The askesis of the laity
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov wrote that monastics are like hothouse flowers: they can bloom more fully and beautifully than those in the world, but those in the world are often hardier and may stand up to trials better than their monastic brethren.
In a recent interview, Mother Christophora, Abbess of the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA, spoke of her appreciation for the unique askesis of Orthodox Christians who struggle to live their faith in the world. Here is an excerpt.
Now, we [monastics] work, of course; we have to do things all day long, like everybody, whatever it is, whether it is shopping or cooking, or doing office work, answering the phone or writing or sewing or gardening. There is always work to do; everybody has to keep busy. Even St. Paul, a great preacher, had his profession. But we do not usually have to do it off the property, in the stress of the world, on the highways or in traffic, as so many people do. When I want to go to church, it takes me one minute to get there. If I visit a parish or stay with my family or someone, I say, “Oh! You’ve got to be up and in the car 45 minutes before the Liturgy starts because you have to drive. And maybe you have to go down to the basement and set up the coffee.”
I have no reason to be absent from church, but people who have families have to load them in the car, drive them and deal with weather and other things. Maybe it is an evening service and they want to go — it adds extra time to their day. People might have left their home at six, six-thirty in the morning, finish their workday, get home, maybe change clothes, freshen up, go to Presanctified Liturgy at six or seven in the evening and finally get something to eat, and get home at nine or ten o’clock. That is a big sacrifice. I find that extremely imprssive and very much ascetical — an asceticism that I am not subject to. I have other ascetic struggles, but we do have a little cushion here from some difficulties the laity goes through.
Another cushion — we live with other Orthodox Christians who believe the same thing, and the people who come here are mostly at least Christian or they are seeking. During Lent, I go to the refectory to find a very nice, fasting meal prepared for me at lunchtime or dinnertime. I do not have to smell hamburgers and pizza like kids who go to school. I do not have to make choices or think, “Here I am with my peanut butter and jelly again,” while other kids are having pepperoni pizza. There is this kind of protection; there is a bit of truth to that. I really want to say how much I respect the Orthodox people who are faithful, living in the world and participating in their parish and still dealing with all those things that I mentioned, whether it is traveling, jobs, work or other responsibilities.
We should not think that somehow monks and nuns are the Holy People. People see us in our habits and say, “There are the Holy People.” I think the holy people are the good, faithful Christians who raise their children, pay their bills, who go to work, support their parish, say their prayers, read their Bible, sing in the choir, and do all of that while still struggling in the world to meet all their expenses and even to keep their families happy. God bless them all!
— From Life Transfigured: A Journal of Orthodox Nuns, Summer 2012