The Aloha Lecture Series

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Kailua, Hawaii, United States
The Aloha Lecture Series is a monthly lecture event given by different people in our community to create a platform to share our ideas and generate discussion about what it means to thrive as human beings.

Friday, September 30, 2011

CLICK HERE to listen to Jon Rawlings' lecture "Some Thoughts on Discipleship"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lecture #4: Why We Need Monasteries

Aloha Lecture Series
September 5, 2011

2011 © Robert K. Arakaki


I'm a local boy born and raised in Hawaii.  I grew up unchurched.  When I was growing up I only went to church twice.  I became a Christian in high school when I had a personal encounter with Christ through reading the Bible.  When I was at the University of Hawaii I was an active member of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter.  I was a member of Kalihi Union Church and served as missions chair for several years.  Then I went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.  I am very grateful for what I learned from Evangelicalism before I became Orthodox about eleven years ago.
    I'd like to share my story about why I became Orthodox but that's a story for another time. I bring it up because when I talk about monasteries tonight, I am talking about the monastic tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  There are other monastic traditions as well: Christian and non-Christian.  For example, Roman Catholicism has a rich and varied monastic tradition.  While Evangelicalism doesn't really have a monastic tradition, it does have a monastic impulse.  In 2005, Christianity Today published an article "The New Monasticism" which described urban Christian communities being formed in response to the urban crisis in America.  More recently, in its September 4, 2011, issue Christianity Today published an article "Monastic Evangelicals" which describe younger Evangelicals embracing traditional spiritual disciplines. 
    When I became Orthodox, monasticism was this vague thing on my horizon.  But the fact is if you are Orthodox you are going to hear about monasticism sooner or later.  My impression of the Orthodox attitude towards monasticism is one of appreciation and admiration.  I have not had the impression that monasticism is viewed as a superior way of life.  The monastic life is viewed as an exercise of one's gift from God.  One way to view monks is to see them as the Christian equivalent of professional athletes or athletes in extreme sports.  Another way is to view them as dedicated scholars or scientists who share with the larger community their findings.


One might ask the question: Why monasticism?  It seems that there is a monastic impulse running through church history and even human history.  Monasticism is a radical response to the world we live.  One could say that it is an extreme response to the world we live in.  For example, a young Christian who grew up in a comfortable middle class environment may experience a crisis after encountering the harsh reality of poverty and homelessness in a missions project, and in response to this they commit themselves to a house church located in the heart of the urban ghetto that seeks to bring redemption to that neighborhood. 
    As I said earlier, monasticism is a radical or extreme response.  It is a desire to go beyond "superficial" discipleship to radical discipleship.  It is a desire to live a life of prayer.  It is rooted in a hunger for holy living, for a sanctified soul.  It is rooted in a desire for union with God. 
    Monasticism has had a tremendous influence on Orthodoxy.  Not too long ago we had some visitors at the Greek Orthodox Church.  I saw the chanter talking with some visitors during the coffee hour.  Greg, the chanter, told me that they were Roman Catholics in training for the diaconate.  I asked what they thought about our service, and Greg replied, they thought the Liturgy was very monastic.  Then Greg and I looked at each other puzzled, "Monastic?!  That's the way all our liturgy are."   If you're Orthodox, you've already been influenced by monasticism whether you know it or not.
    Orthodox Christians are expected to participate in the liturgical (worship) life of the Church.  That means attending the Saturday night Vespers, Sunday morning Matins followed by the Divine Liturgy.  Then there are the special feast days.  Just recently we celebrated the Beheading of John the Baptist.  Then there are the Morning and Evening Prayers.  And on top of that there are the Wednesday and Friday fasts.  Fasting is understood not just as abstaining from food but also intensifying one's prayer life and engaging in deeds of charity.  While the Orthodox Church has high expectations for its members, it is not legalistic.  It does not punish its members if they fail to keep these disciplines.  It has these expectations because it believes that ordinary Christians are capable of much more than they can imagine.  Many Orthodox Christians are still at the kindergarten level of spirituality but they know that there are people live on a higher level of commitment. 
    So when I visited the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco in Point Reyes, California, just north of San Francisco, the experience was not the dramatic shock that I had expected.  (Note: The monastery is now located in Manton, California near Mt. Shasta).  I expected that visiting a monastery would be like jumping into the swimming pool.  But because I had been an Orthodox Christian for several years visiting the monastery was like moving from the shallow end of the pool to the deeper end. 
    But still if you are a Protestant, going to an Orthodox monastery can be something of a culture shock, like visiting a foreign country.  So what I hope to do tonight is to convey the value that monasteries have for Orthodox and non-Orthodox. 


