An interview with Archbishop Mark (Arndt)
Why do people now go to monasteries not from an impoverished life but from a life of comfort, how to find the right monastery, which of the holy fathers should be read, what is the proper relationship of a monastic to parents, should the internet be used, and why young hieromonks should not be assigned to parishes? Archbishop Mark (Arndt) of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain answers these questions.
Are more or fewer people seeking the monastic life than before?
It is difficult to say. I think that the contingent of our faithful is different than it was twenty or thirty years ago. We now have as a whole a greater number of believers, and corresponding to this growth is an increase in the number of monastics. I suppose that when people lived in poverty, they are not so inclined to monastic life then when they live well. A person can more easily deny himself what he has than what he does not have.
What do people expect from monasticism when they come to it today? What disappoints them?
The most difficult thing, and not only in our time, but always, has been obedience and the denial of one’s own will. It is met with more resistance, more sharply today, when a person lives in complete satisfaction, when the material world gives him all he wants. When there is no poverty, then one must reject all the external glitter, and as I said, this is not so hard. But what is hard is denying your own will. That is the problem.
Can you learn monasticism from books?
Books can help, they can give direction, but there is nothing like experience in order to really learn about it, just as any facet of life.
What would you recommend new monastics to read today?
First of all the Ancient Fathers: St Macarius of Egypt, St Anthony the Great. There are, of course, more contemporary guides, say, St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), who can help find the right path. But this cannot replace personal guidance.
How does one choose a monastery to go to?
That depends on the country—in some there are many monasteries, in others not even one. In Germany we did not have a convent for many years. We would send our candidates to neighboring France, or to the Holy Land.
Then we were able to open our own convent, because a few women came together who could not leave Germany. These were external conditions which led to the establishment of a convent.
The choice here is not as easy as, say, Russia, Serbia or Greece.
That is why there is no set rule. A lot depends on the spiritual father of the monastery. Let us say a person comes as a pilgrim to some monastery, and he likes it there. He has the opportunity to adjust to this monastery, but he can also visit other monasteries, examine their daily rule, their life, and select the one that suits him better.
I always advise people to visit several monasteries. One monastery may have a set of rules which isn’t for everyone, and thank God, there are many different ustavy [monastic charters—transl.]. A person should choose the one that suits him best.
There used to be families with many children, and if a young man or woman strove for the monastic life, they could easily leave their parents to the care of their brothers or sisters. Today, parents are often left to their own devices. What is one to do?
There are families in which the spiritual life flows so naturally that they easily consent to their son or daughter to go into a monastery. There are also families for whom this decision is shocking. They find it hard to accept.
It is impossible to generalize: there are all sorts of different situations. The other day I heard about how in Serbia, a father and his brothers came to “liberate” his son from a monastery, and I had known of such instances in the past. This is not a rare occurrence.
On the other hand there are families which fully support their children’s decision. In my experience, there is no difference between large and small families in this regard.
What is to be done if parents stay in the world, but then they grow old and sick. It turns out then that their child’s decision to become a monastic is a time bomb; won’t he or she then have to go back into the world to care for them?
In today’s society almost no one is left uncared-for. The main thing is to have a spiritual bond, but at the same time I don’t require that my monastics completely sever any bonds with their parents or friends, and to one degree or another I let them stay in touch: by telephone, letters, whatever is more convenient.
There is also another problem. Sometimes a parent is so disappointed that their child goes to a monastery, especially if it is an only child, that they break off all contact with them. Or they turn it into a prison sentence, with no contact but stern demands that they return, or have only formal conversations: “Hello. How are you?”
Still, we give blessing to visit parents. There are cases when a monastic is sent home for some time, to take care of his parents. There are all sorts of cases, which really depend on the maturity of the monastic himself.
How does such an absent monastic then maintain his relationship with the monastery?
It all depends on how long a period the absence is. Usually in these cases he leaves but maintains contact with his spiritual father by phone or email.
How much time should a monastic spend on the internet? Can spiritual advice be given through that medium?
Of course there is some advice that can be offered, but only as an exception to the rule. As a whole, of course, you need personal connection. We can use modern technology, but we must take care that it does not take over all communication. The internet has not made a principal change in such relations. For instance, when people got access to the mass media, they had to learn to turn it off, too. The same applies to television.
Monastics use the internet to the degree their obedience allows. Our monastery has a print shop, and monastics need to be able to access text through e-mail, to edit and make proofs.
Still, I always insist that they limit their usage. Everything else on line drags you in, and deprives you of freedom.
How decisive must one be in striving for monasticism. How much of an effort should one make, and how much should be expected from Divine Providence, or some sign from above?
