Study Notes: The Greater Hermitage
Many Christians seem preoccupied with identifying the sinful things about the world in which we live in an attempt to renounce or reject them. Whether it is the attitudes about gay marriage, or making the acquisition of material goods a life’s priority, or the immoral values of our modern society–some Christians devote their lives to fighting against the vile vices of this world. To be sure, we are called to fight “against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). But for some reason this fight all too often turns into a battle against “flesh and blood” (ibid.). It is certainly easier to fight against their vices than against the sin that lives in my heart and to find something to renounce in them rather than to cultivate virtues in my own soul. But a certain level I find such an exercise counterproductive. I think it a much more worth-while pursuit to describe that which must be adopted.
One reason for this is that after describing that which is to be renounced I would still have to describe that which is to be adopted. If you see someone struggling to do something you could explain to him what he is doing wrong or you could tell him how to do it right. I find the latter to be a more productive approach.
The second reason is that the more one thinks about something–even about renouncing it–the more one… thinks about it and thus bring it into his life!
A young Buddhist monk came to his teacher and asked for a lesson. The teacher told him to not think about monkeys for three days. The young monk was puzzled: he thought it a very easy lesson since he was not is the habit of thinking about monkey in the first place. Three days later he returned and the teacher asked him whether he was able to complete the lesson. The young monk cried out: “All I think about now is monkeys!”
Thus, I propose focusing on that which we want in our heads, hearts, souls and lives. I will not write about Christ’s commandments, or Christian virtues, or love, or charity, of communion with God. All of those are good and worthy things. But here I would like to mention asceticism. The world is the very opposite of asceticism. If we adopt asceticism as a foundation of our way of life, our life will naturally be “not of this world.” We would not have to worry whether some attitude we encounter is to be renounce or not; rather, we will have adopted an attitude that naturally and organically renounces everything that is not it, everything that is not compatible with it. Personal and communal asceticism must become the distinguishing attribute of Christians (as it once was two millennia ago). When we learn to love asceticism, we will flee the world even if we are physically present in it. When we embrace asceticism, we will very naturally become alien to the world which is drowning in overindulgence. When we begin to breathe asceticism, questions of whether a cake is Lenten or not would lose their meaning along with so much other worldly minutia that traps us in a perpetual hair-splitting competition with the Pharisees of old.
I am told that the Buddhists have two kinds of hermitage. The Lesser Hermitage is when a person goes into the wilderness, away from the temptations of the cities, away from distractions, to practice his asceticism in solitude. But the Greater Hermitage is when a person practices his ascetic discipline while living in the city. He does not advertise it, his neighbors may not suspect it; he patiently labors in his discipline “in plain view” of his enemy, the world.
I do not know whether what I am told about the Buddhists is true, but we have our own Orthodox models that speak of the same reality. Every married couple and every parent will attest to how difficult it is to make one’s family a “monastery in the world”–but not altogether impossible. If we think about the very foundation of a monastic life, we can think of it in terms of rejection or renunciation. But we can also think of it in terms of adoption–the adoption of an ascetic worldview, mindset, and–ultimately–lifestyle. The foundation must be the same for the “monastery in the world.” If the lay faithful adopt the ascetic mindset, it will naturally make the worldly indulgences of the mind repulsive. If we adopt the ascetic worldview, we will naturally begin to live in a world vastly different from the secular one, even if we are physically still in it. And if we adopt an ascetic lifestyle, this will naturally exclude us from the life of the world, which will hate us because we are not of the world (cf. John 15:19).
In the rite of making a catechumen which takes place before the baptism, we renounce Satan and unite ourselves to Christ–in that order. Both acts of our free will are absolutely necessary, but if we get “stuck” on the former and never move to the latter, then we are not fulfilling our baptismal promise. The rite is very wise–it speaks of renouncing Satan is very general terms: “all his messengers, all his works, all his service, and all his pride.” The rite does not dwell on the specifics of satanic service. It dwells on the glory of Christ’s presence. We do not recite the detailed list of what we are to renounce. Rather, we recite–thrice!–the Creed, the detailed account of what we are to adopt. I believe that this is where the focus must be placed: having renounced something we are left with nothing, but having adopted something we stand filled with it.