Probably the most important question that needs to be addressed tonight is: Are monasteries biblical?  There are hints of the monastic impulse in the Bible.  Probably the clearest example is the prophetess Anna in Luke 2:37.  Anna was a widow who lived in the Temple for much of her life.  Luke writes:
She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eight-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  (NIV)

    Another example is Jesus' cousin and his forerunner, John the Baptist.  Luke in his Gospel wrote:
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly in Israel. (Luke 1:80; NIV)

John's lifestyle was extreme.  He lived in the desert, away from society and the material comforts of society.  Matthew and Mark wrote how John ate locust and honey, and wore clothing made from camel's hair.  In Luke 7:18-34, if we read between the lines of Jesus praise of John the Baptist we find allusions to John's monastic lifestyle.  It's important to keep in mind that John the Baptist was not an isolated eccentric but a leader of a religious movement (cf. Matthew 11:2, Mark 2:18; John 4:1, Acts 19:1-7). 
    The monastic impulse can be found in the Old Testament.  Numbers 6 describes a group of consecrated Israelites, known as Nazirites.  To be a Nazirite was to live in a state of ritual purity, abstaining from alcoholic beverages, and with unshorn hair.  This state of consecration was usually for a limited time, although it appears that for some this consecrated state was lifelong.  Probably the best known example -- not necessarily the best example! -- is Samson (Judges 13-16; especially 13:5).  Another likely example of a Nazirite is the prophet Samuel whose mother dedicated him to the Lord's service from infancy (I Samuel 1:21-28).  Some have inferred that King David's son's Absalom's long hair meant that he belonged to the Nazirite.  The pre-exilic prophet Amos condemned the Israelites for compelling the Nazirites to drink wine.  This suggests that there was an identifiable group of Nazirites extant in mid 700s BC.  When we come to the New Testament, we find something like the Nazirite consecration.  In Acts 21:24 James and the Jerusalem elders advised Paul to take a vow of consecration as proof that he was not hostile but supportive of the Jewish law. 
    So what lessons can we draw from the biblical teachings concerning the Nazirites?  One, we learn that the idea of a state of consecration to God is rooted in the Jewish Torah.  Two, we find that the practice of the state of consecration continued all through Israel's history: the time of the Judges -- Samson, the beginning of the monarchy -- Samuel, during the time the prophet Amos, and into the New Testament church.  Three, we find that the early Church did not reject the idea of the consecrated state but even recommended it.  What I draw from this is that the idea of a consecrated state was a persistent strand of biblical teaching which means that it cannot be overlooked or dismissed by Bible believing Christians today.  In other words, there is indeed a biblical basis for monasteries. 


Christianity started off as an extreme religion.  Being an early Christian meant membership in a dangerous "cult," and risking losing one's possessions and even one's life.  It also meant being part of a close knit fellowship.  Luke describes the early Christian community in these terms:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.  Al the believers were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:42-45; NIV)

