Remember, Lord, those who are in the deserts, on mountains, in caverns, and in the chambers of the earth. Remember, Lord, those living in chastity and godliness, in asceticism and holiness of life.
(Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, p. 32-33)
He who loves purity of heart, and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.
Christ is Risen!
Monasticism has been an important part of the Orthodox Church since the fourth century. St. Basil, St. Anthony and St. Savas are important monastic saints of the early centuries who shaped the rules and practices that are still in use today. Many of our modern saints like St. Nektarios and St. Paisios were monastics.
Monastics have centered their existence around the practice of Orthodoxy. What does that mean? What about priests and faithful people who center their life around Christ? Anyone who lives “in the world” has worldly concerns, like paying bills, mowing grass, raising children, or holding down a job. Monastics life in a monastery or convent where the central thing they do is pray, worship, and serve. Some of the jobs center around the sustenance of the monastery, like cooking. Many of the roles center around the practice of the faith, such as making candles, incense and icons. And some of the roles center on the preservation and growth of the faith, such as translations of hymns and writings. Monasteries also serve a pastoral role—they receive pilgrims who come to learn or to go to confession.
Monastics (monks and nuns) have played a key role in preserving the faith over centuries of both strife and distraction. First, let us talk about strife. Because a monastic has dedicated his or her entire life to the faith, in time of war and strife, the monastics did not have to worry about preserving homes or families. Because they are used to living a minimalistic life, during times of war and persecution, monastics have hidden in caves and isolated places where they have preserved and protected icons and manuscripts.
Second, let’s talk about distraction. In every age of Christianity, there have been events and things that have tempted and distracted not only Christians, but groups of Christians—entire church communities, dioceses, archdioceses and even entire denominations—away from the truth of the Gospel. Monastics have a strict set of rules. These are rules that are practiced all over the world in monastic settings. Because monastics live “out of the world” they are not as pressured by the media, politicians, trends and fads in the same way as the people in the world who are constantly surrounded by these things. This is not to say that some monastic communities have not fallen into sin or fallen apart. But when the entire purpose of the monastic community is authenticity of the faith, it is easier to keep focus on this. In a parish setting, there is, of course, a concern about the authenticity of the faith and growing the church, but there is also the distraction of paying bills, raising money, holding the Greek Festival, etc., so that at times churches lose their focus, perhaps even forgetting why they exist. I can testify to this as a priest of 25 years, there are times I have lost focus, focused too much on secular things in our parish, or forgotten even what I’m supposed to be doing as a priest.
The other beautiful thing that monastic communities do is that they hold a continuous vigil of prayer. I am a priest currently in the Tampa Bay area. As I’m writing this message this afternoon, there are no Divine Liturgies going on in the Tampa Bay area, because it is afternoon and we only hold Divine Liturgy in the morning. During the middle of the night, there are probably no church communities in the United States that are actively praying as a community. An individual parishioner may be praying at home, but not an entire church. There is at least one monastic community in every time zone in the United States. And because monastic communities gather for prayer at least every few hours, that means that at all times there is a community of people who are praying. At every service, we offer prayers for our country, for peace, for good weather, for deliverance from affliction, for those who are sick, and many other things. Because we have monastic communities in every time zone throughout the world, this means that at all times, someone in our country and communities throughout the world are praying for peace in the world and all the other things we pray for.
The next verses of the prayer of St. Basil remember the monastics, those who live in the deserts, mountains, caves and chambers of the earth. We remember those who are living in asceticism. “Askesis” means discipline and many times we use the word “ascetic” synonymously with “monasticism.”
There is another very important word in this prayer which we don’t emphasize hardly at all in life, and that is the word “chastity.” We are all called to live a “chaste” life. For those who are single, that means to refrain from inappropriate sexual activity. For those who are married, it means for our eyes not to wander from our marriage. Each time I offer this line of this prayer, I think of the young adult, perhaps in college, who is trying to remain chaste (a virgin) for marriage but who is bombarded with temptation and peer pressure to not be chaste and pure. I think of the person who has already waded in too far into inappropriate sexual activity and is beset with shame. I think of the person who is married but who is struggling in their marriage, to not look outside for gratification. I think of the person who perhaps is destined to not have sexual relations again, either because they are widowed and won’t be getting remarried, or because they are sick or old, or who have a spouse who is not able to be sexually active, and I pray for these people to be chaste—to be disciplined, focused, and also to be comforted by God’s angels to fill the empty void. We live in a very sexualized world and yet we as a church do not speak about this subject enough, in my opinion. We use the word “virgin” over a dozen times at the Divine Liturgy in reference to the Virgin Mary, yet the use of the word “virgin” or “chastity” would probably not be welcome from the pulpit. I’m thankful that St. Basil included this word in his beautiful prayer, because we need to pray for those who are struggling to live a chaste life, be they single or married.
As we continue this prayer for the world, we bring our focus on the monastic communities that sustain and preserve our faith and who continuously pray for the world. And we bring to mind those who live in the world, but who are striving to live a chaste life in it.