St Isaac the Syrian once said, «Monasticism is the paradise».
We often think of the paradise as a place somewhere in the sky, but this is not exactly right. The Paradise, the Kingdom of God is first of all a relationship between God and people and the world in the end of history. Essentially, the three monastic vows — chastity, voluntary poverty, and obedience — are a way to describe this relationship.
The Vow of Chastity
The vow of chastity is a way of dealing with people, which implies that I can no longer belong to anyone specific, I have to outgrow my natural affections. I must wrap up the entire world and everyone in it with my love; I have to learn how to love people like Jesus loved them.
The Saviour said that people will not marry in the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is a state of love and unity; it is a place where everyone is fully open to others. The afterlife won't be like a today's good family where there are, for example, a husband and a wife, and they have children, and they have a very special and unique relationship based on love, while they relate to all other people in a different way.
The Kingdom of God is the state of love and unity with everyone. Possibly, this is an answer to the question why we venerate holy families who became monastics in the end of their earthly lives. They had been growing spiritually so well together that they managed to overgrow their personal relationship in the end. Essentially, this is how they fulfilled the Gospel commandment, «If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple» (Luke 14: 26). Those who don't overgrow their natural relationships, those who don't go further than that in their relationships of love and unity, cannot be disciples of Jesus. Every person must become our brother and sister, our mother and father — this is our calling. This is what the Heavenly Kingdom is like.
It seems to me that this is what the vow of chastity is about. If someone says, «It is for Your sake, O Lord, that I have renounced the joys of family life, so it's on You to grant me the entry into the Heavenly Kingdom», this is naïve. On the one hand, we regard this vow as a given, and on the other hand, it is our task to grow in love, in openness, in self-sacrifice for every other person. As long as an individual grows up and overgrows their natural relationships, she becomes a citizen of Heaven right here on earth.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (Bloom) recounted the story of a novice on Valaam who had had a very difficult obedience of a lumberjack. However, he would refuse to make vows for a long time. When they asked him, «Why? You have been doing your job for so many years!» — he would reply, «I can't be a monk because my heart cannot contain the whole world and everyone in it yet. My heart is too tight». This example may be an answer to the question what exactly the vow of chastity means.
The Vow of Voluntary Poverty
The second monastic vow is that of voluntary poverty. Again, this is something that fits into a description of the Heavenly Kingdom, where there isn't anything we could call ours. You can't but recall a story told by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh about a pencil stub he owned, which no one ever wanted to claim, and the feeling of property he discovered in his heart with regard to this apparently normal fact and the struggle he had to endure because of that. Voluntary poverty is a state of mind. Nothing can be separated from the Kingdom of God, from this total self-sacrifice, even this pencil stub. You won't be able to claim anything exclusively for yourself in the Kingdom of God.
The Vow of Obedience
The vow of obedience consists of full openness, absolute trust and loyalty to God. This is how we imitate Christ and his obedience towards God the Father. There is no egoism, egocentrism, selfishness, and therefore no separation and death in God's Kingdom.
Monasticism is a testimony that the Kingdom of God is near and it is already in our midst. However, everyone who walks this path still has to grow in order to implement the Gospel commandments and monastic vows in their own lives so that they become the law they wholeheartedly follow. Perhaps, this is when a person can realise from their own experience that «monasticism is the paradise».
All Christian ascetic practices have the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Liturgy, as both their beginning and their end, as the revelation, the epiphany and the communion of the life of the age to come. It is through the Liturgy that the Church experiences things that the world has yet to experience when God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15: 28), when we will be united. The Liturgy is the gift of unity from above. This Sacrament trumps everything that still separates us — time, distance, and death. We become part of the final God's plan about the world; we have unity and communion with God and with all the saints, living and reposed.
This experience of the Church is always the answer to the question of genuine unity, which the world is seeking so desperately and which it cannot find anywhere. The Holy Fathers used to say, «My life is my sister. My salvation is in my neighbour». If we don't understand the experience that brought about these words, we will never understand St Isaac the Syrian who said that monasticism is the paradise. These words will be just another quotation from an outside authority figure, a saint. As long as we don't engage with the experience of life in the Church, expressed in its theology and worship, the words of the saints will remain alien to us.
July 28, 2016