Life in the brand new church was like living in a monastery.  There was a high degree of commitment and togetherness.  As the church grew in size the level of commitment began to vary with some living in high commitment groups and others living ordinary lives. 
    Soon after Jesus began his ministry, we find him getting into hot water with the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Temple priesthood.  Later, the Jewish leadership made the decision to cast out of the synagogue anyone who professes Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.  When we come to the book of Acts we read about Saul of Tarsus persecuting the early Christians.  Many scholars believe that the book of Revelation was written in response to the Neronian persecution in AD 64.  Being a Christian was not a decent, respectable thing to do during the time of the New Testament writings.  To be a Christian during the time of the New Testament writings involved a radical life or death commitment to this new religion.
    When we move past the New Testament period we find the early Church experiencing waves of fierce persecutions with brief interludes of  peace and tolerance.  If you ever read Eusebius' Church History you will read of the fearlessness of the early Christians in the face of the Roman government attempts to stamp out this new religion. 
    Then in AD 313, Emperor Constantine issues the Edict of Milan making Christianity a licit religion.  This marks a sea change for the church's role in the Roman Empire.  Christianity changed from being an illegal sect to the official religion under Emperor Theodosius.  Constantine did not just tolerate Christianity, he supported it.  He convened the first Ecumenical Council.  His mother Queen Helena sponsored the construction of the Church of the Nativity in Palestine and the Church on the Mount of Olives.
    As crowds of people flocked to joined the church the quality of commitment changed.  Christians were no longer under the threat of the sword.  Being a Christian became an acceptable thing to do.  The church became a mixed bag of highly dedicated  spiritual warriors and those who viewed religion as just one aspect of life.  In this context were those who were unsatisfied with mediocrity and compromise and so sought to live out the Christian life radically by fleeing to the desert. 
    During the time of the great Arian controversy in the fourth century, there was a major monastic movement in Egypt.  We know this because of Athanasius the Great's biography of Saint Anthony of Egypt.  Anthony was born into a rich family.  At the age of eighteen both his parents died leaving him their wealth.  One day while he was at church he heard the scripture passage:
If you desire to be perfect, go sell all that you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.

Hearing this Anthony sold his possessions and gave the money to the poor, keeping nothing for himself.  He then moved to the desert near the Nile River.  He lived alone but often visited others who were living a life totally dedicated to God seeking to learn from them.  In time he grew in maturity and wisdom.  He fasted and prayed sought to mortify the desires of the flesh in his quest for spiritual perfection.  Although Anthony wanted to live in seclusion, people were drawn to his holiness and wisdom.  People were drawn to him not only to learn about how to deepen their spiritual life but also how to resist temptation and engage in spiritual warfare.  Living on the edge Anthony was able to peer into the afterlife, to see the struggle between good and bad angels over the souls of the departed, and how the decisions made in this life affected their eternal destinies. 


People visit monasteries for a number of reasons:
    •    To deepen their spiritual lives,
    •    To spend time with their spiritual director,
    •    To spend time in worship and prayer,
    •    To find healing and cleansing of their souls,
    •    To find peace and quiet after living in a hectic noisy world,
    •    To find consolation in a time of crisis and confusion, and
    •    To explore the monastic way of life.


One, you attend the worship services.  Outside of Sunday, there are usually two services: the Morning Prayers and the Evening Prayers.  Those two services form the backbone of the liturgical cycle of Orthodoxy.  Some monasteries have more elaborate prayer cycles. 
    Orthodox worship is liturgical.  There's a mystical, reflective atmosphere that's quite often lacking in Protestant worship.  It's not like a Protestant worship service where you are handed a bulletin or where you sit in a pew with the hymnal in front of you or see praise songs on the PowerPoint screen.  In Orthodox worship you mostly stand in reverence silence.  One can also sing along if one wishes but it's not like Protestantism which emphasizes congregational singing.  One advantage of attending services at a monastery is that they are constantly practicing the hymns and prayers with the result that there is a higher degree of polish and consistency unlike normal parish singing by choir members who have normal day to day obligations. 
    On special feast days there may be a full blown Divine Liturgy that begins at six a.m.  I once got up early one winter morning and trudged through the snow to attend the Liturgy.  After two to three hours of worship I was uplifted, tired, and ready for breakfast. 
    For monastics the time apart from the services, are time of carrying out their "obediences," i.e., carrying out their assigned duties: kitchen duty, maintenance, office duty, making candles, raising the goats etc.  For guests who are staying for only a short while, the times apart from the services are free time.  My understanding is that it is a time for quiet reflection and reading.  I found that after a few hours I go stir crazy so I would get into my car and drive around and tour the surrounding rural areas.  This experience taught me how much my inner life has been shaped by this sense of busyness, the need to do things, get things done.
    Another benefit of visiting a monastery is talking with the monks and other guests.  It's a great way to learn about the larger world of Orthodoxy and to learn about deepening one's spiritual life.  The meals at monasteries are vegetarian.  This is part of the monastic lifestyle.  The practice of the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco is to have someone read from a spiritual book during the meal and a brief discussion of the passage or theme following the meal. 
    Another benefit of visiting a monastery is talking with the abbot or some spiritual elder.  The first few times I visited the Monastery of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco I would come at a time when the abbot was away.  But a few years ago I happened to be there when Abbot Jonah was around.  One morning after breakfast Abbot Jonah invited me over to his personal quarters.  We sat in two comfortable chairs and got to know each other.  These conversations can be consoling and encouraging, they can also be unsettling and challenging.  That is to be expected because if one visits a monastery one must expect not only to encounter the love of God but also God's truth.  Unless one expects to be changed, visiting a monastery can be a waste of time.  Faith, love, and obedience are all intertwined at an Orthodox monastery. 
    At the St. John monastery is a bookstore.  Orthodox bookstores are still far and few between so visiting a monastery can be a great place to start an Orthodox library or to expand and deepen one's library.  There are a variety of items one can buy at a bookstore: prayer ropes, prayer books, incense, candles, icons, CDs, liturgical paraphernalia etc. 