I personally never try to persuade a person to become a monk, in fact, to the contrary, I usually advise putting off the decision and testing oneself. I wait until a person is absolutely convinced that he cannot live otherwise. If a person still has doubts, I advise that they take some time off, test themselves, and then come back.
This is too important a step, just like marriage, in fact. Today, unfortunately, everything is different. Both monasticism and marriage are seen as something temporary: you try it, didn’t like it, you move on. I reject this attitude and insist that every candidate do some serious soul-searching.
But beyond that, we keep our people as novices for a long time. If a candidate is over the age of 25, he remains at our Monastery of St Job of Pochaev for a minimum of one year as a trudnik [monastery volunteer—transl.], a novice for 3-4 years, as a simple monk for 5-7 years.
Some are of the opinion that those that are truly called to a monastic life do not have this conflict of whether to be tonsured or get married. Do you share this opinion?
Everything depends on how spiritually mature a person is for one life or the other. Only a spiritual father can determine whether the monastic life will suit a candidate. Every case is different. We have had some very young people who knew precisely what they are striving for, and those who were middle aged who weren’t sure of their decision to be tonsured, whom we therefore couldn’t receive.
How should one prepare oneself for monasticism while still living in the world, before becoming a trudnik in a monastery?
I advise testing yourself: how ready are you for the daily monastic routine? Wake up at night to read the midnight office; then go back to sleep, or read it very early in the morning; observe the monastic fasting regime even before tonsure. But the measure of one’s asceticism is a matter of his individual abilities.
What about your tonsure?
I was tonsured as a result of my yearning for monasticism. I approached it for eight years. I never despaired and did not even doubt my decision.
You knew St Justin (Popovich). What did he say about monasticism today?
The late Fr Justin would look at us, flying all over the world, and he called us “jet-set monks.” Still, he felt that monasticism, even under a broad set of external forms, remains essentially unchanged.
In Russia, especially in the 1990’s, many churches were being opened, and frequently young monks, soon after tonsure, were ordained and assigned to a parish. Technically speaking, this was convenient: they had no families, they could devote all their time to rebuilding a church, and so they could be appointed to a place where it would be hard for a married priest with his wife and children to live. But there is another side to this: a young person who only just made his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, is thrust out alone into the world with all of its temptations. Does Germany have the same problem?
This indeed has been happening in Russia, of course, out of the need for parish priests. We also had a problem like this in the 1950’s and 60’s [Vladyka Mark served for 5 years in a parish in Wiesbaden as a hieromonk, then Archimandrite—editors]. But we always recognized that this was abnormal, unnatural and incorrect. That is why I completely stopped doing that. I don’t have a single hieromonk serving in a parish in my diocese. I don’t even allow a hieromonk to live in a monastery and travel to parishes to serve. Thank God! If a person enters a monastery, he leaves the world behind and should never return.
Is a priestly rank required for holding any administrative post in a monastery?
An abbot usually has the rank of priest, and this has been customary in the Russian tradition for centuries. All other posts in a monastery may perfectly well be filled by simple monks.
The Russian religious media recently discussed the question of whether to adopt the practice of establishing specific monastic orders with clearly defined directions and assignments. What is your opinion on this?
I don’t think this would bring any benefit. The introduction of orders is an extraneous restriction upon monastic life. Western monasticism has long ago been connected to various orders. On one side they are all very different, on the other hand, each is far more regulated than Orthodox monasticism. If you go to one Benedictine monastery, it is identical to the next one; meanwhile, our monasteries all have their own particularities. We view the freedom of an individualistic approach by each monastery as being a plus.
How can monasteries preserve a prayerful atmosphere when it must perform a great deal of social work?
The most important thing in monasticism is serving God in the form it is practiced in a given monastery. It can be more liturgical or more practical. There are different approaches. There are monasteries in which monastics devote most of their lives to external service, while at others they limit such work. Our monastery of St Job is established on a liturgical order.
What are the relations between monastics and the government in Germany?
On the whole I would say that in Germany, both the government and society have preserved respect for monasticism. Unfortunately, it is fading, because there is almost no Orthodox monasticism, there are very few of us. Imagine, of all the Local Orthodox Churches, only the Russian Church has monasteries here!
The Catholics only have a handful of monks, who live in enormous, ancient monasteries and strive to preserve them, in fact they have become little more than custodians [in June, the building of a Catholic monastery from the 12-15th centuries was put on the market—editors].
Monasticism is rarely seen, so consequently, it is difficult to preserve respect for the vocation. Children don’t even understand what these odd figures in long black clothing passing by them are.