In 369 AD St. Basil the great was a newly ordained priest ministering in and around the area of Constantinople. That year a drought hit followed by famine as the crops had all dried up. He delivered four homilies that have been complied in the book “On Social Justice” that spoke to the heart of how people act in these times of dire physical suffering. Many of the themes from these homilies are repeating themselves today as they have throughout history.
St. Basil had a vision of a new social order based upon simplicity of life and sharing rather than competition and private ownership. He had a vision for what would be called “the new city.”
Part of this new city would be an engaged monasticism, a monastic vision that was more urban than rural, a monasticism, which has at its very heart, service to the poor. He had a vision for what would be called the Basiliad, a complex of buildings where the poor and needy would come and find support and rest. Medical care would be provided by skilled physicians and food and clothing would be provided. But it was also to be a worship center with church services and a chapel. A place to truly live out the gospel message of “love of neighbor.”
The monks would practice the practical trades like carpentry and blacksmithing and the money generated from those trades would be used to support the work of the Basiliad. In his sermon, "In Time of Famine and Drought” (in: On Social Justice" title="On Social Justice">On Social Justice) he speaks of this new community not as a new kind of charitable institution but a place where a new set of relationships would be formed. A new social order that would both anticipate and participate in the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth where justice dwells.” St. Basil used his vision of the first church at Jerusalem as an example, “Let us zealously imitate the early Christian community, where everything was held in common – life, soul, concord, a common table, individual kinship – while unfeigned love constituted many bodies as one and joined by many souls into a single harmonious whole.”
Fast forward to the 20th century and we find the writings of St. Mother Maria of Paris. I don’t think there is a saint that has influenced my thoughts on monasticism more than she has. Mother Maria saw the need for monasticism in the Orthodox Church, and as I have often said the church is at her best when monasticism is present in the Church, but as we have had to adapt the church to the new world monasticism needs to be adapted to the new world. Mother Maria, and I for that matter, does not believe that traditional monasticism can work in America, well not all aspects of it anyway.
Mother Maria wrote an essay that she called “Toward a New Monasticism” it was written at a time where refugees had swarmed into Paris during the Second World War. She had a house that she called the “Open Door” where she ministered to the refugees mostly on her own. In this essay she has this to say about monasticism and her view of a new monasticism:
“…monasticism in general is needed, but it is needed mainly on the roads of life, in the very thick of it. Today there is only one monastery for a monk – the whole world. This he must inevitably understand very soon, and in this lies the force of his innovation. Here many must become innovators against their will. This is the meaning, the cause, and the justification of the new monasticism. The new here is not characterized mainly by its newness, but by its being inevitable. There is no need to seek in these statements for any non-recognition of the old form of monasticism on principle. But, needed as it is, it does not exhaust what the churchly word now has the right to expect from monasticism. It may be only a part… of contemporary monasticism.”
We have other examples of the “New Monasticism” the most notable is St. Herman of Alaska. St. Herman came to the new world to minister not only to the Russians in Alaska but also to the native population. He was a monastic and came with other monastics, but did not live what one thinks of as a traditional monastic life.
We also have examples of engaged monasticism in the Church in North American now. St. Tikhon in South Canaan, Pennsylvania runs a seminary and prepares men for service in the church, they are engaged in the process and what is needed is more of this type of work.
What I am suggesting is not radical but a return to a vision of monasticism put forth in the 4th century by St. Basil. My belief is this is the style of monasticism that is needed in North America, we need balance in monasticism and this is an area that is lacking.
V. Rev. Fr. Peter-Michael Preble is the Pastor of St. Michael’s Orthodox Christian Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts and the host of the Shepherd of Souls syndicated radio program. Visit Fr. Peter's blog.