Discussions about the relationship between parish life and monastic life often get way off track. It becomes all too easy to go off on a tangent with abstractions, quotations from this Holy Father and that, accounts of various monasteries in other countries and other centuries, and spiritual-sounding concepts that have little to do with real-life experience. I’m going to try not to do that. My qualification for talking about the relationship between parish life and monastic life is simply that I have experienced both. I will attempt to stay close to what I know and what I have seen. I hope that it won’t hurt to refer to experience, observation, and common sense. Only after placing the discussion on a concrete basis will I go on to talk about what might seem like the more spiritual element.
People have asked which of the two is more basic. That is, does the parish church depend on the monastery in some way, or does the monastery depend on the parish? Well, in a very obvious way, monasteries depend on parishes for their very existence. Monks and nuns, after all, do not have babies who grow up to be parishioners, but parishioners have babies and raise them to adulthood. Most of the children in a parish grow up to be parishioners, but a small percentage of them grow up to be monks and nuns. From the most common-sense point of view, then, monasteries depend on the parish church for their very existence. Having experienced both parish life and monastic life, each for a fair number of years now, I would see more similarities than differences. Regardless of the fact that monasticism began among the desert fathers with hermits living in isolation from one another, monasticism as we have lived it in the Orthodox Church for centuries is primarily a life in community. Generally speaking, it is only after many years of liiving together with others that a monk or nun receives a blessing to become a hermit or hermitess. Community life, then, is as basic to monasticism as it is to parish life. We could even say that a monastic community is best understood as a specialized form of parish—a parish consisting entirely of adults of the same sex who live together, eat together, work together, and worship together. Typically a monastic spends only the time of private prayer and the hours of sleep apart from the rest of the community. You might think of a monastery as a parish in which everyone lives on the church grounds.
In other words, what counts in monastic life is basically what counts in parish life—interpersonal relationships. The difference between the two is largely one of intensity. If we compare parish life to a pot of soup simmering on a stove, monastic life is like a pressure cooker. It may surprise laypeople to hear this, because much of the internal life of a monastery remains hidden from pilgrims. As a result pilgrims and those who visit a monastery on retreat may have the illusion that monks and nuns are all holy people who spend most of their time in peaceful communion with God. In reality, a monastic community consists of broken people living a life of repentance. Like all broken people, monastics often come into intense conflict with one another, conflict which visitors and pilgrims never see because monks and nuns tend not to “wash their dirty linen in public.” What the visitor to a monastery experiences in the gracious hospitality and respectful distance is absolutely genuine, but it has little to do with the experience of the monks and nuns themselves. Outsiders who visit a monastery may consider the members of the community to be “perfect, holy, peaceful, and sinless,” but members of the community know better. We recognize our own faults, and we quickly point out those of our neighbors, even though we know we shouldn’t. The basic difference between monastic life and parish life in this respect, then, is that the problems in a monastery become far more severe, but the solutions become even more profound and life-changing.
Some people ask whether good prayer leads to better interpersonal relations or whether good interpersonal relations lead to better prayer. I have no idea how to answer that question. I suspect that we have here an instance of reciprocal causation. They say that in any average monastery nine out of ten who come to try the life end up leaving. It’s all about handling the pressure of interpersonal relationships. Either you give up and go away or you stay and make it work. Ultimately there is only one way to make the monastic life work—by demonstrating the willingness to resolve conflict by forgiving others, asking their forgiveness, reconciling with them, and by humbling yourself even when you think you are right. The prayer of St. Ephraim—especially the part that reminds us to see our own failings and not to judge and condemn our brothers and sisters—applies every day of the year, not just during Great Lent. Sadly, this process does not take place in every monastery, and as a result the monasteries which are healthy are very, very healthy, while the monasteries that go bad go very, very bad. In either case, they serve as an example to the parish, either as a paradigm or as a warning.
We can move from these concrete factors to a spiritual view. I’ll make a bold statement—Orthodox Christianity is all about interpersonal relationships. Let me explain what I mean. Our faith—when we get down to what really counts—is about the relations among the three Persons of the Trinity, the relationship between the incarnate Son and the Father, between the incarnate Son Jesus Christ and His disciples, the relationships among the disciples, and the relationships both among Christians and between Christians and non-Christians. When Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, He did not send them out to make converts. He sent them out to make disciples. A disciple is not someone to whom we impart information, facts, or doctrines. No, a disciple is someone with whom we have a loving relationship oriented toward an ultimate concern for the disciple’s welfare.
In a healthy monastery, those are the sorts of relationships we see among the monks or nuns. This is how monastics can come to a point of Christlike holiness—by humbling themselves in relation to one another. The same thing can take place in a parish, of course, but in a parish we do not all live together, and we always have the option of escaping from one another into our separate affairs. What monastic life at its best has to offer the parish is a vision of what the Kingdom is like when we make our relationships with other persons work because ultimately healthy relationships—with other human persons and with God—are the only thing that matters.