So, why do we need monasteries?  Monasteries serve a vital function for the life of the Orthodox Church.  Orthodoxy views the Church -- capital "C" -- as more than the local parish.  It views the capital "C" Church as a network of structures.  The local parish is part of a diocese which is under the rule of a bishop -- the successor to the apostles.  In addition to the local parish and the diocese, there are metropolises and patriarchates.  From time to time there may take place regional synods and Ecumenical Councils. 
    Monasteries are made up of people called out of the world to pursue a life of radical discipleship.  Thus, monasteries inspire the laity and clergy who live in the world.  Monasteries are living proof that radical discipleship is possible, that the words of Jesus can be taken literally.  For example, Jesus' command that the rich young ruler sell all that he had has been taken literally by those who have become monks.  Monastics also provide proof that Paul's injunction in I Thessalonians 5:17 "pray continually" can be taken literally. 
    Monasteries are dedicated and specialized units that uphold the larger body of Christ.  Monasteries can be seen as the base camps for the spiritual warriors like the American SEALS or Army Rangers who assist the rest of the military.  Monasteries are like the research laboratories that support the ongoing educational mission of the university.  Monasteries can be viewed as professional athletes who exemplify the ideals of all who love sports and aspire to excellence.  Monasteries are like specialized medical centers that focus on radical healing therapies.
    Protestant Christianity has similar specialized units.  It has seminaries, summer camps, revival meetings, evangelistic rallies.  In terms of dedicated lifestyles long term missionaries are the closest thing to monasticism.  In a way in early Protestantism practically entire churches were set up much like monasteries.  There are whole denominations that are like the Old Testament Nazirites in their prohibition on alcohol.  The original New England Puritans sought to build a city on a hill.  They were not so much fleeing religious persecution as they were seeking to construct a Reformed church and a Reformed civil society.  This is a radical impulse that put them at odds with the morally lax/tolerant climate in England.  Because the Anglican Church had abolished the monasteries there were few alternatives for channeling the radical impulse of the Puritan movements who wanted to go all the way in the reform of church and society. 
    Monasteries are living proof that it is possible to live a life devoted to prayer.  Monasteries are reminders that we are in the midst of a huge cosmic warfare against the flesh and fallen angels.  Monasteries give us a glimpse of the heavenly worship and the life of the angels.  Monasteries are reminders that as Christians we are called to live in the eternal kingdom of God, that so much of what we treasure in this life are transitory. 
    My opinion is that Protestants and Evangelicals can learn much from Orthodox monasteries and even be inspired and challenged as a result of visiting monasteries.  But I have my doubts about the idea of establishing an Evangelical monasticism.  The differences are too great.  I am reminded of Jesus' warning against patching new wineskins onto old wineskins.  My understanding of Protestant Christianity is that its fundamental structures are based on: (1) the primacy of the local congregation, and (2) the priesthood of all believers being understood in a way that levels or minimize the difference between laity and clergy.  If that is so, then an Evangelical monastic movement would bring about a major upheaval, not to say controversy. 
    Evangelical Protestantism represents just one little corner of the vast world of Christianity. I would encourage my Protestant Evangelical friends to be open to learning more about the historic churches like Eastern Orthodoxy.  We are willing to share our spiritual treasures with the non-Orthodox.  We want to help you learn about the creeds, the church fathers, liturgical worship, and of course the monastic lifestyle.  To those who are non-Orthodox, we say: Come and see!