When the world is your cloister

12 May 2017, 22:37 | Society-digest | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Andrew Sorokowski

12 May 2017 The Ukrainian Weekly

“You wanna be monk?” That, at least, is how one of my high-school friends related the words of a brother he had met while visiting an Italian monastery with his parents one summer vacation. To us 1960s middle-class Baby Boomers, the idea was preposterously funny. Monks were comical little men in robes and sandals, with weird haircuts. What could be more unpalatable to an American teenager than a life of poverty, chastity and obedience?

Inculcated with the Freudian theory of a “sex drive” that it was unhealthy to repress and nearly impossible to sublimate, we could not imagine giving up – at least – marriage. Moreover, we were being educated in a post-Enlightenment spirit critical of institutional religion in general and monasticism in particular. True, in Spanish class we read Chilean novelist Eduardo Barrios’ “El Hermano Asno,” a sensitive depiction of Franciscan life. And later – as the transvestite “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” roared around San Francisco on their motorcycle – I discovered Francis Poulenc’s shattering account of monastic martyrdom in his 1957 opera “The Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Meanwhile, we found the rumor that one of our most popular and attractive schoolmates had entered a convent utterly puzzling.

Today, the socio-cultural climate has changed. The swinging single lifestyle of the sexual revolution has proved something of a fraud. Marriage, of course, remains an option, but it is not for everyone. Many are happy to remain not only single, but chaste (see Kate Bryan, “I’m a 32-year-old Virgin and Living the Feminist Dream,” The Washington Post, September 8, 2016).

Popular culture treats nuns with a mix of gentle mockery and admiration. A recently formed Mexican order of “active contemplative” Discalced Carmelite nuns has found a foothold in Denver. And now we learn that Miss Mexico has decided to join the Poor Clare Missionaries of the Blessed Sacrament. In this new atmosphere, monasticism begins to look normal.

So do monastics.

In the 1980s, my dissertation research brought me into contact with friendly, helpful Basilians at their monastery in Rome and hospitable Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate just across town. In the fall of 1988, as Poland was quietly but firmly pushing the Communists out of power and Ukraine was inching towards independence, I encountered supportive Polish Cistercians at the Mogila Abbey in Krakow and watched music videos of Lviv’s “Ne zhurys’” with the Basilians in Warsaw. Received with kind hospitality at the Basilian convent at Osijek, Croatia (then Yugoslavia) in October 1989, I met two young sisters from the catacomb Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine, who had had the maturity to reject Western-style hedonism in favor of something more substantial. A decade later I found myself at Univ near Lviv, with adult lay students eager to participate in the rigorous spiritual life of the Studites.

As I noted in a recent column, some Americans, dismayed by the direction our society is taking, are inspired by the example of the medieval monasteries that preserved Western civilization during the Dark Ages. But their proposal to create an insulated counter-culture has been questioned. Nothing stops these critics, “always right and always wronged,” from engaging with society. What, then, of monasticism? Is withdrawal no longer a tenable option?

Monasticism, however, is not simply withdrawal. To be sure, there is the eremetical (hermit) tradition, and renowned monks have lived in seclusion (anchorites), some taking to the forest (dendrites) or even living atop columns (stylites). But there is also the cenobitic tradition of community life. Moreover, since medieval times many monastic orders and congregations have been active in the world. Nicholas Chubaty thus formulated the early Kievan monks’ attitude to society: “The monks did not close themselves off from the world, but on the contrary, sought to draw the world to a life lived according to the principles of the Gospel of Christ, obligatory for everyone, from the poor beggar to the Grand Prince of Kiev” (Chubaty, “Istoriia khrystianstva na Rusy-Ukrainy,” Vol. 1, New York, 1965, p. 728).

Meanwhile in the West, as women’s historians have happily noted, powerful abbesses controlled networks of monasteries wielding considerable political as well as economic influence. Today, sisters conduct vital humanitarian work in some of the world’s most dangerous and impoverished areas, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. Monks, too, can taste adventure: witness the life of Roman Catholic Christian Brother Isidore Wasylenchuk (1925-2017), a Saskatchewan homesteader and schoolteacher who taught in St. Vincent in the Caribbean, visited Ireland and Wales, worked in rural development in Nigeria, travelled several times to Hong Kong to select students for an English language program, stopped in Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, and taught English in Ukraine.

In the United States, the Sisters of St. Basil have been active since 1911, the men’s Order of St. Basil the Great since 1921, the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate since 1935, and the Byzantine-rite Redemptorists since 1946, along with other male and female orders (Bohdan P. Procko, “Ukrainian Catholics in America: A History,” 2nd rev. ed., 2016, pp. 46, 98-99, 104-105, 122, 124). Today, the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church as a whole has five male and 10 female religious orders and congregations. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A. lists several monastic communities on its website.

Monastics have operated orphanages as well as schools at all levels. The Basilian Sisters’ Manor College in Jenkintown, Pa., for example, is moving towards awarding four-year bachelors’ degrees. Individual monks and nuns have conducted important scholarly research – free of academic pressures for political conformity and the tastes of tenure committees.

If you are single and content with a life of endless self-satisfaction (not really endless, of course – just pointless), then you are obviously not suited for monasticism. But if you expect something more from life, if you crave spiritual excellence and are open to risk, if you desire to help the less fortunate – then a monastic vocation may be for you.

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  • Jim Dietrich | 28 June 2017, 01:35

    Several years ago, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem (all Orthodox) issued a joint declaration that Ukraine was not part of the canonical territory of the Russian

  • Ігор Мицько | 27 June 2017, 19:29

    Дочитуйте документи. Православні вбили радикала Кунцевича за знущання над ними.

  • Ron Feledichuk | 27 June 2017, 17:42

    Why does the Roman Church continue to placate putin and the russian church?

  • Fr. Valerii | 26 June 2017, 22:40

    Не існує ніяких "документів". Натомість є історичний факт, що Св. Йосафата вбили т. зв. православні, противники унії з Римо Католицькою Церквою, підбурювані їхніми схизматицькими

  • Ігор Мицько | 26 June 2017, 10:47

    "прославився пасторською діяльністю за єдність християн" Ага, почитайте-но документи, як він "пасторсько" діяв у Вільнюсі.

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