Intermonastic rumble!

From the Foreword of Holy Transfiguration Monastery’s The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (p. xxxiii), following a lengthy pair of quotations of Saint Isaac, in which he says, “The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he who praises Christ amid the congregations of men” (Hom. 64), the editor writes:

How far have we that are monastics departed from this understanding in these latter days, and become self-called teachers, writers, missionaries, charismatics, etc. One beholds in the Western part of the world monastics attending movies and writing reviews ‘for the edification of the faithful’, bishops and monastics teaching full time in secular institutions as monk-scholars in imitation of the Latin scholastic tradition. Elsewhere we read of cantatas played in deserts and abodes of prayer. We are told, ‘We must learn again what beauty is. We must learn to be carried on the thunder of a fugure, to be engulfed in the madness of Lear, to be consumed with the sanity of Quixote. We need to be refreshed by the health and charity of Dickens, illumined by the clarity and perception of Hugo, ballasted by the sober gravity and sidelong wit of Johnson, touched by the fire of Donne, soothed by Chaucer’s flowering springtime.’ And this from monastic lips.

Through the wonders of the internet, behold the article from which the ‘objectionable’ quotation was drawn: “Literature, Culture and the Western Soul” by the Sisters of St. Xenia Skete, originally published in slightly different form as “Forming the Soul” in The Orthodox Word 19(1983).1-2.

The two perspectives are interesting, but I in no way find myself even the least amenable to supporting a perspective that rejects beauty. I’m siding with the nuns, ‘to be carried on the thunder of a fugure, to be engulfed in the madness of Lear, to be consumed with the sanity of Quixote. We need to be refreshed by the health and charity of Dickens, illumined by the clarity and perception of Hugo, ballasted by the sober gravity and sidelong wit of Johnson, touched by the fire of Donne, soothed by Chaucer’s flowering springtime.’


  1. This reminded me of the account of Abba Arsenius and Abba Moses (Arsenius 38 in Ward’s translation) and the confusion of the brother who witnessed their different priorities. He prayed “saying, ‘Lord, explain this matter to me: for Thy name’s sake the one flees from men, and the other, for Thy name’s sake, receives them with open arms.’ Then two large boats were shown to him on a river and he saw Abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace; and in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God, and they were all eating honey cakes.”

  2. Speaking as someone who enjoys our classical classics, I’m glad that some of the olden days monastic folks _were_ concerned with preserving secular culture. 🙂

    Nevertheless, it’s true that not everybody has to do the same thing, and that it’s important to know what a monastery was assigned to do (by its founders, et al) before criticizing its members. It’d be like criticizing Benedictines for having strangers guesting in the house all the time when they’re supposed to be cloistered up and away from the world. The Benedictine interpretation of “away from the world” includes “but you have obligations to be hospitable”. Meanwhile, it would be equally wrong for a Benedictine to complain about how the monks of Mt. Athos are inhospitable to women, because that would be totally missing the point of Mt. Athos.

  3. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    It seems to me that there is obviously some kind of dichotomy being made even on the side of the stricter monastics: generally, things originating in the more distant past are more acceptable than those from the more recent past or (heaven forfend!) the present. And though there may be an element of archaism for its own sake involved, I can see a defense of the appeal of these older works from a time when the world was not so fallen as it is now, particularly in what one might call popular culture. This expresses itself in a disdain for current forms of entertainment which have all come to be abused, despite the fact that each form (even the dreaded television) can also be properly used to the greater glory of God and for the edification of the faithful.

    There are now some very interesting curricula in some of those conservative small colleges being worked up on the basis of old canons of taste in popular culture, and these are extraordinary. (I have in mind a particular curriculum from a small college, the name of which I can’t recall. I’ll try to find it at home.) Those classics of all ages are the kinds of things that one can be drawn to through natural interest (as in my own case as a young man, for whatever reason) but it would be better to receive a basis in them through childhood and into young adulthood in an academic setting that encourages their appreciation, and thereby the appreciation of lasting values, which is especially useful in tandem with a traditional religious upbringing. These kinds of works are all still valuable for instruction and fascinating in one’s adulthood, too, of course. In fact, a lifelong committment to classical (in the broader sense: not exclusively Graeco-Roman) literature, in particular, continues to deepen one’s thought and open up continually new vistas of insight, particularly when approached in a life of faith. (This is something that I can attest to personally, a mature sanity in faith that obviates an immature self-interested hermeneutic of earlier, faithless years: I realized I was no adequate judge.) Those young people raised to know that they have that to look forward to in their later years are extraordinarily blessed. The rest of us either experience it in a total wonderment of surprise and almost shock, or never experience it at all. We are especially blessed in these years to have, in addition, so much background literature coming from cultures around Israel (in both OT and NT times) which add to our understanding of the Bible, as well as numerous translations of Church Fathers and so on, some of which have been nearly lost, or were only rarely read or known since their writing. It’s an embarassment of riches that we should rejoice in. There’s more than enough there for a lifetime’s reading.

    Even so, I can see the appeal of the more extreme focus. Hesychasm is not about filtering the good from the bad in the world, and enjoying the good with God’s blessing. Hesychasm is about the complete inner and outer stillness away from all such things: the experience of God unfiltered by distraction. This is not a way for everyone. Mere physical silence, particularly for the unwary whose internal mental defenses are used to “pushing back” against the noisy distractions in the modern world, can drive people nearly nuts. Our internal dialogues, the constant thinking, all of these things are other than hesychasm. We are, at base in any given culture, far removed from hesychastic prayer and the life that supports it. It requires a radical realignment of life; a few laps around the prayer rope does not qualify. I think this is the level that the severer approach is coming from: one that is indeed sanctified by the number of Saints who’ve been hesychasts.

    Both are good, for different people in different contexts.

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