(Originally published on OCN’s The Sounding)
Journeying by boat to visit their beloved spiritual father, Constantine Palamas – the father of St. Gregory – suddenly realized he and his family had forgotten to bring food with them for the monastery. While his wife and five children looked on, he raised his voice in prayer and put his hand into the sea; immediately he caught a massive fish. Taking it out of the water, he glorified God for the miracle. Out of his great admiration and respect for the monastic life, Constantine Palamas worked a miracle so that his family would not arrive at the monastery empty-handed. In this way, and in countless others, he instilled in the hearts of his children a firm love for and reverence of monasticism.
This practice of going out into the wilderness to seek a word from a holy monastic is a tradition well established in the Church as early as Christ’s own times. St. John the Forerunner was the first monk, and people sought him out, as St. Andrew of Crete testifies: “The Forerunner of grace dwelt in the desert and all Judea and Samaria ran to hear him.” He, like many of our prophets before him, preached amendment of life. The central difference between him and the prophets, however, was that St. John would become the first and greatest “Father of Monasticism.” Generations of monastics would take his way of life, his asceticism, his bold dedication to discipleship to Christ as the epitome of the monastic life, and they would follow him. “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11).
The radical lifestyle of St. John changed the world, especially the Christian world, because many who came after him decided to imitate him and live outside the cities solely for Christ’s sake. Thus, slowly the monastic life was established, and those in the world began to look to it as a shining example of the Christian lifestyle. It is an indisputably great and ancient practice of those living in the world to make pilgrimages to monasteries. Below are five of the many reasons one should.
1. Spiritual Direction
Finding a spiritual guide who has the will and means to guide and direct a believer in his endeavour to live the Gospel precepts in his daily life is not an easy task. It requires prayer and discernment on the part of the seeker, a humble disposition, and an openness to the will of God. This is because once the believer asks a priest or monk to be his spiritual father, he enters into a relationship with that person that cannot easily be dissolved, and which will have everlasting effects on his spiritual life: “A spiritual father… becomes the means of leading the life of men out of hell (by the negative effect of their passions), and into pure Christian life and spiritual freedom.”
Thus, the goal should be to find a spiritual guide who not only preaches Christ, but lives like Christ. As Monk Isaiah wrote to Nun Theodora: “The Holy Spirit is for everyone; but in those who are pure of the passions, who are chaste and live in stillness and silence, He reveals special powers.” This is the primary reason why a person living in the world seeks spiritual direction from those living in monasteries. Not because the Holy Spirit only dwells in those who wear the monastic habit, but because their way of life is far more conducive to acquiring the Holy Spirit. The greatest spiritual guides are those whose manner of life teaches as much or more than their words and advice. If a spiritual guide does not live the commandments of Christ, if he has not experienced temptation, if he does not actively struggle to overcome his passions, then how will he teach others to do likewise? On this point Archmandrite Zacharias of Essex says: “if the word that the spiritual father says is not seasoned with grace, nor proceeds from a heart that is warmed by the love of Christ, it becomes like the work of psychologists or counsellors – a ‘half-blind’ worldly activity. The word of the spiritual father must bear the seal of grace, the seasoning of grace.”
The life of the monk is a macrocosm of the Christian life in the world. And so, it follows that if there are good spiritual fathers in the world, there are great spiritual fathers in the monastery. The reason for this is very simple, as St. Nikodemus states: “monastics, through ascetic struggles and through the monastic way of life, first purified themselves (from the passions and from faults) and then set out to purify others: they were first enlightened and afterwards enlightened others: they were first perfected, and then perfected others, they were, to express it concisely, first made holy and afterwards made others holy…”
For those who have spiritual fathers in the world, they need not forsake them for a priest-monk. They can, however, with the blessing of their spiritual father, seek the counsel of a monastic in certain circumstances that require the guidance of an experienced and specialized “doctor” since, as St. Zosimas says to St. Mary of Egypt: “Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit.”
And in fulfilling the instructions of one’s spiritual guide, the layman becomes a candidate for the grace which is for the saints (2 Cor. 8:4). By this, one becomes like a certain youth who, living in the world, “began immediately, with great eagerness, to fulfill the command which the elder had given him… With this work that he did, he was made worthy to lift his mind up to Heaven, where he cried out to the Mother of Christ for compassion; and through her intercessions, he was atoned before God and there came down upon him the Grace of the Holy Spirit….” Ultimately, this is the goal of seeking spiritual direction: to not only be “atoned before God” through a life of repentance, but through the counsels and prayers of one’s spiritual guide – who himself has attained grace – to have the Holy Spirit “come down upon us.”
2. Spiritual Conversation and Action
One of the greatest benefits of visiting a monastery is the spiritual conversation and activity pilgrims are able to take part in. At a monastery, spiritual stories and uplifting anecdotes abound. Although many monastics shy away from conversation with pilgrims for a variety of reasons, given the appropriate circumstance a conversation with a monastic can rear a multitude of benefits – not to mention conversations with fellow pilgrims.
