Monasteries are the heart of our Orthodox life
In the first part of the twentieth century, Canada had a number of active monastic communities, primarily in the three Prairie Provinces. No doubt Archbishop Saint Arseny was involved with most of them, during the course of his missionary labours. With the increase of inter-ethnic divisions, and of the eventual division with ROCOR, the communities dwindled, and most disappeared by 1970. Only a few monks and nuns of the ROCOR remained.
Then, by 1980, some solitary monks had begun to appear, and there developed some small groupings of monastics. Later, by the early 1990s, there were a few nuns in our Archdiocese (living on their own), and there appeared three Greek Orthodox coenobitic monasteries, of which there are now two. These two, of women, are today thriving in the countryside, outside Toronto and Montreal. From early times, the historic women's community in Bluffton, Alberta has remained active, but it is now in schism. There are no other sizeable communities. However, in this Archdiocese, we have “seeds,” and “seedlings,” planted across the country. In BC, there are two small men's communities. In Nova Scotia, there is one. There is one each in Quebec, and Ontario.
Besides these communities, there are male and female solitaries, who live alone in different places from Newfoundland through to BC. Because monks ought officially to belong to a community of some sort, and because these solitaries are, in a manner of speaking, missionaries, we organised two communities to serve as their “homes,” spiritually at least. The Francophone Community, focused on Rawdon, Quebec, is that of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. The Anglophone Community, focused on the archdiocesan property Fair Haven near Johnstown, Ontario, is that of Saint Silouan of Mount Athos.
The more ideal method of developing monastic communities was found to be possible in the Greek Metropolis of Toronto, but the Archdiocese of Canada has not yet been able to import experienced monks and nuns from abroad. Our monks and nuns have gained personal experience in longer, and/or shorter stays in various existing, larger monasteries, both in North America and abroad.
Monasteries are the heart of our Orthodox life, and people like to visit monks and nuns, to find spiritual help, support and refreshment, and to be renewed in their commitment in Christ. Amongst a community of people living a life of repentance, they hope to find help in pursuing their own repentance. Because our monks and nuns are struggling in their solitudes across this country, they provide an encouraging sign to the struggling faithful, and give them hope and courage to persevere. It is important that we visit them, support them, and pray for them.
From the time of their appearance not long after the time of the apostles, it has been the case that monasteries are at the heart of Orthodox life. The holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptiser of the Lord John was a forerunner of the way of living the monastic life which would follow. He had withdrawn to the wilderness and desert places to pray. He lived in caves, here and there on the east and west sides of the Jordan river. In his life of solitude, he opened his heart to the Lord, and he was filled with the Lord’s love. He prepared the way of our Saviour, which is why he is called the Forerunner. Because of the light of God’s love shining in him, many disciples were attracted to him, and they later went on to follow Christ.
The experience of the Forerunner can be considered to be the paradigm by which monastic life continued to develop and later became more formally organised. There have always been men and women who so loved our Lord that they wanted to be alone with Him and to live in contemplation of Him and His Love. These persons simply went away to a quiet and wilderness place in order to have an uninterrupted communion of love with our Saviour. Some lived in caves, some in trees, some in huts, some in makeshift shacks, some on pillars. They had as little as possible or even nothing at all, such as Saint Mary of Egypt. They, as Mary of Egypt, were not running away from the world to escape it. They left the world in order to face the truth about themselves, in the context of their love for Christ. This struggle was with them in the wilderness. Mary of Egypt said about herself that it was many years before the tempter finally stopped trying to drag her back through her memories. She found healing in Christ’s love, but it was a great struggle. Mary and the others left the world, but they were never separated from it. Rather, in their withdrawing into solitude in their growing love for Christ, they encountered in their hearts everyone whom they had left behind, and they interceded for them. This is indeed one of the ways in which Mary of Egypt was able to have her own past healed. She prayed for everyone whom she had ever encountered, and opened to them our Saviour’s loving and healing touch through these prayers.
The Synaxarion is a book which, for each day of the year, presents a summary of the lives of saints whose repose from this life occurred on that day. In this book, which is usually read at meals in monastic families, there are very many descriptions of the repentant struggles of monks and nuns, as well as the sufferings of those who were killed for their love of Christ. This book is useful for us to read regularly so that we can, in our own lives, take encouragement from the heroic struggles of the persons we encounter in these pages.
When one monk was asked, “What do you monks do in that monastery?” he answered, “We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up.” This is a good description of the monastic life. Monks and nuns are not “professional Christians,” and they are not “specialist Christians.” They do not take special university courses to learn how to be monks. Rather, they put their hearts, minds and their whole being into the arms of our Saviour Jesus Christ and concern themselves only with living in the atmosphere of His love. They desire only to be pleasing to Him, just as any human being wishes to be to his/her beloved. In Christ, this is a very much deeper sort of love. As a result, they give their whole lives over to being preoccupied with Him and being pleasing Him and serving Him. They then consider themselves to be dead to the world, even written off by the world, because the world’s values no longer concern them. The monks and nuns appear so foolish to the world that they truly are written off by the world. They consider themselves to be of no account, and it doesn’t matter, because Christ loves them, and they love Christ. They consider themselves to be beneath everyone else. They are like this because their love for our Saviour Jesus Christ comes before everything in their hearts and in their lives. Their love for Jesus Christ purifies and enables the whole of their lives. Their lives are characterised by peace and joy, the main indicators of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. They are people who turn daily to Christ. They choose Christ daily.
People go to visit monasteries, because the monks and nuns there show them by their own lives that living the Christian life can be done. In God, all things are possible (see Matthew 19:26; Luke 1:37).