The Necessity of Monastics


A month or so ago I received an email from a young protestant who wondered: “What good is monasticism?” His arguments and observations were pretty similar to others I’ve heard over the years. I recall my older brother once asking me, “If a hermit is in the desert and is very holy, what good does it do since no one knows he’s there.”

These questions, of course, come from our modern mindset in which good and bad are measured only on utilitarian grounds. Things are good if they are “useful.” Some of the worst ethics ever produced by the human race were utilitarian in character. In the name of “usefulness,” millions of people have been murdered. It is not a very useful category (forgive the pun).

A few brief observations:

  • I replied to my brother’s question “who knows they are there?” with “God knows and the demons know and tremble.”
  • When God came down to search out the truth of Sodom and Gomorrah, whether they were as wicked as reported, He agreed to spare the city for as few as 10 righteous men.
  • By the same token, the value of a very few righteous men or women is invaluable in the life of the world.
  • Finally, monastics bear witness to the Kingdom of God by turning away from the Kingdoms of this world. Their very rejection of utility is itself a Divine judgment on the nonsense by which we too often guide our lives.

I am a married priest, not a monastic, but I know how much we need them. Orthodoxy is a maximalist religion. We write canon law based on the maximum good (in most instances) and then, by economy, apply that canon to individual cases. I want monastics setting the bar higher than I can reach – so that I will keep reaching.

Our task as Christians involves the sanctification of all life and time – returning everything to its right relationship with God (or at least recognizing the sanctification of all life and time). Thus the world does not need the Church to be more like the world, but more like the Kingdom of God which reveals the truth of the world in Christ.

May the good God deliver us from the temptation of utility and help us to be useful to the Kingdom. The two can be very different things.

A final question: For the sake of how many righteous does the Lord spare our wicked world today?


  1. Adam says

    Thanks for writing such logical and hopeful articles. Through your blog I find myself each day becoming more and more aware that Orthodoxy is everything it claims and more. God willing, I hope to start the process of being united to Christ in his One, Holy, Catholic Church.

  2. says

    Thank you!

    Someone said very much the same thing in a comment on my blog, and my response was to query the utilitarian assumptions. I’ll try to put in a link to your post too, as I think you deal with it more fully. If you have time, perhaps you might like to have a look at the comment, and see what you think. How widespread is this utilitarian viewpoint? It seems a strange coincidence that someone should ask the questions one day, and you should respond the next!

  3. Margaret says

    God bless you, Fr. Stephen, for writing this! I, too, am amazed that your postings address issues living in my mind and speaking to my heart.

    As I learn about the role of monastic life in Orthodoxy, I continually thank God. When we were catechumen, I greatly benefited from hearing Mother Melania (sp?) speak at a women’s retreat. We heard such encouragement and practical instruction in how to draw close and live in the God who loves us — we were an audience of mostly mothers, grandmothers and businesswomen present. Obviously God is present in this role and wills the monastic life to be a part of His Bride, the Church.