An Interview with Bishop Benjamin: Preparing to be a Monastic in the Modern World

An interview with Bishop Benjamin of Borisov and Maryina Horka about the monastic life.

- Your Grace, you have a great experience of the monastic life for you have gone through the stages of being a simple monk, you have been a dean and an abbot of a monastery. What do you think, to which factors should we pay special attention while accepting people into a monastery?
Bishop Benjamin
- It is necessary that a person feels that it is the calling which makes him come to a monastery. It should be his conscious choice so that neither he nor the one who accepts him regrets this decision.

- What are the main criteria according to which people are accepted into a monastery?

- It is important that a person is non-confrontational and has a desire and ability to obey, to reject his own will and to put the Gospel ideals into life.

- For how long should the probation period last? In your opinion, are there any standards?

- At least a year. As a rule, if a person comes to a monastery, at first a person behaves almost perfectly. But after a year spent in the monastery, he begins to behave freely and naturally. Then his weaknesses are better revealed, and thus we can make a conclusion, whether this person can live in the monastery or not. If the question is whether to accept a person as a novice, then it is a year. However, if he is going to become a monk, then this period should be even longer because sometimes it just so happens that a person, who accepts someone, can make a mistake. Thus, a longer trial period can help to avoid such a mistake. Of course, everything depends on a person who comes. If those who live in a monastery know him well for a long time, then this period can be shortened.

- Minsk Theological Institute has developed a two-year distance learning course for monastics, which allows them to get a minimum level of spiritual education without leaving the monastery. The brethren from the Lyadansky monastery have almost finished this course. It is the first monastery of the Belarusian diocese that has such a learning experience. Could you tell us how did the brethren react this initiative?

- The brethren undertook this obedience with humility. Later they expressed a keen interest because they began to get some new knowledge, which helped them both to look at the Divine Services from a different viewpoint, and to have an indepth understanding the history of the Church. This enriched their monastic life with new content and this is why they studied with great pleasure and were happy about their new knowledge.

- In your opinion, what is the role of spiritual education in the life of monastics?

- At the present day, it is stated by the Church authority that it is necessary to provide monastics with such an education. It will help not only them in their spiritual life, but it can also help the people who come to monasteries to get the right answers to their questions. However, everything should be conducted in accordance with the monastic tradition. It is also important that theoretical knowledge and the practical experience of spiritual life should be gained simultaneously.

- The abbot’s credibility, good and warm relationships among the inhabitants of the monastery – these are the main factors of the spiritual prosperity of the monastery. How can an abbot earn this credibility?

- If the brethren see his sincere concern for them and if this reflects in some practical deeds, for example, if he is patient to their weaknesses and sometimes covers these weaknesses with his love, or even hides them from others – then all of these dispose to believe such an abbot and to seek help and support from him. This unites the brotherhood as well.

- Today, people speak a lot about the restoration of the ancient monastic traditions. What do you think, what do the words “restoration of the ancient monastic traditions” mean in terms of the modern world and modern monasteries?

- Perhaps, it would be better to say "monastic" traditions, instead of "ancient" traditions. Indeed, there are traditions that existed in ancient times, but today they are not typical for us. It may concern the clothing or any other thing. At the same time, there are traditions that are constant and set for all time. These traditions are connected with the vows, which all the monastics make, with their relationships with each other and with the abbot. These traditions must be firm and must be observed at all times. It is important that these traditions should be restored not just in words, but in spirit. We should know that there is a spiritual filling behind the external form. Restoration is possible only in case the monastics will gain necessary spiritual experience, which can help them to understand this or that tradition and to follow it in their lives.

- Monastic life implies some sort of solitude. A large number of pilgrims, who want to pray together with the brethren and to communicate with them, often visit our monasteries. Thus, they become stronger spiritually and keep their strength. How can we preserve the balance between the necessity to live in seclusion from the world and the necessity to spend time with those who come to the monastery?

- The abbots and the abbesses should be especially attentive to these questions. If we find out from the confessions of the brethren that the visitors have bad influence on the life of the monastery, then it is necessary to regulate this somehow, to establish certain restrictions. Here we can recall the experience of the Greek monasteries and the monastery in Suroti, where St. Paisios of Mount Athos reposed. Because of the ever increasing number of pilgrims, it was decided there to limit the flow of people, so that the sisters could rest and spend some time in seclusion. There is a practice, according to which the monastery is closed for the outer visitors in fasting days. Not all people agree with such a decision, but this rule is necessary for the monastery. This is why everyone should be attentive to this and obey.

- Is a poor health condition an obstacle for a person who wants to come to a monastery?

- It is knows that sometimes people come to monasteries when they are about to die. And the Lord extends their lives not just for one year, but for many years and even for decades. Everything depends on the inner condition of a person. In the life stories of saints we can see the examples showing that ill people – and St. Pimen in particular – do not become a burden for monasteries. On the contrary, the brethren, who serve them, have a great possibility to attain many virtues, such as patience and love to a neighbor. The only thing which is important again, is that it should be a calling. It should be not just a person’s desire, but God’s calling.

- Is there a large difference between male and female monasticism?

- Yes, just like a man differs from a woman. This is defined by our nature; our emotional and mental abilities are different. But it does not mean that someone is wiser and someone is less intelligent. Elder Paisios said that mental activity is more typical for men, while their heart does not work in some cases, when it is actually needed. In case of women, their heart and emotions are involved more, while their mind stays away. And our goal is to be a harmoniously developed person, so that our heart and our mind work together. This is why in women's convents there should be less physical activity than in monasteries. The nature itself tells us about the necessity of such a division. At the same time, both monasteries and convents are intended to shape the perfect person for the Kingdom of Heaven – the place, where there is there is neither male nor female.

There are also some external moments: it is natural for the sisters from the convents to decorate everything. There is always many flowers and the order is kept everywhere. At the same time, in men’s monasteries something is always overlooked, everything is more ascetic.

- What do you think, can modern monks acquire the teachings written by the Holy Fathers of the first millennium? Can they understand their spirit and accept these teachings in the right way?

- The Lord is always the same. As far as a person becomes stronger in his spiritual life and purifies his heart, he can better understand the holy fathers. You know that the books of Dostoyevsky or any other soviet author who wrote on spiritual topics are perceived in a different way over the years. However, when you read spiritual literature, you can understand it better and deeper in case you gain new spiritual experience.

- Secularism is the foe of monasticism. How can we withstand this process of entry of the world into a monastery?

- This is the concern of the abbot. He must be attentive to himself and strive to live spiritually, to preserve his heart and to stay in a prayerful state. If an abbot lives like this, then he will manage to see the danger, which threatens his monastery, and the ways of how to overcome this danger.

- Your Grace, thank you for this interview.

Source: http://monasterium.by/publikatsii/intervyu/intervyu-s-episkopom-borisovskim-i-marinogorskim-veniaminom-o-monasheskoy-zhizni/



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