Home

 
 
 

 

On Contemporary Monasticism: Interview with Archbishop Mark (Arndt) Kristina Polyakova

 

-Your Eminence, in your view, are there significant differences between monasteries in the West and in Russia?

- I’ve lived my entire life outside of Russia and cannot objectively evaluate Russian monasticism. I became a monk having seen the sort of monastic life which was impossible to have under the Soviets, so I grew up on the experience of monasteries abroad—Serbian and those on Mt Athos. But I see that today, a great deal in society—in any society—changes, and is constantly evolving.

In the West, those who enter monasteries are faced with difficulties based on the fact that Western people are educated in individualism, a striving for being special in some way, and for this reason it is difficult to share a monastic residential cell with someone else—more than that, it is almost impossible. That is why I often bless people to share a monastic cell only after a certain time period, allowing a person to live in the monastery for a few years first. From what I’ve seen, monasteries are set up differently in Russia. Common monastic cells, of course, are necessary: people must relate to each other and they know how to. Compared to the West, Russian monastics face other kinds of difficulties. For example, here, it is difficult to give a novice a cell without a private shower. But this problem is resolved differently depending on where you look. There are monasteries where everything is modern—I’ve seen this in Greece. And there are places where this would be impossible—and thank God. Because young people need to learn simplicity, in relating with others, in daily life, in personal needs, etc. Without a doubt, it is different in every country. Every society has its idiosyncrasies and difficulties which must be overcome.

One of the biggest problems we endure in the West is the universal attachment to computers , telephones , of which newer and newer models are always being offered. Such things are necessary for us monastics, too, but in monasteries, the use of such devices must be regulated. You must understand: a person who is dependent on a computer cannot pray properly. The prayer of such a person will always be superficial. That is why using modern technology must be restricted to certain times, restricted for spiritual purposes. When a monk is busy fulfilling his many obediences, it can be difficult for him to tear away from them during divine services or domestic prayer. That is why it is especially important to teach young people how to remove themselves from daily cares.

- Maybe this is an awkward topic to discuss, but they say that there is a decline in monastic life in the West, especially among Catholics. Can you comment?

- Yes, there is a certain weakness, there are faults which must be battled and overcome, but I would not say it is in decline. Such things happen in every society, at any time, and we dare not fall into despair, into a paralyzed state. We must labor so that everything takes its proper place. The Lord gives us enormous opportunities. The possibilities we now have, especially in Russia, were few and far between in the past—it would be better to say that this is a very rare moment in time. We should therefore take action. Let us not be pessimistic, but look for the positive today, on this basis we can build something good.

As far as Catholic monasteries are concerned, there is indeed a decline. In my opinion this is partly a result of the general attitude of Western society which has strayed far from its Christian roots, but also a result of the fact that Roman Catholics do not have a solid foundation for spiritual life, because they abandoned the unity of the Church. Outside the Church there is no salvation.

- In your opinion, is it necessary for monastics to examine the regulations and way of life of other monasteries abroad? Or is there a model for establishing monastic life that everyone should follow?

- There can be no set models to follow in Christian life! If everything is standardized, Christianity, as a rule, dies out. One should not simply copy someone or something—everything is individual. For example, nature itself is completely different in Greece than in Russia. This leads to various needs and problems in the monasteries of these countries. But it is always useful to acquaint oneself with the ways and customs of other monasteries, learn something beneficial, or compare to one’s own ways. One must look at the positive aspects of different monasteries and communities and emulate them if there is a need.

- Vladyka, in your opinion, what is the main problem in the spiritual life of modern man, of a monk?

- One of the main problems faced by Christians and especially monastics today is that people are not used to restraining themselves, to enduring, or forcing themselves to do anything, to assume obligations, first and foremost to prayer. For some reason we stubbornly and persistently chase after sin, but good deed—alas! One of the ancient Church fathers said that prayer is more difficult than hewing rocks. A person today is raised to want everything right away, in abundance and cheaply. We have a consumerist society, everything is desired quickly and easily. But this doesn’t happen, since whatever is quick and easy to obtain is usually not appreciated. Only by obtaining something through great effort and persistence does a person value it highly. That is why persistence in prayer demands just such an approach, and, I think, this is one of the main obstacles faced by modern man, who is not used to achieving anything through patience and painstaking effort.
The Jesus Prayer is necessary for modern man! No Christian can get by without this prayer.

- Is the Jesus Prayer accessible to contemporary man?

- Of course. Moreover, it is absolutely crucial! Not only Christians in general but especially monastics need it. But there must be the desire and persistence, patience and love for Christ.

- The frescoes in Sretensky Seminary depict not only all the Russian saints, but even ascetics who have not yet been canonized, and there is a portrait of Feodor Dostoevsky along with Nikolai Gogol. You often speak of the influence Feodor Mikhailovich had on you, noting that he was one of the most Christian authors in Russian literature. What is your opinion of the role of literature and art on personal spiritual development?

- The Lord employs various means to bring us to know the truth. Good literature is one of these, bringing mankind towards Himself, it is one of the main means that turns the mind and heart to God. A Christian must know and read such writers as Dostoevsky—such reading enriches him spiritually. But when a person has already grown into the Church, there is no need for distraction by lay literature. It is better to read the Holy Fathers.

- Can monastics read lay literature? Is it beneficial?

- To a very limited degree, since if a person did not read literature before joining the monastery, it means he came unprepared. In general, it seems to me, a novice can read such things, but it is better for a monk to avoid it. A monk should be occupied with other things.

- If a monastery lacks a spiritually-experience guide, if there is no opportunity to reveal one’s thoughts to a spiritual father on a daily basis, what is to be done? In particular, this is the situation in some women’s convents.

