Monasticism

Reijo Elsner 2003

The Christian life is the same for everyone independent of where one lives. 'Dying' to the world and 'remembering God' continuously are such hard labours that some people choose to follow the way to the union with God without the distractions of the daily life in the 'worldly' occupations. Withdrawing to a monastery or a convent does not change any of the difficulties or make this work easier; the novices carry the sins of their souls (thoughts and emotions) and in their body wherever they go.

Our energy is limited and used up in many ways. One common 'leak' is the expenditure of energy through thoughts, feelings, sensations and tensions related to sex and the further imaginings connected with these. After all this is all part of human nature, 'old Adam and Eve'. The 'sins of the soul' and the body can only be purified by the Lord sitting on his throne. Our struggle is to beat this 'legion' and prepare the way for the 'real I' or the 'Spirit'.

Going to reclusion can be seen as an attempt to lessen the impact of the world and coming into a situation where one is reminded all the time of 'the only thing necessary' - the remembrance of God and the union with Him. Read more about Monasticism in an article called Orthodox Christian Monasticism by Bishop Alexander Miloant, who writes "Orthodox monasticism has always been associated with stillness or silence, which is seen primarily as an internal rather than an external state. External silence is sought in order to attain inner stillness of mind more easily". Read Bishop Miloant's article.

Gurdjieff says in P. D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous: "You must understand that every real religion, that is, one that has been created by learned people for a definite aim, consists of two parts. One part teaches what is to be done. This part becomes common knowledge and in the course of time is distorted and departs from the original. The other part teaches how to do what the first part teaches. This part is preserved in secret in special schools and with its help it is always possible to rectify what has been distorted in the first part or to restore what has been forgotten. Out of dozens of monasteries one is a school."

Orthodox Christianity has been called "The World's Best Kept Secret". The main reasons for this is language in many different aspects. The writings have been available for well over a thousand years in different languages like Syriac, Greek and Russian. Only in the latter part of the 20th century a larger selection of this literature has been translated into English. Some of these translations were made by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (three works published in the early fifties), who both had their association with P. D. Ouspensky. Another 'language difficulty' is that it is hardly possible to approach a spiritual father, a staretz, for instructions if he does not speak your language. Still another reason for the difficulty is a direct result of the forms Christianity has taken in the West - the Eastern teachings are so different, that a considerable openness is necessary on the part of a Western person to understand what the Eastern mystics said and thought. The language and the expressions used are the main difficulties.

It is at this point Gurdjieff with his vision and with the clear language he used comes to help. It is direct and is not even lost in the translations. This applies both to theory and practice. In other words he comes up with some keys that can open at least some of the doors to "The World's Best Kept Secrets."

The Russian Orthodox Monasticism has jealously guarded their communities against the sinful influences coming from the 'World'. This clash has always been there, but a definite opening towards the rest of the World has at least and at last become possible after the fall of the Soviet rule. However, the outside influences need to be kept at bay simply to maintain the special conditions in the Monasteries.

A Word about Self-Remembering and Self-Gathering

Gurdjieff defines self-remembering as the third state of consciousness, with sleep and waking-sleep (our normal state) as the two lower states. I can arrive at self-remembering by deviding attention between my sense of 'I' and an object. The object can be within me or outside me. This has an effect in Gurdjieff's words: "everything more vivid". I do not normally remember myself and to do it I need to make an effort. The exercise to do this is described on the site in detail in an article by A. G. E. Blake and called 'Possible Foundations of Inner Exercises'.

Self-gathering is the Orthodox work. There are three elements in self-gathering. First: the gathering of the mind in the heart, called attention. Second: to be alert in the body, called vigilance. Third: to come to the senses, called soberness. To be self-gathered you descend within your heart with the help of these three elements. When you are within the work is to remain there as long as you are conscious. When you are outside, your repeat the self-gathering and go on renewing it as it is not something that continues without the effort. When you have gathered yourself, you are within; missing even one of the elements puts you outside. In fact St. Theophan writes: "...the ascetic laborer is in a minute-by-minute struggle...Therefore he is in a state of perpetual beginning..."

For Gurdieff work and the Orthodox work self-remembering and self-gathering are the methods that make further work possible. It is the preparatory work that can lead to the death of the tyrant that keeps the 'real I', 'the Spirit', in prison. The death of this tyrant (old Adam and Eve) can eventually make the new birth possible.

The Quest for Freedom

It is said in the Gurdjieff Work that at some point we have to come under the will of another, someone, who we trust, 'a teacher', even if we do not always agree. In the absence of a 'real teacher' God is available for this, all the time. The problem is that we are not always present, we are 'upside down'. Monasteries provide the opportunity to come under another will, the Will of God and that of the Spiritual Father, the Staretz.

What about my freedom then?

Gurdjieff in Ouspensky's In Search says: "The whole thing is in being ready to sacrifice one's freedom. A man consciously and unconsciously struggles for freedom as he imagines it and this, more than anything else, prevents him from attaining real freedom. But a man who is capable of attaining anything comes sooner or later to the conclusion that his freedom is illusion and he agrees to sacrifice this illusion. He voluntarily becomes a slave. He does what he is told, says what he is told, and thinks what he is told. He is not afraid of losing anything because he knows that he has nothing. And in this way he acquires everything. Everything in him that was real in his understanding, in his sympathies, tastes, and desires, all comes back to him accompanied by new things which he did not have and could no have had before, together with a feeling of unity and will within him. But to arrive at this point, a man must pass through the hard way of slavery and obedience. And if he wants results he must obey not only outwardly but inwardly. This requires a great determination, and determination requires a great understanding of the fact that there is no other way, that a man can do nothing himself, but that at the same time, something has to be done."