The Contemporary Relevance of Monastic Spirituality
Dr. Alexander Roman
In August 2004, the holy archimandrites of the famous Manjava Skete were glorified as Venerable Saints in Ukraine. Their feast-day was established on the Nativity of St John the Baptist – July 7th. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the restored Church of Manjava Skete as they will this year. Just as our Lord asked those seeking the Forerunner in the desert, so too might we ourselves wonder what all these pilgrims come out to the Skete to “seek and discover?” Is it just possible that these great spiritual athletes have something to say to us in modern times, that their holy, ascetical lives somehow have much that appeals to contemporary sensibilities?
Manjava Skete first became famous in history for its fierce loyalty to Orthodoxy and Eastern spiritual practice. The monks of Manjava refused to entertain ideas about entering into union with Rome, as many of their confreres in the surrounding territory had done via the Union of Brest in 1596. But it was certainly its reputation for the sincere monastic spirituality of its monastics that endeared Manjava to the hearts of many Orthodox Christians and even Eastern Catholics.
The actual rule of Manjava is short and to the point. With respect to prayer, the monastics are enjoined to celebrate together as much of the daily Divine Praises as possible on the basis of the Horologion books they have at their disposal. It certainly does take a liturgical library to celebrate full Office of the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine tradition! But the Manjava Rule allows for substitutions here and there. In terms of private prayer, the rule of the Psalter (including the prayers that come at the end of each Kathisma) is enjoined to be recited twice in one week together with a different Canon or Akathist said daily. 300 prostrations, morning and evening, are prescribed (so who needs memberships in fitness clubs?) together with 600 Jesus Prayers said during the day and another 600 at night. The Jesus Prayer is further to be said unceasingly and at all times as a true “breath of the soul.”
We are sometimes led to think that monastic spirituality can only be real for those living within the enclosure of monasteries. But there is so much of the tradition and spiritual insight of monasticism that can be consciously adopted in the lives of people living “in the world.” In fact, one might observe a genuine spiritual hunger for the “wisdom of the cloister.” As the title of one book on Benedictine spirituality affirms, one may “become a monk without leaving one’s day job.” The rules about the management of the internal affairs of the monastery can be easily adapted to family and community life.
Certainly, lay people cannot be expected to fulfill such a rule completely (except, of course, during the Great Fast/Lent when we should take extra pains in the work of prayer and fasting), but it can serve as a guidepost for the general direction in which our prayer life and our spiritual practice should be going.
The enclosure of the monastery can and should be adapted in our lives as lay people. Prayer, meditation and spiritual reading, if they are to be successful spiritual enterprises for us, must be experienced within a requisite spiritual context that helps “enclose” our eyes upon our souls and upon the icons before which we stand and kneel as we place ourselves in the Presence of God. For example, we should all have an icon corner. It need not be a work of art or be a place of great sophistication in order to achieve its purpose. Icon corners should be set out of the main traffic of a room because those that are out in the open can become places of distraction: other activities can intrude on our prayer. It is even more beneficial to have a room in our homes as a private chapel or “chasovnia” (a place where the Hours are recited). We can become truly transformed spiritually in such a room the moment the door is closed. Then we can pray to the “Father in secret and the Father Who sees in secret will reward.” In any event, we need a place where we can close out the distractions of daily living when we take the time we set aside for prayer.
Another addition to our icon corner or room might be the make use of candles. There is nothing like the flickering light of a burning beeswax candle (or olive oil lamp) to create within us a tremendous sense of the mystery of the Divine Presence! And this is important in developing our prayer life: the stopping of the busyness of our lives for a period and the total focus on the One we are praying to.
Where the monastics use the Horologion books for the longer hours prayed, our Orthodox tradition is for everyone, monastics and laymen alike, to use a prayerbook that contains prayers coming to us form the great saints of our Church. The prayerbook not only helps us form ourselves in prayer but also helps us over the periods when we feel that we cannot pray or feel we must force ourselves to pray. Its purpose is to establish us in the discipline of prayer and to unite our own, individual prayer to that of the whole Church, the whole Communion of Saints of which we are a part by our Baptism.
For purposes of reciting the Jesus Prayer and also the Rule of the Theotokos, we should have our own prayer rope/beads. Simply holding this in one’s hand brings a great sense of calm and spiritual purpose in reciting one’s daily rule. We should have it with us always so that wherever we happen to be, riding on public transit etc., we can take it out (or else keep it in our pockets or bags) to pray to God. The same goes for a small Psalter that should be our best traveling friend, especially for those long journeys by air!
The monastic life is really all about living the life in Christ in a more intense way. Lukewarm approaches to spirituality are unacceptable to God because it is unacceptable to the needs of our souls in our daily Christian struggle. The Great Fast and Paschal season are the best times ever to seek out and adapt to our daily lives the insights and wisdom of the monastic spirituality such as the Rule of St Theodosius of Manjava. The important insight of the Manjava Skete is the allowance of substitutions, that is the adaptation of the traditional prayer methods to those using them. That is an important lesson for us laymen to remember.
On a personal note, I have the example of my Aunt Irene. She maintained a prayer room in her home. Recently she returned home from the Divine Liturgy, had brunch with friends, and retired to her room to pray. There she collapsed and died instantly. I am edified by what a wonderful way to fall asleep in the Lord she enjoyed. I have inherited the contents of her prayer room and this experience has made me value the “objects of piety” that should form a part of our spiritual lives and the important role they truly do play.