Christian monasticism was born in the deserts of Egypt at a time when the way of Christ was consolidating its position in the cities. The apparent success in the gospel’s appropriation of the Empire was a blessing not unmixed with danger. The early monastics flew into the desert not to escape the city and its newly respectable churches but rather to seek salvation at a time when increasing wealth and prestige might have been the undoing of the Church through a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle!) compromise with worldliness. In this manner the Church’s integrity in both desert and city was preserved. The monastic stood for the gospel’s untameable power, in short for God and the possibilities of an entirely unheard of life in Him beyond the city gate. In the desert wastes new lives were transformed and the gospel returned in power to the cities.
Beyond the limits of ancient maps it was sometimes written:- “Here be dragons.” Indeed this was the truth that the first monks encountered in the desert, a place of combat with adversary powers, with Satan himself. Like a trained athlete the monk entered the arena and faced the ancient foe, for all mankind. The abbas and ammas (fathers and mothers) of the desert pioneered the old ways of sacrifice and martyrdom but in a new setting and circumstance.
Today we have a new setting and circumstance in the west. Orthodox Christians find themselves living in increasingly secular societies that deny the place of ANY religion in the public domain. The State requires that faith be privatised as the price of its freedom. Of course, there is an important truth in this distinction between the personal and the civic sphere. In times past Christians have sometimes been tempted to enlist the power of the State in the repression of dissent and too often the Church has transgressed into aspects of life that could and should never be constituted as ecclesial domains, whether in the sciences, the arts or politics. However, the danger now is that the State will in turn transgress and claim the right to replace God as the arbiter of all that is good and true. When such a State is Godless the fruits will be Godless. We saw this in the brutal totalitarianism of the Soviet Union but it can happen in so-called western liberal democracies as well.
In this new setting for monasticism the call of the angelic life has a profound opportunity and challenge. By its very distinctiveness and isolation from worldliness monasticism is presented with a renewed prophetic vocation by its ability to present a transformation of the common life in God. The city is now the desert where the spiritual meadow must bloom.
In short I think that monasticism will help to restore the credibility of Christianity again in the west. Familiarity with innocuous, adaptive heterodoxy, the bourgeoisification of the Christian tradition has bred a certain contempt and hardness of heart toward the gospel in our culture. Only an Orthodox Christian witness that is both radically obedient to God and warm in its love for Him will now make a difference.
How can such lights be kindled? Only by becoming such a Light oneself. Monastics are born in parishes so the Church must herself once again nurture and value those who take the All-Holy Mary’s assent with utter and complete seriousness. “Let it be unto me according to Thy Word.”