- In my opinion, a spiritual father should be secondary in a convent—the abbess must be the one with whom a nun should share her thoughts. Or an abbess can appoint a senior nun to counsel the younger sisters. In any case, I think, it is better when a nun can talk to someone of the same sex, not to a man. A priest, a spiritual father is provided to take confession, which is somewhat different than revealing one’s innermost thoughts. Of course, an abbess can summon any spiritually-experienced person for the nuns to talk to. But such a person should display a great deal of tact and approach with caution so as not to interfere in the internal matters of the monastic community. In the Holy Land, two large convents are under my care. Of course, I do provide some counsel to the sisters, I hold discussions with them, but I always stress that at the end of the day, the abbess must rule. Unfortunately, in many monasteries they underestimate the importance of an abbess or elder nun.

- You mentioned that the monastic path must be chosen with great caution. What did you mean, exactly?

- It is necessary to maximally exclude one’s own will and accept God’s instead. In other words, to rely not on one’s own knowledge and limited mind, but on the fact that the heart will accept the Will of God, the heart will open up to the “dew” of the Holy Spirit which will allow the person to discern good from evil, what is beneficial and what is not.

- And the greatest aids for this are the Mysteries of Confession and Communion?

- Yes, primarily. I would say that this is a whole system within which a person should live and develop: prayer, the Mysteries, the revelation of thoughts, Confession, etc. We must emancipate ourselves from the state of that fragmentation which invaded human life as a result of the Western, Roman-Catholic false teachings. Fr Justin (Popovic) once said that the main sin of Catholicism is Papism, and the main sin of Protestantism is that each has its own pope, and that is even worse. This breakdown and emphasis on the human element are completely useless for salvation. It hinders spiritual development, since man is at the forefront, and in the end, there is no room for God. Even if he thinks that he is giving himself over to the Will of God, in reality it is not the case at all—it is self-delusion which will always be an obstacle to communion with God.

- How is one to tell what the Will of God is? One of the fathers of the Church said: “In order to fulfill the Will of God, one needs to know what it is, which is a great and difficult task.”

As long as a person is guided by his own will and his own mind, he cannot hear the call of God.
You understand, the most important thing in monastic life and in the life of a Christian in general is obedience. A person can attain true, genuine obedience only through humility and meekness. Only in this case will he be able to heed the voice of the Lord, to hear the Will of God. A closed, hermetic life demands great experience in obedience, which is possible specifically within a monastic community. In monastic life it is rare to go into seclusion very quickly, this is done only after many years of social life, during which a person suppresses his own ego and obtains the habit of obedience.

- How does one choose a monastery?

- If a person strives for monasticism, he must heed this call and make a conscious choice of a monastery to join. There are various kinds of monasteries . In the Orthodox world, each monastic community has its own identity and characteristics. One must choose according to the heart. Some like physical labor, others are drawn to contemplation. So in choosing a monastery, one should be oriented by individual preferences. For instance, [smiling] it took me eight years to choose.

- How should Christians react to the terrible epidemic of the genocide of our brothers and sisters in Christ in Syria, Metochia, Kosovo and Serbia? Is this active Islamization or the actions of radical extremists, bandits who only assume the mantle of Islam? His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, during a Liturgy in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow read to his Russian flock the epistle of the Antiochian Patriarch, in which he painfully called to the whole world for help, stressing that the situation is at such a horrifying stage that help is needed not only through prayers to God, but in action. But in Christian society the reigning opinion is that we can help exclusively by prayer.

- I reject the expression “help exclusively by prayer.” That we Christians are only capable of prayer is a false notion. Of course, prayer is our foundation and greatest strength. But if we think that all we can do is pray, we will go astray. Yes, we must pray, but we must also understand that people are often forced by circumstances to soften one’s language. If the Antiochian Patriarch says this, he bases it on the experience of his own nation, where Christians and Muslims always lived in peace. I think that it is incorrect to say that there are only extremists at work there. Reading the Quran, you will see that all of this lies at the foundation of Islam. Extremism exists, of course. Other Eastern hierarchs openly state that they have known about this particular aspect of Islam all their lives. I often serve in Jerusalem . There, for instance, on the feast of the Holy Trinity, right next to the church a muezzin cries from his tower that they believe in the One God Who has no children, no Son and Holy Spirit, etc. He has no compunction to do so, thought these people are not really extremists. What is this? Open, unabashed propaganda against Christianity! They know full well what they do, spewing these slogans during the main Christian holiday of the Pentecost, the celebration of the birth of the Church Herself.

Islam is at its core anti-human. Look at Ramadan—this is the mortification of the human being, of the human body. I saw how people were taken to hospitals during their observance of Ramadan. All day they eat nothing, drink nothing even during baking heat, and at night the cram there stomachs to the point of losing consciousness—it is madness! One must look truth in the eye: this is all anti-human, it is directed against humanity.

Yes, there were times when Muslims tried to live in peace with their neighbors, they even acknowledged that we Christians are people, too. But for many, those times have passed, and now they reveal who they really are.

- In other words, when some say that what is happening in Syria and other fundamentally Christian nations, it is only political, not a religious war against Christianity, it is untrue? Regardless, can we say that the Christians who are murdered for their faith today are martyrs.

There is an intentional war being waged against Christians. Kosovo was the first in the list of such genocide from Christian territory. Then Chechnya. Understand what happened, a Christian nation was simply given away to the Muslims. The destruction of churches continues, tortures, wild fanaticism, murder. Kosovo, Chechnya, Syria, Egypt…

- The next goal for these people, whether they are extremists or not, is to declare Russian Muslim. What are we to do, strengthen our prayers?

- The most important thing is to be real Christians. This means constant participation in the Mysteries of the Church. If the Lord grants someone the crown of martyrdom, it means the person earned it and must accept it with dignity.