A Community Experiment: The Meaning of Monasticism According to Mar Gregorios / John D. Kunnathu


Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios speaks about monasticism in three of his most important books: Freedom and Authority (p. 136-162), Human Presence ((p. 106-111), and A Light Too Bright, The Enlightenment Today (p. 223-236). Fr. Paul Verghese (The earlier name of Paulos Mar Gregorios) was invited by the Lutheran seminaries in the United States to give the Hein Lectures in 1968. The lectures were put together to publish the book, The Freedom of Man in the United States. Later the material of this book was modified and expanded for the situation in India, and was published as Freedom and Authority in 1974 by CLS and ISPCK . In 1979 the World Council of Churches called a world conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in USA on Faith, Science and the Future of Humanity. Attended by about 500 physical scientists, and about the same number of social scientists and theologians, this conference was chaired by none other than Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios. The conference, which preceded five years of preparation, lasted seven days. Human Presence was authored by Mar Gregorios as a preparation for the conference, giving the Christian theological basis for an approach to the Environment problem from the Eastern Orthodox perspective. A Light Too Bright, The Enlightenment Today, first published by the State University of New York Press in 1992, is an assessment of the values of the European Enlightenment and a search for new foundations. All these three books speak about a new civilization that needs to be built based on a new worldview in the place of the present decadent one. Such an attempt needs to begin with a community of pioneers who will test this worldview in their monastic community life. What follows is a summary of what Mar Gregorios speaks about this monastic community experiment in these three books.
In addition to these three books, a short article on Monasticism in Malayalam entitled “Sanyaasajeevitham Enthinuvendi?” was also found in the collected works of Mar Gregorios —Sneham, swaathanthryam, puthiya maanavikatha (p. 628-631). This article originally appeared in a souvenir of The Bethlehem St. Mary’s convent in Kizhakambalam in 1971. Mar Gregorios speaks about the meaning of monasticism in this article.
Mar Gregorios presents before us the basic principles of monasticism citing examples from the pre-Christian Qumran monasticism and from the fourth century Christian monasticism. He also makes an evaluation of the modern monastic movements in India using the basic principles. Finally he presents before us a detailed plan of a new monastic movement that can experiment a new worldview that can become the foundation of a new civilization.
The Early Christian Monasticism
Monastic lifestyle was in existence even before Christ as evidenced in the Qumran communities. The life and teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ were very much influenced by the Qumran communities. Christian Monasticism developed later as a movement in Egypt in the fourth century. We will see the characteristics of this early Christian monasticism as explained by Mar Gregorios.
One characteristic of early Monasticism is its anti-clerical temper. The Qumran monks were opposed to the temple and priesthood in Jerusalem. The Christian monks in the fourth century Egypt were laymen, and they were opposed to becoming a priest or a bishop. Another characteristic of Christian monasticism was spiritual athleticism. Influenced by the stoic ideal of apatheia, they strove to keep passions under control. However, the primary characteristics of Christian monasticism was its struggle against the devil and its eschatological orientation.
The Devil is non-being. Jean Paul Sartre explains in his Being and Nothingness that it is possible to exist without being. The devil’s basic characteristic is to lie and hate, which is the opposite of truth and love. Mar Gregorios quotes Paul Eudokimov, who describes three manifestations of the devil: parasitism, imposture, and parody. The devil lives as a parasite on the being created by God. He dissimulates the divine attributes, substituting equality for resemblance. He also parodies the creator, and constructs his kingdom without God. The Qumran monks and the Christian monks engaged in a battle against the devil in his own territory, symbolized by deserts and jungles. Evil for the church fathers was not a philosophical problem but a real one. They fought evil in one’s own self and then in their society. Christ himself modelled this pattern in his life. He fought the devil in private with fasting and prayer before he went public. Even during his ministry, he spent his nights in prayer to gain the power to combat evil during the daytime. If we go to fight with the devil outside us before overcoming him inside us, we become tools in his hands.
Eschatological orientation was another characteristic of Christian monasticism. It refused to identify the kingdom of God with the earthly kingdoms. When the church was free in the fourth century, it was widely believed that the kingdom of God had already realized. The empire of Rome was believed to be the Kingdom of God, and the pope of Rome claimed to be the representative of Christ. The monk protested against this view, pointing to the transcendent kingdom, whose values were not comfort, wealth, or popularity, but love, joy, peace, patience, and simplicity.
