True Acquisition

I want to talk about an aspect of monasticism as a blessing, but before that I wish to say that marriage is honorable, and none of my words about the blessings in monasticism are meant as a critique of the blessing of marriage. Marriage is the normal route to glory for most people, and marriage furnishes guests for the wedding supper of the Lamb. Furthermore, today when marriage is under attack from many sides, married couples who live in love until death do them part, bear a crown comparable to monasticism. If I ever become a hieromonk, I will consider it my privilege and honor to marry couples and honor their marriages with crowning. Married Orthodox and monastics are on the same team, even if their jobs may vary, and both reach the same basic goal of self-transcendence.

But I would like to talk about something specific that I am learning about monasticism, even as in its antechamber. (And if something in this sounds attractive to married Orthodox or Orthodox who have not yet chosen between marriage and monasticism, discuss it with your father confessor to find what in it might be appropriate for you.)

Monasticism as the supreme privilege to be sought in the Orthodox Church

Monasticism represents the position of supreme privilege that is to be sought within the Orthodox Church. I would modify now some of what I said in A Comparison Between the Mere Monk and the Highest Bishop, in that the worthy bishop wears a higher crown in Heaven than the worthy monk. However, the right thing for future bishops as well as other monastics is to seek to be a monk. If you should be a bishop, you will not need to work your way into becoming a bishop: the office of a bishop will find you, whether you like it or not.

There are three well-known monastic vows one takes in being tonsured into the little or great schema: poverty, obedience, and chastity. (There is a fourth vow of stability meaning being rooted in one place, but I will not discuss that.) None of these vows is a downside of being a monastic; these are the conditions of supreme privilege.

I am chiefly interested here in the first vow, poverty or affliction or non-acquisition. It may be said of affliction that I have found that when I have been facing secular afflictions, I tend to mostly pray for and seek things that are genuinely good for me; when I have been facing secular ease, I tend much more to seek things that are not genuinely good for me. However, I am interested in this vow as non-acquisition.

I have, on a meagre income, spent much of my time at the monastery engaging on what might be called throttled acquisition, or going from want to want. I have acquired wants, if more slowly, and if I had more money, I would just have been doing the same thing with larger price tags. Now I do spend money on myself, for food, medication and supplies for instance, and I have the use, if perhaps not the ownership, of a full monastery library. (The equivalent in the world would probably be to purchase a steady diet of books.) My handling of money is with a focus of being grateful for what I already have and repenting of covetousness (crossing myself and saying "Lord, have mercy," as I was told in some of my earliest pastoral advice after entering the Orthodox Church), and I am finding that non-acquisition is not a downside of monastic living; it is a treasure and a condition of privilege. I have gone more from always wanting the next thing I did not have, and feeling incomplete and not OK with what I had, to experiencing the riches of contentment ("Who is rich? He who is content.").

Furthermore, I am experiencing, or seem to be beginning to experience the beginning of, something like when I went to taking in less spiritual noise, and staying mostly in one place. Temptations can make the treasure temporarily not seem a treasure, but there has been something unfolding.

In years past I have talked about sacramental shopping, an ersatz sacrament where you try to improve yourself by buying things you think you need and that leave you feeling hollow and incomplete, perhaps as stimulated by the economic pornography of advertisements. It is hollow and a spiritual consolation prize at best, and I remember one instance in particular. I was shopping for the computer that would see me through Cambridge and Fordham, and after careful searching I found the excellent workhorse that I believed and still believed would serve me best: an IBM ThinkPad (an excellent brand which has been since taken over by Lenovo, a company with a justified reputation for acquiring excellent brands and keeping up the quality while offering it at a cheap price), with a large display and a gigabyte of RAM. And when I was about to buy it, my conscience pulled me back and said, "No." I entered a spiritual struggle, and the minute I completely surrendered and let go, my conscience gave me the green light. I purchased a workhorse that would serve me well for years, and what my repentance bought me was having the computer without committing sacramental shopping. I believe that that benefit and blessing was part of why it gave me pleasure for years. Sacramental shopping delivers a quick thrill and then quietly leaves you with a lonely emptiness.

Non-acquisition is a further step back from sacramental shopping and its always leaving you lonely and empty. I have found that repenting of purchasing additional wants has left me satisfied and happier. And there is more.

Acquisition is not something that goes away. Sexuality is not something that goes away; while a monastic's real deprivation is in surrendering his will rather than surrendering carnality, sexuality does not disappear but is subtilized. Furthermore, when acquisition on the level of material possessions is repented of, it is subtilized into something higher. One can be acquisitive of virtue, for instance, or the Holy Spirit, which St. Seraphim of Sarov famously highlighted in his famous dialogue with a pilgrim. Acquisition can reach a higher plane and be an acquisition of things which humbly make you genuinely happier over time, as opposed to things which give immediate glitz and quietly leave you with long-term loneliness.

So I am discovering, at a basic level, one of the four vows of a monastic, and looking forward to the day, God willing, when I will make those vows in accepting tonsure. I regard all four vows as the conditions of supreme privilege, having earlier regarded non-acquisition as one of the downsides of being a monastic. And I am grateful that God who cares for the birds of the air is giving me enough.

There is a famous dialogue in which a disciple asked an Abba among ancient Egypt's Desert Fathers, "What do we do?" The Abba answered, "The half of what our fathers did." The disciple asked, "What will those who come after us do?" The Abba answered, "The half of what we do." The disciple then asked, "What will those in the last days do?" The Abba answered, "They will not be able to do much of any great exploits, but those who keep the faith will be honored above our fathers who raised the dead."

Monasticism exists in a very attenuated form today. In antiquity, a novice or monk was not supposed to look at or even see a woman's face, and one of the other Desert Fathers stories tells of a monk who saw some nuns walking and gave them a wide berth, and one of the nuns said, "If you were a true monk, you would not have looked and seen that we were women." A novice or monk today interacts more with women than most married men in antiquity. And as regards poverty, I am well aware that I have the use of multiple computers and a nice Swiss Army Knife where ancient monks were supposed to have "not even a needle." I have luxuries that were not available to emperors in antiquity, and I expect that the right course will be for me to maintain many valuables for so long as the Lord allows it. We have much to be humble about today.

So, monasticism (and, for that matter, marriage) are greatly attenuated today, but those who die having kept the faith will be honored above those who raised the dead. And non-acquisition is a spiritual treasure and one of the conditions of the supreme privilege that is to be sought in the Orthodox Church.

Let us, married or monastic, take what treasures we can.