In an Orthodox country, where Church life is the normal experience for most each day, the monastery is at the center of that life. The life of the monks - their renunciation of the world, humility, love, and ceaseless prayer - is the pattern for the rest of the Christians in the country to follow. People from every class of society, from peasants to soldiers to philosophers to kings, seek their counsel, blessing, and prayers, and many times end up becoming monks themselves. And from the monasteries come the leaders of the Church - the bishops, and also deacons and priests.
Of its place in a country’s life, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna wrote,
Monasticism is not something unto itself—a peculiar and exclusive institution. In the true monastic every Christian sees what he can be. He beholds a model to be emulated. He embraces the higher faculties of the soul and beholds what it is that embodies all that to which Christians aspire. As an old adage has it: “Christ, the light of Angels; Angels, the light of monastics; monastics, the light of all men.” Monasticism reaches up to Christ, derives from Christ, and brings the Christian Faithful into a direct encounter with the light that flows forth from Christ and His Angels.
Just as the body has need of various victuals and craves the things that sustain it, so the soul needs an image of purity. It is this image which the monk and nun have always presented (‘Introduction’, in Metropolitan Cyprian of Oropos and Fili, The Monastic Life, trans. Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna and Bishop Auxentios of Photiki, Etna, Cal.: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2001, p. 16).
Now that Communism has fallen in Eastern Europe and Russia, monasticism is once again taking its place of central importance there. In Russia, for ensample, there were about 1,025 monasteries in 1914 before the Soviet takeover, 18 in 1987, but 713 in 2006 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Russian_Orthodox_Church, accessed 21 Aug. 2016).
Like the Southern plantation, a monastery is a self-sufficient, hierarchical society, focused also on the production of two kinds of goods, one kind material and one kind non-material: the material (like the plantation) being agricultural products and kindred handcrafts of various sorts and the non-material (unlike the plantation) being mainly an inner life of prayer.
At the head of the monastery is the abbot or abbess, and under his or her rule are the brothers and sisters, each of whom has his or her particular place in the order of the monastery’s life: planter, harvester, cook, chanter, cell attendant, bee keeper, candle maker, and so on.
In its life of work and prayer, every monastery has to support itself financially. Contrary to what some may think, the diocese or central Church administration does not financially supports the monasteries. Each monastic establishment strives to have their financial support come from within its specific confines and through the labors of the monks/nuns. Yes, donations from individuals, parishes, and Church organizations form a large portion of the necessary financial running of the monasteries, but the monastics still labor to maintain the physical structures and properties, as well as doing things that produce an income. Projects vary from one monastery to another, but often include painting icons, sewing vestments, running an Orthodox bookstore on the premises of the monastery, hosting retreats and visitors, and sometimes going out to speak at a conference or retreat, writing and publishing books, baking prosphora for parishes, etc. (‘What Role Does Monasticism Play in the Life of the Church?’, http://www.pravmir.com/what-role-does-monasticism-play-in-the-life-of-the-church/, accessed 18 Aug. 2016)
So far things look fairly alike between the plantation and the monastery, but in his focus on the inner life, the monk begins to part ways from the gentleman, who is more focused on outward action, be it running the plantation or service in the government or military (‘It was natural that a people whose talent lay almost wholly in the direction of statecraft should consider eminence in war and eloquence in council the marks of illustrious manhood.’ -- Richard Weaver, The Southern Tradition at Bay, p. 56).
In the tway-speech (dialogue) he has created between a modernish theologian (whose mindset is probably not far different from most Southerners, past or present, when it comes to monastic life) and a traditional Orthodox monk, Metropolitan Cyprian draws out this difference betwixt inward as over against outward virtue:
THEOLOGIAN: But this I cannot understand—the young theologian interrupted. If a monk cares only for himself and for his “little cell,” separated from the world, uncommunicative, how does he put into practice the love which is an essential trait of the Christian? Is this not, therefore, just egotism?
MONK: Listen, my child. The greatest joy and delight of God is to dwell in the pure hearts of those who love Him. Since, therefore, the goal of the monastic, as with every Christian, is to be united to God by Grace, to be “divinized,” all of his fervor is directed toward cleansing his heart of the passions and making it a bright throne and chamber where the Holy Trinity might dwell. For this reason, Saint Gregory Palamas says, “Indeed, only this is impossible to God, to enter into union with man before he has been cleansed.” Consequently, it is not egotism for a monk to attempt in solitude to deliver himself from the dung of the passions. For more moved is God when you overcome the passions, then when you return thousands of souls to goodness, as the Fathers say (Monastic Life, p. 22).