Indian Christian Monasticism
Mar Gregorios rightly points out that the Christian monasteries (ashrams) in India were patterned after the Hindu Ashrams such as Shantiniketan of Tagore, Sevagram of Gandhi, Aurovile in Pondicherry by Aurobindo, Ramanashrama in Tiruvannaamalai by Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna mutts, and Theosophical Society in Adayar.
The Christian Ashrams that sprang up include Christukula Ashram in Tirupattur by Dr. E.F. Paton, Christa Sishya Ashram in Tadagam near Coimbatore by Bishop Pakenham Walsh, CPSS Ashram in Poona by Fr. Jacob Winslow, Bethel Ashram in Tiruvalla, by Sisters Edith Neve and Rachel Joseph, and Kodaikanal Ashram Fellowship by Dr. Keithan. These Ashrams began and grew around a non-Indian personality, and therefore, they failed to take root in the Indian soil. Moreover, they lost their vitality with the disappearance of the charismatic non-Indian leader.
However, Christavashram at Manganam, Christa Santhi Sangh in Khatmandu, and Christa Panthi Sangh in Sihora are of Indian origin, with the initiative of Syrian Christians with Anglican or Marthoma church affiliation.
These ashrams couldn’t be successful because they couldn’t create genuine corporate community and because they were operating with the western evangelical theology and with activism based on that. Mar Gregorios observes that Indians, especially the Syrian Christians in India, are poor at creating genuine community. They either blindly follow a leader, or they quarrel with each other as individualists. The western Christian monastic movement in general has been declining due to a major reason — the monks and nuns have begun to feel that they have been exploited as cheap labour by the church.
Mar Gregorios further observes that the Christian ashrams in India are severely handicapped in their intellectual limitations as well as in their lack of access to the depths of the Christian spiritual tradition. There had been few among the monks with the intellectual capacity to unravel either the Christian thought or the western secular thought. Other than having some knowledge of English, they had no access to the continental European or other non-English ways of thinking. Indian Christian monasticism hasn’t produced any substantial Christian literature of any kind. Mar Gregorios feels that the Syrian Orthodox church of India is responsible for this situation. It still remains closed to the truly creative and dynamic depths of the oriental Christian heritage. Syrian orthodox church had not produced any theologian competent enough to appropriate the depths of the eastern tradition and communicate it to the others.
Mar Gregorios concludes his survey of the Indian monasticism suggesting that we need to learn from its successes and failures, and using the lessons, we need to reinstate a new kind of Ashram.
The Monastic Experiment Proposed by Mar Gregorios
We will explore the proposal of Mar Gregorios under the questions why, who, how long, what, and how.
1. Why do we need a new monastic community?
Mar Gregorios lived in a world that witnessed so many freedom struggles. He saw that a new civilization was emerging in which people will have freedom. However, he humbly withdrew from providing a design of the new civilization. He said:
If the essence of free humanity could be put down in words before it actually comes into existence, then it would be neither free nor therefore human. For man’s authentic existence has to be lived out first before it is described. (Freedom .. p. 136)
That is what the early Christian monks did.
The monk did not peddle a pot of message, but by severe contempt of the values of a smug society he paved the way for a new world, built on discipline and self-control. (Freedom …p. 136)
Mar Gregorios invites the laymen and laywomen of the present time to become the monks of this era. They have to show contempt of the values of a decadent civilization by creating a new one in daring and pioneering.
In the new civilization, the arbitrary authority (like that of a king) will be replaced by persuasive authority (like that of a shepherd or a parent). The persuasive authority of a self-sacrificing leader needs to be experimented in monastic community.

Our decadent civilization in its quest for certainty tried to conceptualize what ultimately exists, but failed miserably. As Gregory of Nyssa has shown, the true being of all that exists is nothing less than the dynamic will of God, which we cannot conceptualize. We can approach God only in worship and adoration which uses the whole body, of things and actions, of emotion and will, and of trans-conceptual expressions. Such a holistic approach to the transcendent needs to be experimented in the monastic community.
Today in our decadent civilization, each race, sect, linguistic group, and nation defends its own tradition over against those of the others. Humanity can develop a new vision and create a new civilization only if it develops an awareness of its common heritage. We need to unite our traditions and hold them together with their successes and failures as our common heritage. Although we need to be fully open to the common heritage, we have to stand firm within the community and its tradition within which we were born and brought up. The new monastic community has to experiment this.
