay and spend a few days and they are refreshed. They come to the church services, they work side by side with us—they help milk goats, they might paint, they might clean, they might do all sorts of things. They come away refreshed and renewed.
Even if we had a monk who lived out in the woods and no one saw him, his prayers and his life would still change the world around him.
F: Yes, because we do not fight against flesh and blood but against the principalities and the powers. Monks may be invisible to the world, but they are the frontline warriors in the great battle that is continuing.
S: If we had spiritual eyes, we could see. In this humble little monastery, you would see grace pouring out of the doors and windows, down the sides of this little holler, out into the community all around us. That’s what we offer to the world. In that little church, all the services are done every day—molebens, panikhidas, confession, the confession of thoughts and repentance, all go on in that little church in there. That really changes everything around it—it really does. If we had spiritual eyes, we could see that.
Of course, if we had spiritual eyes, all the icons would be fragrant and radiant with light, but we don’t have spiritual eyes.
F: We try to work our way over to that. And you are a convert to Orthodoxy, as are several of the other monks, I suppose. Is there anything in conclusion you would want to say about how Americans might come to understand Orthodoxy better? What is it Americans need to know about Orthodoxy?
S: I think we live in a society that’s lost its spiritual roots. We don’t seem to have a Christian foundation any longer. We’ve replaced Christianity, oftentimes, with a watered-down version that can’t feed the soul of modern man. Modern man is spiritually starving to death, and so he runs to all sorts of things and movements and causes that still leave him empty. Only the church can fill that void, only the church can really nourish us. Those of us who have found our way to the church can testify to that.
It’s the pearl of great price, and we want to share that with everyone.
F: Those who would like to visit can go to the website—what is the website for the monastery?
S: The website is http://www.holycross-hermitage.com.
F: And they can visit the bookstore, which it has many different things like soaps made with milk from your own goats, hand-dipped candles made by the nun Theodora, and videos, CDs, and all kinds of things. People can make a virtual pilgrimage to the monastery.
S: We have a shop online where you can buy our products; we support ourselves by the work of our hands. We also sell religious goods—church goods—from Russia, which also helps to support us. People are also welcome to visit—directions are on our website.
F: Thank you, I hope you’ll be seeing some of them soon.