Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“How do you feel?”
Let’s see. At this moment I am up to my elbows in grated potatoes, with a bucket more waiting for me whose continents do not seem to be diminishing. I can hardly hear myself think from the roar of the generator, cement mixer and heavy duty drill outside. There are knives in my throat from heavy singing and anxiety. In my head is a mile-long list of things I need to do in the next minute, hour, day, and week, none of which look like they are going to get done. I can count on one hand the number of times I read anything or did my prayer rule in the last month(s!).
“Horrible!” would be my immediate answer.
It is amazing, however, how God reveals truths about life to us through various circumstances. At this time we have a young woman visiting us who is inquiring about our life. Having grown up piously, but with constant pushing from her parents towards monasticism, she harbors a certain fear and resentment towards the idea; yet at the same time, perhaps a certain attraction. Having seen this life for the first time “up close” with us, she is still afraid, but at the same time intrigued. Ironically, perhaps, all of her questions, which mostly revolve around the “difficulties” of this life, actually remind us of why we love it so much. Everything, we explain, now matter how hard it seems, in the end is only sweet if it is done for love of Christ. In a monastery, life really is easy and simple, because if one fulfills one’s duties with a steadfast and cheerful spirit, one knows that one is serving Christ.
When we entered the monastery, we all had various ideas, mostly fuzzy, of what to expect – which were almost all wrong in every case. Most of us thought we would spend most of our time in quiet prayer, reading, and contemplation. I certainly had this idea, even though I could see to some extent that the conditions here are extreme; I knew that I would have to do hard work… but I didn’t realize quite how much. Getting used to the hard work, however, is far from the only, or the most difficult battle. There were many, many things to learn and many trials. At first you can’t believe how boring and exhausting the obediences can be. Then, when you realize that you will never be close to your family again, missing them burns like fire. You might miss your old job or have a wish to talk to your old friends. It’s hard to submit to being corrected all the time; the number of rules in a monastery seems endless and burdensome. Monastic behavior is so removed from that of a person in the world, even a believing Christian, that for a good while one is shocked that one shouldn’t do one thing or another. An entirely different psyche has to be formed. In the end, however, if one is just very brave and stubborn, and trusts that one’s spiritual mother and sisters (or father and brothers) are right, and do what they say as best you can, then in the end your heart changes. Everything which they said, which seemed so awful and impossible in the beginning, begins to make sense. The more willing you are to humble yourself, the faster the process goes of thinking like a monk. Every time you make a new sacrifice, a new burnt offering of your will and self-love, you receive a new grace. Sometimes I fell to great depths in spirit; my pride darkened my mind so much that at times I almost entirely forgot why I was here and what I was supposed to be doing. After making honest confessions to our spiritual mother, however, God brought me back to the light of understanding, with an even firmer will and clearer purpose.
Even if one is disappointed when one realizes that is impossible to live up to the ideals of the monastic life, or even to keep all the rule of the monastery, in the end one realizes that this is really very good. You can never fall into delusion about your so-called spirituality. Thank God that He orders our lives for our salvation. One really learns, through experience, that the most sincere prayer is from a suffering heart. True love is only born through pain and sacrifice. Your Cross is almost never what you expect it to be, but if you accept it, it becomes lighter. In one simple spiritual formula: nothing good is easy! Yet anything hard, when done for Christ, brings comforts exponentially greater than the difficulties, even in this temporal life.
After three years, I look around myself and see that even if we have a lot of struggles, our family really loves each other and is happy. Christ is always present, working miracles that astonish us the weak in faith. Our Most Holy Lady never deserts us, and our special intercessor St John the Baptist is always at work, helping us build our monastery, and at the same time, the temples of our souls.
A few days after being told of my tonsure, I dreamed that I met St. John of Shanghai. He was standing in a great church, holding the Cross for the faithful to come and venerate. Overwhelmed with excitement, I rushed up to meet him and receive his blessing. When I came up to him, I was amazed at how tiny and frail he looked, yet at the same time, what a great power came from him. I could feel his reserve, however, surely caused by my excitement, which repelled his humble soul. He didn’t give me the Cross to venerate. Instead, holding it back, and he just looked me with piercing eyes. He gestured to some youths off to the side.
“Why don’t you go make friends with those nice young people over there?” he said, rather ironically.
“No, Vladika, I want to be with You!” I exclaimed.
“Very well, then,” he said, with a shrug, and let me venerate the Cross.
When I woke up, I felt light, warm, and happy, but at the same time amused at how St. John was testing me. When I told others of the dream it reminded them of one anecdote from St. John’s life when he persuaded a certain hard-headed Serb to become a monk by intentionally forbidding him to do so. : )
I have read, and all of the sisters tell me, that everyone passes very difficult trials especially a short while after receiving the tonsure. It seems like the novitiate is really a portrait of the monastic life in miniature: the same grace at the beginning, then the same great struggles, interspersed with moments of comfort. Everything in the rank of monk is just much more of both.
I will always treasure Mati’s words when she told me that I was going to be tonsured:
“My dear child, the time which we have spent together has shown that you have succeeded in overcoming all the temptations which you have met so far on this narrow path which tries our soul, strength, and loyalty to Christ, our Bridegroom. Know, though, that you are only now going to realize what is the way on which Christ walked and suffered. YOU ARE ONLY NOW REACHING GOLGOTHA, AND A RECEPTION OF A THORNY CROWN. BUT UNSPEAKABLE COMFORTS AND GRACE WILL ACCOMPANY YOU AND STRENGTHEN YOUR SOUL. WITH THE RECEPTIONОN OF THE SCHEMA, ALL YOUR SINS WILL BE FORGIVEN. STRUGGLE IN ASCETICISM!”
To God be the glory. Amen