This post originally appeared as a podcast episode, in 2012. This weekend, I was reminded of it, and felt compelled to release it on the blog for those who might have missed it.
One of the great treasures of Orthodoxy is our tradition of monasticism. You know, there are Orthodox monasteries that have stood for over a thousand years, weathering storms and earthquakes, surviving political unrest and bandits and outlasting empires.
Monasteries are wonderful places for spiritual retreat, and they also provide us a model for structuring our own lives and our hearts. The idea of the monastery is a very useful illustration to help all of us, especially our youth, understand HOW to be Orthodox in this world.
Let’s begin by picturing a monastery.
Perhaps you’re envisioning a beautiful cluster of buildings in a stunning natural environment, monastics dressed all in black scuttling around quietly as church bells and talentons call them to prayer.
The effect is very peaceful and tranquil, right?
No matter how you’re picturing the monastery, whether it’s perched on a cliff high atop Mt. Athos or stands like an oasis in the midst of a harsh desert, the monastery you’re picturing right now probably doesn’t have a playground. One doesn’t much picture children in the monastery.
And yet, they’re welcome to visit, just like you are.
In our parish here in Austin, we’re are very blessed to have two nearby monasteries. Just about every summer, our Vacation Church Camp takes the kids on a field trip to Holy Archangels Monastery. We arrange it in advance with the monks, letting them know how many kids are coming. We send around instructions to the parents, reminding them of the monastery’s dress code. We help the children bake dozens of treats to bring to the monks, and then we caravan out into the countryside.
We arrive at the monastery around 11:00 in the morning, and the children gather in the katholikon, the central church. Generally, one of the monks will show them around — he’ll talk about the various icons and about the beautiful chandelier in the center, which actually swings in a huge circle and represents the hosts of angels as they circle God. We always finish with a Question and Answer period, which is my favorite part. We usually bring about 30 children, from preschool up to middle school, and we ask them to prepare questions in advance. When they’re invited to ask whatever they’d like, their hands fly up and the monks will answer every one of them.
The kids ask all about monastic life, and all about God. How do you know He is listening? How do you know He is there? What’s the best miracle you’ve ever seen? Doesn’t it get hot in those big black robes?
Every question, large or small, receives a response. I think Question and Answer forums are really wonderful for our youth, because so many important conversations happen between adults. Kids and teens often feel locked out of the conversation; we ask them to entertain themselves quietly so that the adults can talk. There need to be times when the kids are talking too, asking their questions and expressing themselves.
Oftentimes, when everyone has their answer, we head out of the church and to the tables, where the monks will have prepared a lunch for the children.
It is so moving to me that the monastics treat our children with such love and respect. It’s a beautiful experience, and our children grow up knowing what a monastery is, and that they are welcome any time to bring their questions, and to find spiritual respite there.
Do you have a monastery nearby?
Over the years, many new Orthodox monasteries have been founded in North America, and it would seem that it’s getting harder and harder not to find a monastery nearby. I would encourage everyone to consider a visit. Don’t feel locked in by jurisdiction — whether a monastery’s Greekness or Americanness or Serbianness or Syrianness or other jurisdiction matches yours or not, it’s a worthwhile road trip to take with your youth group, or your family.
But even if you can’t take the kids to an actual monastery, you can certainly talk with them about the concept.
It’s nice to begin with a story.
There are so many Saints whose stories might be useful here.
In particular. I love the story of St. Sava, which is told by St. Nicholai Velimirovich in his book, The Life of St. Sava. He was not born St. Sava of course, but in fact he was Prince Rastko, beloved son of a popular King, and so he was raised in a beautiful palace. Prince Rastko had a very good life — he had everything anyone could want. But as much as he loved his parents and he loved his country, Rastko could feel God calling him to a different place — and one day, he snuck away on horseback with a group of monks to Mt. Athos — as St. Nicholai would say, “With a throbbing heart, Prince Rastko, son of Nemanja, a fugitive from all the glitter of this world, hurried into a future shrouded in darkness.”
He was tonsured a monk, Sava, on Mt. Athos. Throughout his life he would feel this tug-of-war pulling him back and forth — the needs of his nation, vs. his love of the monastic life.
What is it that he wanted at the monastery? As Prince, he had everything, love and money, power and comfort, but he gave it all up for a life as a quiet monk on Mt. Athos. It’s a good question to ask your kids — what’s the point of going to a monastery? What can one do in a monastery that one cannot do in a palace, or in a home like yours?
It may take a few moments for the kids to work around to it, but I bet they won’t need much direction to get to the answer: Distractions. You go to the monastery because you want to grow closer to God, and you want to pray, so you have to remove yourself from all of these distractions.
What kinds of things distract us from prayer?
This is a great conversation, because not only will it help you get to know your students when you find out what they find distracting in their own homes and lives, but also because it’s wonderful for them to say it out loud. It’s not mom or dad telling them that playing video games distracts them from prayer — it’s them announcing it. On their own. Don’t force it — let them meander through and say it themselves. It means more that way.
Make a list on your board if you have one — these are the things that distract us from God. Probably tv, video games, fighting with people, having fun with people, eating… Perhaps it’s not just bad things that distract us. Maybe we’re distracted by our chores and homework and conversations with our friends too. Everything about this life can distract us — even the sound of traffic or the hustle and bustle of a city or a school hallway.
In the monastery, many of the world’s distractions are walled out — tall walls or strong fences hold the world at bay, and people can find peace and quiet and spend time building a relationship with God.