The monk says elsewhere,
MONK: Listen, my child, the contemporary Christian in the world, entangled as he is in temporal concerns, has lost the essence of Christianity and, more specifically, of Orthodoxy—namely, mysticism, Divine love. He believes that he has been appointed to the service of his neighbor and that, consequently, he does not have time for himself. He thinks that giving of himself entirely to his neighbor is enough to show that he is not selfish or egotistical. However, the truly unselfish man is one who subjects himself to hardship through the ways of asceticism set forth and left to us by the Holy Fathers, not those hardships which contemporary zealots for “social action” desire, i.e., trips to hospitals, social agencies, etc. The truly unselfish man is likewise one who humbles himself, fleeing vainglory. Internally, he is humbled through self-denial and self-reproach, the beginning or alpha of mystical spiritual work. External humility lies in humble eyes cast downwards, in silence, in the avoidance of quarrels, in submission, in not contradicting one’s superiors, in the avoidance of provocation of others, in suffering insult, and in such things. Since, then, the “active Christian” betrays these mystical works of humility, he believes that he is able to cure others and has forgotten the words, “Physician, heal thyself” and the admonition, “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.” The unfortunate “active Christian” has not reflected well: “How, indeed, will I give, when I do not have?” How will an empty cistern water the gardens? He has not reflected on what it is that a Christian should have and what he, himself, has. He has forgotten the words of Saint Paul: “Nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me,” which words were the moving force of his apostolic activity (pgs. 32-3).
. . . The centrality of prayer, which I have spent so much time discussing, is not such that it compromises the importance of philanthropic works. I simply want to assure you that the endeavor to cleanse the heart and its works by prayer, along with asceticism founded in humility, is greater. Social action, properly speaking, should spring forth from a loving soul, not from some pietistic or sentimental love that is satisfied with external effusions and material gifts alone. Good works lie in holiness that has been externalized, and they have a purely instructive character, benefiting and accruing principally to the doer and not to the receiver. They are done, as it were, for the perfecting of the benevolent soul. As we have said, good works must, of course, be undertaken by the layman, even before sanctification has been achieved, but without a lopsided emphasis on their significance (p. 45).
. . . Monasticism constitutes the aristocracy of the Church, and just as aristocrats spend the time in the courts of the rulers and take part in the “Lucullan feasts” and delights, so also monks always reside in monasteries, which are the antechambers of the Heavenly Blessedness, and there they drink the nectar of Divine love. Intoxicated by its sweetness, they cry out: “We are wounded by love” (p. 39).
Metropolitan Cyprian, in these sayings of the monk, shows the South how she may overfare (transition) from the old nobility of the gentleman to the new nobility of the monk. There would be some changes, but many familiar traits would remain.
He is still a heroic warrior, but he battles with the demons and his own fallen, disordered passions instead of men.
He is still one who has the power of ‘command’, but through the Grace of the God that overflows from a pure, meek, and loving heart instead of through force of arms or skill in rhetoric.
He still does good works for his neighbor, but they are mostly the hidden work of the heart, his unceasing prayer for all the world.
There is still a web of virtues growing out of his way of life, but it is based on lowliness rather than pride.
No one should misunderstand, however: There will always be a need in the South and in every country for a ‘gentleman class’, a Christian æþeldom (aristocracy) whose work is done primarily in the world. The South, to her praise, has always cherished hierarchy, but by banishing monasticism in large part from her life, the right ordering of things has been disrupted; an essential channel within the Church that carries God’s Grace to the faithful has been blocked (but we do no wish to be too harsh about this, since the South, Old and New, has known little of the Orthodox Faith). So the fulness of the Christian life is unknown in Dixie, and instead of the humble monk, imitating the Most Humble Christ, as her model, there is the proud gentleman, with his quick temper, sensitivity to insults, duels, and so on, whose lineage unfortunately is tied up with that of the high-minded, warsome French Normans.
But as we have noted, there is so much in common between plantation life and Orthodox monastic life that the journey back to the historic Christian norm of having monks as the ‘aristocracy’ of the land would probably not be as difficult in the South as in other predominantly evangelical Protestant countries. Already the Southerner is inclined toward ‘idleness’ (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. and eds. Mansfield and Winthrop, Chicago, Ill.: U of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 360), which, echoing one of the Metropolitan’s statements above, with but a few changes can become the threshold of the inner life of prayer the monk and nun are called to cultivate.
As the work of salvaging, guarding, and strengthening the good things of Southern culture goes on, encouraging monastic life must become an essential part. It is a bulwark of the Truth, upbraiding - sometimes with words, sometimes merely by the life the monks and nuns live, and sometimes by their martyrdom - those who try to introduce innovations and errors of any kind, great or small, into the Christian life. So we ask our Southern brothers and sisters to honor the monks and nuns as once they honored the gentlemen and ladies aforetime, and all the more so, as the excellence of the fruits of the formers’ labors is seen to rise above that of the latters’.
Since we have dealt somewhat abstractly with this subject, next time we will try to show through the lives of some monastics who have deeply impacted the West what this monastic life looks like when actually practiced in the world.