His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
from his book, Encountering the Mystery
In comparing monasticism to a vocation of freedom and love, the Orthodox Church closely relates it to the sacrament of marriage. Celibacy and marriage are not contrasted with each other; instead, both are compared to and directed to the love of God. In this respect, monasticism is regarded as correlative and complimentary to marriage. After all, the power of love can never be quenched; it can only be fulfilled. Thus, monastic chastity is complete in love, just as the sacrament of marriage is consummated in love. It is, therefore, unfortunate that centuries of negative connotations ascribed to the monastic way have contributed to a devaluation of marriage, as if the celibate life were somehow more pleasing to God or more spiritually fulfilling than marriage.
For the Church Fathers, love cannot be achieved without abstinence; chastity is impossible without charity (Gregory of Nyssa). Human “passions must be raised heavenward” by means of spiritual discipline and ascesis (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection). Even the most passionate love becomes “divine and blessed” (Gregory Palamas, Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts). There is no aspect of human life and no quality of human nature that cannot be transformed and redirected, through prayer and ascesis, into a divine purpose and toward a spiritual goal.
In this regard, monasticism is a way of love, which is no less and no more than the way of the Christian Gospel, no different from or better than the way of marriage. Human beings are made to love; they are created in the image and likeness of God, who is communion. Indeed, human beings become truly human only in relation to others. This is as true of a monk as it is of a person living in the world. Monastic withdrawal should never be an abdication of social responsibility. Basically, like marriage, monasticism is a sacrament of love; yet it is the sacrament of mystical love, directed toward the fulfillment of the biblical command to love God and one’s neighbor. It is love that’s greater than any human achievement of spiritual virtue. The living experience of love advances us to spiritual maturity, much more so than the severest ascetic discipline. The flame of love is what preserves the world alive. A single person burning with love can bring about the reconciliation of the whole world with God (see Gen. 18). This is what the Eastern Christian mystics speak of divine Eros, which consumes and directs one’s entire being toward divine love. Encountering the mystery of love is the goal of the spiritual life, for the monk and the married person.
Thus, for the Orthodox Church, whether one is married or whether one is celibate, one is called to struggle to transform one’s environment through love. Marriage is not idealized and monasticism is not idolized. Both can be perceived in idolatrous ways if constituting ends in themselves. Both marriage and monasticism are powerful symbolic ways of straining toward the ultimate goal of love, whether through relationships in a family and society or through prayer in one’s cell or community. The Church discerns, both through the immediate environment and within one’s own context, the love of God in the eyes of every human being and in the sacredness of the natural environment. Whether speaking of marriage or monasticism, the Orthodox Church prefers to describe it as a way of learning how to live and how to love. Marriage and monasticism matter because people matter, because love matters, and because the welfare of human beings far surpasses any legal code or spiritual ambition. This is what provides both of them with the quality of a mystical sacrament.