The Greatest Generation

A recent conversation within the comments gives the occasion for this post. The heart of the question – which is more difficult – marriage or monasticism? My own thoughts are that everything is extremely difficult. In our modern world, even the most fundamental structures of society have been eroded. In American culture we have re-imagined the family – with the result that today a majority of children grow up in a non-traditional family structure. Even for those children for such a structure exists – they are in relationship with children for whom it does not. Many people do well regardless of their structure – but in the aggregate – we are enduring a difficult struggle.

Monasticism has always been a voluntary spiritual struggle. However, many monastics today enter that arena lacking a stable family background. The wounds they bring to their struggle can create weaknesses that lead to spiritual disaster. The same can be said of those who enter the married life.

Our hope is in Christ, whose grace “completes that which is lacking.” With prayer and patience we discover that even in our troubled times great things are possible. Having said all of the above I think about the words of the fathers:

The holy fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said, “What have we ourselves done?”

One of them, the great Abba Ischyrion replied, “We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.”

The others replied, “And those who come after us, what will they do?”

He said, “They will struggle to achieve half our works.”

They said, “And to those who come after them, what will happen?”

He said, “The men of that generation will not accomplish any works at all and temptation will come upon them; and those who will be approved in that day will be greater than either us or our fathers.”


  1. The heart of the question – which is more difficult – marriage or monasticism? The Answer? “Yes!”

    …sadly, “With all our technological expertise and intellectual arrogance, we have become the cleverest fools in world history.” — J. I. Packer

    Sadly, we seem to approach Orthodoxy the same way. (?) …Unless we “shed” the Faith of acceptance mentality, we may “never” enter into the narrow gate that leads to life. Dogma must become experience.

    “In the Orthodox faith — if you want, you will find many references to this in St Symeon the New Theologian — dogma ought to be lived. Dogma ought to be experience. Dogma should be learnt empirically. Initially we accept dogma intellectually, like a lesson, and once we have accepted it, the lesson ought to be converted into experience. Dogma must become experience.”—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos (Empirical Dogmatics, Volume 1)

    Papa Stephen, I probably “missed” the essence of the intent of your post. Please forgive me a sinner.

  2. One other aspect of monasticism and marriage: They both require the setting aside of one’s own will in obedience to a situation not entirely of one’s own choosing. We may choose to get married or to enter monasticism, but each carries responsibilities we can’t possibly grasp until we’re in the life. God puts us where we can grow best. For myself, I would have chosen monasticism; marriage was God’s choice for me, and 43 years later, I can see very clearly that monasticism would have been *way* too easy for me. And I am content in my marriage, and happy in a way I don’t think would have been possible in the monastic life.

  3. Oops! I hadn’t read this very pertinent new post on “our conversation” as I was just posting my previous comments on the earlier Post on the Cross. 🙂

  4. Father, this is very true and reminds me of Elder Sophrony’s teaching that in the last days the Christians will not be able to do half the miraculous works done by their forefathers in the faith, but that the simple work of keeping the faith in such times would be considered greater than all the other works.

  5. In practical terms, some of the most strongly felt differences between Monasticism and Marriage -or sorely missed elements for laymen- are the lack of real sensual, magnetic distraction in the Monastery, and the concrete diversions which are part and parcel of life “in the world”, as well as the “night-time” life (the ‘rule’ in the cell), which is the heart of hearts of a monastic’s life (sometimes even more than the Liturgical life) and is the “wood” that keeps the divine flame burning hot, giving a person the assuredness that he is God’s and God is his.

  6. Thank you for this post. The exchange between the holy fathers is rather a staggering one.

    And Father, your comment about our children – and all of us – in the aggregate, is compelling. Even those of us brought up in loving families, and doing the same for our children, cannot escape this influence. I also appreciated your comment about monastics as we have seen the sad outcome of this.

  7. Great posting once again, Fr. Stephen! I have always considered marriage & monastacism to be in essence two sides of the same coin. Both involve relationship & commitment with God. If everyone followed the monastic life the human race would become nonexistent within a generation. Both are important for our development in faith. I agree with Karen’s comments on the import of the Fathers statements. While we readily see the marriage element in monasticism, at times I feel that we fail to see the monastic element within marriage. Perhaps this has facilitated the modern marriage conundrum….

  8. Rhonda,
    I have to tell you Elder Sophrony’s of Essex answer to “If everyone followed the monastic life the human race would become nonexistent within a generation”…
    He says that God’s will would be that exactly, rather than the end of the world arriving through destruction and tribulation -as it will. So that the world could have ended “ideally” through everyone following the monastic life… (which unfortunately it never will)
    One can see this (never to be fulfilled) ‘plan’ in the historical, gradual “raising of the bar” concerning marital relationships: from allowed incest (at the time of our progenitors Adam & Eve’s sons and daughters), narrowing down to many wives (Abraham’s time) to Monogamy, to no sisters and brothers (only marrying simultaneously), to the exaltation of Monasticism in the church hymns – especially considering that more than 80% of all recognized saints belong to those ranks…

  9. dinoship,

    I hope my words did not imply that I was demeaning nor lessening the importance of monasticism in any way because as you state the majority of our known saints were monastics & their impact on the Orthodox Faith is vast. This is the normal response I get with my statement. As Mrs. Mutton stated, both marriage & monasticism require submission, humility & obedience. In our faith, both the monastic & non-monastic are under the same sacramental practices & ascetic disciplines. Both are equally valid paths to salvation.

    We humans tend to separate things by stringent definitive black/white categories & often making one greater with the other lesser in the process. By so strictly separating marriage & monasticism, by ignoring the commonalities of them, do we not lessen marriage, a mystery instituted by God from the beginning of created time?

    I am middle-aged & am amazed by how many young people no longer see commitment as a part of marriage. It is not unusual for married persons to have sexual partner(s)outside of the marriage purely for this purpose. They go to great lengths to organize the perfect vacation away with their male/female friends, but seldom vacation with their spouses/families. They then wonder why their marriages are dysfunctional with constant turmoil. It does not occur to them that marriage entails a change in lifestyle & commitment. Even more telling is that statistically, Christians have higher divorce rates than secular people. Only by restoring & emphasizing the “monastic elements” to marriage can we begin to restore the sanctity of marriage in the eyes our increasingly secularized world.

  10. Rhonda,
    this ‘committal’ element of Marriage is indeed a great part of its mystery. Permanent things in this temporary post-lapsarian world are a mystery explained only through their participation in the Church’s permanence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *