Full disclosure: I've never been to a convent, except for one time in high school when I gypped school and was so curious about the convent at St. Joseph that I walked straight up to the doors, bold as brass, and asked to use the restroom. They were kind enough to let me do so. I was greeted with a very cool pink-and-black checkerboard floor, and could hear beautiful voices singing prayers down the hallway. Everything I know about monasticism has come from reading or talking with those that know more than I. Rudiments of understanding. That's all I have.
I gave a talk on St. Brigid Saturday night. If you don't know about her, you should check her out! She was an amazingly generous, holy woman who founded cenobitic monasticism in Ireland. (Essentially, she was the beginning of communities of monks and nuns, rather than monks and nuns living as solitaries.) Irish monastics are responsible for the Book of Kells, preserving Western literature at crucial periods of time, things like that. This was a woman who accomplished a LOT, with long, long lasting effects.
During the talk, I forgot the word monastery. I turned to my friend and said, "You know, that place with the monks?" This is how my ex-Protestant brain works. Teflon in regard to monasticism.
I am a Christian today because of a novitiate at an abbey... or at least the movie version of one. I "asked Jesus into my heart" in 2nd grade because I was dancing around in a field of wheat as if I were Maria VonTrapp. In that moment, I realized that the wheat and sun were REAL, that God was REAL, that He made them, and I wanted Him more than anything.
I have been shocked and appalled at several different Protestant friends who have assumed that now that I am Orthodox, I will want to become a nun. I don't. I am the girl that prayed steadily throughout high school and my 20s that Jesus would NOT come back until I got to have sex!! I'm the girl who, when I rededicated my life to Christ at 16, struck this "deal" in prayer with God: "Dear God, I am all Yours. Forever. But if I am not married by the time I'm 35, I'm going to go have sex anyway. I love you. I just want You to know my plans ahead of time."
I'm not the only person who grew up Protestant who has no regard (or context) for monasticism. I grew up believing that a person is to love God, and love people. For me, loving people meant being of service to others. To be useful. And I've tried to do that.
Last summer, I was driving around the St. Louis Arch talking on the phone (I know, I know) with a former mentor of mine who is Protestant. We were arguing viewpoints about monasticism... her thoughts were identical to mine. But with her, I found myself arguing the other side. I have been told that being a monk or nun is about prayer. It is true that all Christians are called to be joyous always and pray continually. The call to pray is the same whether you are a monastic or not. In a discussion on prayer, I closely questioned a monk one day... about many things. He agreed that the call to prayer for Christians is the same, but said that monks become so because they need separation from the world to live that life. He considers being a Christian... and truly Christian... truly living a life of prayer... in the world much harder than being a monk.
And I believe he's right.
It is in Orthodoxy that I have encountered an idea that would have never occurred to my Protestant mind, that of prayer as service. That prayer itself is just as valid of a way of loving God and loving people as physical or emotional usefulness is. Until I came upon this concept and had been convinced of its truth, I had seen monasticism (and in some ways, prayer) as a wholly selfish act. But how can that be? Who has more power to serve, act, and move? Me? Or God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth?
I have heard it said that it is the prayers of monks that keep the world spinning on its axis... that we would have descended into fire long before now if not for them.They say that a person can become prayer.
Prayer... for the life of the world.
I've always prayed that God would keep me alive only as long as I still had the ability to pray. I envision myself in a bed somewhere, a shriveled, white-haired wisp of a thing. A little furnace of prayer.
So, as you see, I really have believed in prayer as service all along.
May it be ever more so.