Whether they share a story they have heard, wisdom from the Mothers and Fathers of the Church, or even a tale from that monastery, their words inform and enlighten the pilgrim and help refocus his busy mind. Even time relaxing in the world does not refresh the soul the way a spiritual conversation does. This type of conversation, though found more rarely in the world, is often a common occurrence at a monastery.
Furthermore, many monastics, despite not living in the world any longer or dealing with its struggles and temptations, have great wisdom to share. Not only did they also once live in darkness (Matt. 4:16), but they have a wealth of experience from speaking with pilgrims who confide in them. Through prayer and reading, the monastic manages to help the pilgrim approach his problems with a bit more clarity and even a new perspective.
Coupled with this beneficial spiritual conversation is the spiritual activity that takes place in a monastery. Work and prayer are two primary tenets of the monastic life. Work, however, is done in a slightly different spirit than work done in the world. An Abbess at a monastery not far from Thessaloniki has often said work in a monastery is a great deed because it is done solely for the love of God, and the love of His saint, the monastery’s patron. She teaches that to even pick up a piece of garbage in a monastery yields a great heavenly reward because it is done in honour of the saint, to keep his house clean. After helping with work in the monastery, she would tell the pilgrims: “The patron saint wrote down the work you have done, and you will find it presented on the Day of Judgement.”
When a monastic bakes bread, he bakes for the glory of God. When he chants in church, he chants for the glory of God. When he sweeps, he does so for the glory of God. And when a pilgrim partakes of such God-honouring work, he begins to look at his own work in a different light, just as the monastic offers all his work for the glory of God, so too can the pilgrim – both while at the monastery, and when he returns to his work in the world. The Christian home is a microcosm of the coenobitic monastery; when the mother, father, or children clean the house, they too can do so for the glory of God.
Both the monastic and the pilgrim can approach work the way Abba Apollo did: “If someone came to find him about doing a piece of work, he would set out joyfully, saying, ‘I am going to work with Christ today, for the salvation of my soul, for that is the reward he gives.’” The only difference between the monastic’s work in the monastery and the layman’s work in the world is that the monastic knows that he left behind his own success to seek the Kingdom of God; the layman merely needs a reminder now and again. He needs to ask himself which of the following he is and who he desires to glorify: “The man who loves himself seeks his own glory, whereas the man who loves God loves the glory of his Creator.”
The fallen human soul is predisposed toward pride. This is something that occurs with the monastic as much as with the layman. When the Christian keeps his prayer rule faithfully, observes the fasts of the Church, or attends church services regularly, the soul is inclined to become puffed up. The antidote is finding better examples than oneself of Christian dedication to remind the proud soul that she is lacking in virtue.
The layman has the ability to make pilgrimages to monasteries and so finds a helpful means to stay grounded in his spiritual life. Encountering monastics reminds the pilgrim that there are better Christians than himself (not that he cannot also learn this in the parish, he most certainly can, but it is an indisputable fact that one is faced with at a monastery). Hence the famous statement: “Angels are a light for monastics, and monastics are a light for the world.” The monastic is simultaneously humbled and enlightened by reading the lives of the saints, just as the layman is when he compares his life with that of a monastic.
Humility is a virtue that the monastic and layman ought to strive for above all else, for as St. John Cassian says, “Humility of soul helps more than everything else; without it no one can overcome lewdness or any other sin.” And so, the layman makes pilgrimages to monasteries in order to draw the soul away from the distracting world and into an environment of stillness and prayer, where the atmosphere is conducive to taking stock of one’s life alongside that of a dedicated monastic, and to allow the grace of the monastery to help him see his own sinfulness.
The following story, taken from The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, illustrates this point: There were three friends, all of whom chose different means of work. The first decided to become a peace-maker among men. The second decided to tend to the sick. While the third decided to live in prayer and stillness in the desert. The first two friends found that they were unable to complete the work they set out to do and became disheartened. So they decided to visit their third friend who was living in the stillness of prayer. They confessed their difficulties and asked for guidance. This was the third friend’s response: “After a short silence, he poured some water into a bowl and said to them, ‘Look at the water,’ and it was disturbed. After a little while he said to them again, ‘Look how still the water is now,’ and as they looked into the water, they saw their own faces reflected in it as in a mirror. Then he said to them, ‘It is the same for those who live among men; disturbances prevent them from seeing their faults. But when a man is still, especially in the desert, then he sees his failings.’”
And so it is with the pilgrim from the world. In the stillness of the monastery, he is able to reflect on his failings. Whether it be in comparing his spiritual life with the monastic who left all things behind to live “alone with God alone,” as Elder Porphyrios was wont to say, or simply due to slowing down and reflecting on his faults, the pilgrim returns to the world with greater humility of soul.
