Desert Monks Living in the City: The Universal Priesthood and Interiorized Monasticism (The Relevance of Philokalic Spirituality for All Christians)
When picking up the Philokalia, we may wonder what relevance the lives and writings of the desert fathers have for us today. Why would we, monastics, secular clergy or laity living in the 21st century, read such a work? Especially in the West, we seem to have so clearly defined and set off one path from the other. Indeed, there is a kind of clericalism that exist today (among those living in the world) that perhaps inhibits a certain receptivity to the notion of the the universal priesthood of the laity. Christ’s call goes out to all: “You are not of this world, you are in the world.” ; a special form of ministry is given - to be a sign, a reference to “the wholly other.” While we hear of the “universal call to holiness” spoken of frequently in our day, in the West the demarcation between various states of life has often had the effect of breaking down this unique and absolute call of Christ and the Gospel. In the East, Evdokimov writes, there is a fundamental homogeneity to the spirituality that is in essence monastic. It is this spirituality that embodies the equivalent of martyrdom - the baptism of blood of the martyrs has passed over to the baptism of ascesis of the monks and becomes the framework for those seeking to respond to the total requirement that the Gospel address to all and everyone.
Admittedly, this my be hard for us to wrap our minds around at first. Evdokimov offers us a few thoughts from the Fathers to ponder. “‘When Christ, says St. John Chrysostom, ‘orders us to follow the narrow path, he addresses himself to all men. The monk and the lay person must attain the same heights.‘ We can see indeed that there exists only one spirituality for all without distinction as to its exigency, whether for bishop, monk, or lay person, and this is monastic spirituality. . . .In fact, according to the great teachers, the monks were only those who wished ‘to be saved’, those who ‘led a life according to the Gospel’, ‘sought the one thing necessary’, and ‘did violence to themselves in all things’. It is quite evident that these words define exactly the state of every believing lay person. . . .St. John Chrysostom said: ‘Those who live in the world, even though married, ought to resemble the monks in everything else. You are entirely mistaken if you think that there are some things required of seculars, and others for monks . . . they will have the same account to render.‘ Prayer, fasting, the reading of Scripture and and ascetic discipline are imposed on all by the same prescription.” Furthermore, Evdokimov writes, “When the Fathers spoke, they addressed themselves to all the members of the mystical body, without any distinction between clergy and laity; the spoke to the universal priesthood. The actual pluralism of the theologies of the episcopate, the clergy, religious and the laity, being unknown at the time of the Fathers, would be even incomprehensible to them. The Gospel in its entirety is applicable to every particular problem in any environment” (pp. 114-115).
Whether monk or lay person makes no difference: God wants all of us and our love. This understanding of the call to holiness and the character of the universal priesthood, Evidokmov tells us, we find in the thought of the monks themselves. For example, St. Seraphim of Sarov writes: “As to the fact that you are a lay person and that I am a monk, there is no need to think of that . . .The Lord seeks hearts filled with love for God and their neighbor. This is the throne on which he loves to sit and on which he will appear in the fullness of heavenly glory. ‘My child, give me your heart, and all the rest I shall likewise give you’, because it is in the heart of man that the kingdom of God exists . . .The Lord hears the prayers of the monk as well as those of a simply lay person, provided that both have a faith without error, are truly believers and love God from the depths of their hearts, for even if their faith is only a grain of mustard seed, both of them will move mountains.‘ Both, the monk and the lay person, are a sign and a reference to “the wholly other.” With even greater clarity, St. Tikhon of Zadonsk wrote: “Do not be in a hurry to multiply the monks. The black habit does not save. The one who wears a white habit and has the spirit of obedience, humility, and purity, he is a true monk of interiorize monasticism.”
Evdokimov sums it up this way: “The monasticism that was entirely centered on the last things formerly changed the face of the world. Today it makes an appeal to all, to the laity as well as to the monks, and it points out a universal vocation. For each one, it is a question of adaptation, of a personal equivalent of the monastic vows. The three monastic vows constitute a greater charter of human liberty. Poverty frees from the ascendancy of the material; it is the baptismal transmutation into the new creature. Chastity frees from the ascendance of the carnal; it is the nuptial mystery of the agape. Obedience frees from the idolatry of the ego; it indicates the sonship to the Father. All, whether monks or not, ask God for these things in the tripartite structure of the Lord’s prayer: obedience to the will of the Father; poverty of the one who is hungry only for the substantial and eucharistic bread; chastity, the purification from evil” (pp. 116-117).
I find Evdokimov’s remarks compelling for many reasons. Chief among them is St. Philip Neri’s view of himself as a desert Father living in the city of Rome. He sought first as a layman, and then only later as a secular priest to pursue without vow the liberty of which Evdokimov speaks as the distinct call to holiness received through the grace of baptism. He made that personal adaptation and sought first to embrace the universal priesthood and call to holiness. His heart burned for love of God and was truly His throne.
In future posts, we will address in detail how Evdokimov envisions this personal adaptation and interiorizing of monastic spirituality.
**All quotes from “The Struggle with God” by Paul Evdokmov