Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Jonal entry 997 | Monday, June 26 2006
Though monasticism may have a variety of purposes, in the tradition whose elders I've been reading, its overarching point is the manufacture of saints. It may seem strange to speak of "making" saints as all Christians profess that it is the Spirit of God through His grace that makes saints. Yet every Christian tradition also has a body of teaching that stresses the need for making progress through life toward sanctification, which is just another word for "saint making." Paul says, "let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God," (2 Corinthians 7:1) and Jesus himself calls us in the Sermon on the Mount, to "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
In the traditional monastery, the entire focus is setting aside the secular cares of life to concentrate entirely on praying, subduing the flesh through fasts and rigorously avoiding comforts and keeping vigil through much of the night, night after night. These practices are described in the Russian monastic tradition by their word for suffering, "podvigs." Podvigs strengthen the spirit by training and restraining the flesh or bodily pleasures.
In Friday's discussion of judging, or "judging not," I referred to a sentence from Protestant devotional writer Oswald Chamber's classic, My Utmost for His Highest: "The greatest characteristic of a saint is humility, as evidenced by being able to say honestly and humbly, 'Yes, all those, as well as other evils, would have been exhibited in me if it were not for the grace of God. Therefore, I have no right to judge.'" This is almost exactly the same as one of the generally expressed bits of wisdom discerned by monks of the Eastern church, except that they would be likely to omit "if it were not for the grace of God." They say, rather, "these evils have all been exhibited in me," as their confession of their need to learn and practice humility. One cannot begin to strive toward holiness without first dealing with his or her own sinfulness, and trying to gloss it with attitudes like "everyone does it," "I'm doing the best I can," "I'm not so bad compared with..." only reinforces pride and mitigates progress in humility.
"Not judging others," as discussed here on Friday, is a major step toward simultaneously achieving personal humility and learning to love all persons as icons or pictures of the perfect man/God, Jesus. Jesus also says in the Sermon on the Mount, "whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22). It's not that these two words are the "baddest" words in our vocabulary, but rather the condition of the heart when it judgmentally castigates the other as less than self. It is because of the lack of love such an attitude exhibits, a kind of love that is requisite to becoming a true icon of God, which is necessary to attaining holiness or the perfection Jesus and Paul set before us in the passages cited above.
The podvigs in the monastery strike most Christians who look on that way of life as nearly impossible, and many tend to look on the monks and nuns who undertake them as heros for even starting down that pilgrim path. But the monks have said for centuries that their podvigs are no harder than the suffering the typical married Christian with a family lifestyle encounters every day. Loving your spouse, your children, their friends and the members of your extended household in such a way that you never rage at them, "you fool!" but rather win them gently to the way of the Master, is just as difficult, and just as deserving of the crown of sainthood as the humbling of the monks and nuns who've chosen to make the pursuit of holiness their fulltime vocation.
How are you doing in your podvig today?