But on your list of distractions, not everything is an inherently bad thing. For instance, doing your chores or spending time with loved ones can be distracting. But work and community are a part of the monastery — they’re not walled out.
The monastery filters things — it allows some things inside and keeps others out.
The space inside the monastery walls is dedicated to God, and thus, everything that comes inside it must be open to becoming a part of His Kingdom. So things like work are not walled out, but instead, the monks take on work, but they make it holy. How? Well, first they make sure to obtain a blessing from their elder before undertaking the work, so that the task itself is a part of their obedience instead of their own willfullness. And then, as they do the work, they pray. Their prayers sanctify the work, and transform it a physical manifestation of the prayer itself! The task they’re doing, whether it’s knotting a prayer rope or cleaning the kitchen sink, becomes a part of their prayer life. Rather than a distraction from God, it becomes prayer, it participates in their connection to God!
In the monastery, everything that comes inside will be sanctified and will become part of a holy life; those things that cannot become holy, that refuse to participate in the Kingdom of God, must stay outside.
We may not be monastics, we may be just regular people living out here in the world, but we can learn a lot from the monastery.
And the point here isn’t to recruit new monastics, although it would beautiful if these coming generations held future monks and nuns and bishops, but the lesson we’re teaching here is not to say, hey if you want to be really holy, you should go live in a monastery! It’s not that at all.
Go back to your board, and draw a big square. Let’s make a map of the monastery.
Or better yet, maybe you can make a 3D model on the table or on the floor. Be creative – it doesn’t have to be pretty!
First, we need some walls or fences all around, with maybe one little gate at the front if you can.
Inside, along one edge, how about some dormitories. A little welcoming hall, perhaps, with a kitchen for feeding guests. But what goes in the center? A church, of course – every monastery must have a church! There must be a place to pray together, a place to go for Holy Communion.
Many monasteries have one big church and several small chapels as well. Perhaps we could add a few more to our monastery map.
Now step back, and look at your map, and ask the kids: what if this were a map of your heart?
What if you built a monastery in your heart? Whenever you need some quiet time, some shelter from the distractions of our bustling world, you could go there.
In its center, a beautiful church — you can build it however you like it, whether it’s a sweet little chapel filled with your favorite icons, or a huge cathedral with grand frescoes. How would you build your own monastery, if you could have one right there in your heart?
You could go there anytime. No matter where you were, or what was happening around you, you could take refuge inside this little monastery in your heart, and have some peace and some quiet and some time with God. You can live there.
In fact, you might be able to build a pretty great monastery — but you know, if you pray for God’s assistance, if you pray that He helps you build that monastery, you will surely find that the structure He will help you create is far better than what you could have imagined on your own.
Build a wall around it to protect it, and take care to keep your heart clear of any influences that might damage that little monastery. Just like a sacred building, we don’t allow just anyone to storm in and tromp mud all over it or to scream out… we treat our church with reverence, because it’s holy, so let’s treat the church in our hearts with reverence too.
We spoke last time about Pre-Communion Prayers, and one of the best prayers for children spoke of a home inside one’s heart, a habitation in which Our Lord could abide. The Holy Spirit was sealed inside of us at chrismation, and every time we take Holy Communion we invite our Lord to come inside and to make His home in our hearts. Perhaps the house we build there is only a part of a larger compound, perhaps it is one of the buildings that makes up our own personal monastery.
There’s a beautiful book that records the teachings of Elder Thaddeus, called “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives”. In it he says that —
“A man who has within him the Kingdom of Heaven radiates holy thoughts, divine thoughts. The Kingdom of God creates within us an atmosphere of Heaven…
We can keep guard over the whole world by keeping guard over the atmosphere of heaven within us”
What a blessing to carry the Kingdom of Heaven inside our hearts. What an amazing thing that God would offer to live inside us in this way, to allow us to carry Him with us no matter where we go.
Before I leave you, there’s one more thing about the monastery of the heart, and I find that sometimes when a child is hurting or struggling with a problematic friendship, this can be a very helpful image in another way. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful too, should someone come to you for this kind of advice.
You see, I once confessed to my parish priest that I was having trouble sorting out how to follow Christ’s commandments to love someone and to be endlessly forgiving but how to protect myself and others at the same time — Christ tells us that we must forgive our brother seven times seventy times, just endless and bottomless wonderful forgiveness!
My priest said the most interesting thing to me. He said that monasteries have gates, and if you’d like to visit, you dress according to their dress code, and you show up during reasonable visiting hours, and you enter through the gate.
The monastery loves you, but there are boundaries and there are rules, and that’s good. In fact, the boundaries are there because the monastery loves you. It’s better for you and for all of the monks, if you follow these rules.
This is good for our hearts, too. Sometimes, we must be reminded that no one should run roughshod over your heart, that you can protect your heart and still be forgiving. It’s a tricky balance to achieve, but that’s who we need to be. We need to have these open and beautiful hearts that love God and love each other. And there should be some structure there too.
Christ is our Shepherd, and He wants us to be protected like sheep — He told the apostles to shepherd his sheep, and the Church, in her great wisdom, offers us this wonderful role model of a protected space, a cloistered community.
Perhaps this image of our internal monastery can be helpful to all of us, young and old, as we try to forge a truly Christian life in this crazy world.
May God bless you and keep you, and may He build a beautiful monastery in your heart, so that you might carry the Kingdom of God within you. May it spread, quietly, into the hearts of those you meet. Amen.