Christianity in Protestant America is, as a whole, very skeptical of anything coming out of the monasteries of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox tradition. While a lot of this skepticism was inherited from our Reformation fathers (which, oddly enough, was started by a monk), most of it has to do with our tendency to want to have our cake and eat it too.
What I mean is that we, if I might be a bit stereotypical for a moment, tend to want to live in the modern world while also hanging onto our Christianity faith. As such, the idea that someone would voluntarily walk away from society and modern conveniences (not to mention sex!) to join a monastery…well, that person must not be right in the head… or so we think to ourselves.
The reality is something far different – as is usually the case.
The monasteries of our older brothers (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches) are full of wisdom and life. And we, the younger, more rowdy, sibling would be wise to pay attention to the lessons and traditions of these monks.
A good place to start is with Kyriacos Markides’ book Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality. In this book, which is essentially a follow up to his early book The Mountain of Silence, Markides explores the spiritual traditions and practices of the Eastern Orthodox monks who draw from the elders of Mount Athos.
Written as a journey of discovery, Markides leads the reader by the hand into the monastic world of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Starting first with a monastery in Arizona, Markides introduces the reader to this new world before taking them to the monasteries and streets of Cyprus, Greece and the United Kingdom.
At times along this journey, I felt out of place as the concept presented seemed strange….concepts like radical obedience to an elder, self-denial of basic comforts, and the like. These are not things I’m used to hearing about….but they are things that Jesus followers throughout the ages have talked about. As such, it would be wise to take note of these things. We might not live in a monastery, but self-denial and humanity are not limited to the walls of a building. These are things that you and I can practice while living in modern society.
One of the many jewels within the book was the three stages of spiritual life identified by the monastic elders (pages 131-147). The first stage, “Slaves of God,” is when your motivation to follow God is driven by fear. As in, fear of hell, separation from community, or disappointing God. This is not to say that your relationship with God is not genuine; it is just that God want more from us than just a relationship build upon fear.
Which leads us to the second stage, “Employees of God,” where, according to the elders, most of us reside. This is when we have moved beyond the fear of hell and rather are looking forward to be rewarded by God in this life or the life to come. As in, we do good works and expect God to reward us for those works by keeping the bad things away from us and giving us good things here on earth as well as in the afterlife.
The final stage is that of the “Lovers of God” or “Children of God.” This, the elders say, is really the “only stage that is real” as the other two stages are false views of God projected on him by our own fears or desires. Those in this final stage “act and do what they do not because they are afraid that God might send them to hell or because they want to gain a ticket to paradise but because they love God.”
The quicker we, the followers of Jesus, can get to the third stage the better. Learning to love God without fear or the desire to gain anything is powerful…may it be that we all reach stage three and learn to gazed into the eyes of Jesus, our beloved.
In conclusion, Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality by Kyriacos Markides is a book worth reading. It will challenge you on some fronts and encourage you on others. Eat the meat and spit out the bones as the saying goes.