The command to imitate Christ is found throughout the Gospels. He is the image of perfect obedience, extreme humility, utter chastity, and a life of poverty. To be sure, if a believer only ever read the Gospels, he would be informed on how to live a proper Christian life. However, because man is weak and in need of examples, the monastic life illustrates the Gospel commandments lived out to their perfection. Thus the layman has before him a pragmatic example of how the teachings of the Lord are upheld and practiced. In turn, he emulates those things in an appropriate and prudent way, just as St. Paul encourages: “what ye learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things be practising; and the God of peace shall be with you” (Phill. 4:9).
There is much to be learned and gained from spiritual books, practical guides, and the wisdom of the desert Fathers and Mothers. However, nothing compares to the spiritual benefit brought about by actually being around someone who shares in the grace of God in a deep and intimate way. For whether or not he has “the words of life,” his prayer, his patience, and his virtue are enough to form and inform the humble-hearted that seek his unique, if silent, wisdom. Abba Dorotheos writes: “It is said that a certain brother asked an elder, ‘What shall I do, father, in order to fear God?’ The elder answered, ‘Go and cling to a man who fears God and from the fact that he fears Him, he will teach you to do likewise.’”
Laymen are called to keep the commandments of the Gospel with as much precision as monastics. The monk is not called to one type of life, and the layman to another. No, they are both called to “be perfect even as my Father in heaven who is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), just as St. John Chrysostom taught: “You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities… Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence.”
The only difference between a Christian living in the world and a monastic living in a monastery is that monasticism “rejects any kind of compromise and seeks the absolute”, whereas the layman struggles as best he can in the midst of the distracting world. Both are acceptable and blessed in the eyes of God. Both ways are only successful by the grace of God. The layman should not be disheartened by his struggles in “the darkness of the world” (Eph. 6:12). Rather, he should take courage that he is upheld by the prayers of countless monastics, as Bishop Nikolai of Lavreot has stated: “The life of the faithful is supported by the prayers of the monks. This is elucidated by the very fact that the faithful take refuge in such prayers. Just as Moses stretched out his hands and the Israelites conquered the Amalekites, so the monastics lift up their hands to God and we, the faithful who are struggling in the wilderness of this world, conquer the noetic Amalek.” And more significantly, the layman should take courage that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).
5. Encountering Sacred Place
Even if there were no other reason for visiting a monastery, there would remain this one: it is an agios topos, a holy place. “And Moses said, I will go near and see this great sight, why the bush is not consumed. And when the Lord saw that he drew nigh to see, the Lord called him out of the bush, saying, Moses, Moses… loose thy sandals from off thy feet for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3: 3-5).
Coupled with the prayers of the monastics, the saints that dwell within the monastery, and the angels that protect it, there are also at least one or more chapels. The presence of a temple of God alone is enough to sanctify a place. And it is in this sanctified place that even without hearing God-inspired words or witnessing miraculous events, the pilgrim is refreshed. His weary and tired body and soul are nourished with more than monastic fare – they are nourished with monastic stillness.
A pilgrim once asked a priest-monk why it was that out of all the monasteries the pilgrim had visited, this one particular well-known monastery was the one in which grace and divine fragrance was the most perceivable. The priest-monk answered that although all monasteries are holy, that that monastery held the typikon to celebrate Divine Liturgy every single day, and confessed people for hours on end, and so as a result it attracted the grace of the Holy Spirit and He dwelt there. As Dr. Constantine Carvanos surmises, “[t]hrough confession at these centers of spirituality, through participation in the moving services of the monks or nuns, and speaking with them, a Christian living in the world is aided by calm refuge from his worldly cares, by being purified, by rediscovering himself, and by tasting of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
St. Nikolai Velimirovich records: “When [St. David of Garesja] arrived at a hill from which Jerusalem was visible, [he] began to weep and said, ‘How can I be so bold to walk in the footsteps of the God-man with my sinful feet?’ David then told his disciples that they, being more worthy, should go to worship at the holy places, and he took three stones and began to return.” The saint’s humility was so great that he considered the sight of the Holy Land and even its pebbles to be overflowing with grace. How much more does the grace of a sacred place exceed sight and stones? In this sense the words of St. Theodora hold an even greater significance: “Love stillness. One who is not attached to the vanities of this world is strengthened in soul by stillness, abstinence and silence.” This strength, harnessed by the grace of a sacred place, can then be brought back into the world if treasured and safeguarded through prayer and watchfulness.
In conclusion, “if you want to know if someone loves Christ, find out if he loves monasticism,” as the saying goes. Visit monasteries, acquire humble-mindedness, and abstain from judging others – both the believer who is too lax and he who is too strict. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).
All photos that appear in this post belong to Nektarios and are used with permission.
 St. Symeon the New Theologian, from Dr. Constantine Carvanos’ article A Discourse for those living in the world, Orthodox Info: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/discourselivingworld.aspx.
 Professor Georgios Mantzarides, Images of Athos by monk Chariton, http://www.stanthonysmonastery.org/monasticism.php
 Constantine Carvanos, Discourse on those living in the world, Orthodox Info: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/discourselivingworld.aspx.