Growth of humanity in freedom requires disciplined community life. It begins in one’s own family for all people where they learn self-control and develop conscience. The training continues in school, church, etc. A monastic community has to be an ideal community that makes sure that its members are given the best training for them to grow in freedom. At this point Mar Gregorios deals in some detail with the question of the repression of our passions. He agrees with Marcuse that a mere repression of passions cannot give us victory over passions. He calls for a balance between the reality principle and pleasure principle as expressed between social control and personal initiative, work and play, labour and leisure, prayer and humour, study and artistic creativity, fasting and feasting, and mutual acceptance and honest criticism. They will learn strict and joyful self-control of the instinctual drives, without which there is no freedom.
The monastic setup with its rules and regulations constitutes the structure of monastic life. However, we need to remain vigilant lest the structures we create enslave us. Once a structure serves its purpose, we need to discard it, and we need to create another one that suits the purpose. The scriptures, the rituals, fasts, liturgical year etc. are raw materials for building structures. A structure is like a wooden frame necessary or making reinforced concrete. Without such a frame the concrete cannot take the desired shape. Once the concrete gets solidified, the frame is of no use. Scriptures or traditions are not necessary for a full-grown saint, but they are necessary during the growth process. The long-term goal should be the ultimate freedom of man in history when all people have become free and mature needing no structures, all people fully committed to the welfare of all, and all people using their disciplined power, love and wisdom for the whole of humankind.
2. Who should be the participants?
In Freedom and Authority (1974) Mar Gregorios called for an Ashram that has all the three sections of Christianity— Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestants. It should have members from India as well as from abroad (p 160). He further says that the community has to be international and interracial (p147). There could be celibate communities and married communities within the same complex. They will have a leader on a rotation system. In Human Presence (1978), Mar Gregorios calls for an interdisciplinary, intercultural, interreligious community of mature, capable, charismatic people. (p.106). He suggests that Christians may take the initiative to create such a community, which should be open to others as well. It is possible to create sub communities within the community to accommodate people of various religious traditions. Maximum variety with maximum community should be the ideal. Mar Gregorios explains why the community needs to be multi-religious as follows:
The community could be multi-religious in its composition, and part of the community’s program will be to foster the higher elements in each religion and to promote respectful mutual understanding among the religions and the secular people. Its handling of the religious life of the different groups within it as well as its devising some common forms of worship and ritual could make a major contribution to the life of the larger society. (A Light Too Bright p. 229)
3. How long should they stay together?
Mar Gregorios suggests that there needs a core group with lifelong commitment , and others with a short-term commitment of at least three years (Freedom … p147). He suggests five to ten years as the time period such a community may exist (Human presence p78)
4. How should they live?
They will evolve a healthy community life with simplicity, doing manual labour, not fearing poverty, open to the cultural and religious sensitivities of others, and open to the world outside. They will have a meaningful spirituality as the basis of this lifestyle with prayer, meditation, worship, and sacraments, with loving service with self-sacrifice, overcoming aggressiveness and acquisitiveness, and by being transparent to each other and to the transcendent.
The community and its members should be free from attachment to property. Our identity should not be based on what we have but on what we are. It is not enough to have everything in common for the community members, but the community may not own its means of production. Just as private ownership is limited, privacy itself should be limited in community life. It is absolutely necessary to have a private realm for meditation and prayer. Jesus, who spent several hours in private prayer before he went out to the public, needs to become our model.
Mar Gregorios suggests that the approach of the early monks in their battle against the Devil needs to be emulated in our times as well.
The monastic community proposed here has to be aware of an evil will in the universe which desires our non-being. We have to fight against it. (Freedom…. P.158)
He also suggests that their example of fighting the devil within oneself before fighting the devil outside must be strictly followed. We should not jump into social activism before we attain freedom within ourselves.
5. What should they do?
They need to engage in serious and informed study and reflection on the problems that confront humanity today. They also need to participate fully in the life and struggles of the community around them, taking an active role its political, social, religious, and cultural life.
The community must be actively engaged in production such as agriculture, industrial, and diaconal, which include health, education, welfare, communication, art, music, research etc. The production should be oriented to serve others, and not accumulate profits. All members should participate in the productive activities, but no one should be required to spend more than four hours a day on such activities. The community needs to find new ways of doing agriculture, industrial production, and diaconal activities— new ways of educating people, new ways of caring for their health, new art, music and literature related to the contemporary human situation, new and inexpensive professional services easily accessible to the poor. The community would also engage in research on the structures of exploitation and injustice in society. Mar Gregorios gives a strict warning regarding the activities of a monastic community as follows:
The community’s activities will have to come from its own deep convictions, but not for the sake of feeling missionary or effective. Such actions will be authentic actions springing out of the true being of the community, even if they fail to achieve anything. (Freedom .. P. 162)
In a letter to his friends in 1969, Fr. Paul Verghese expressed his wish for a monastic life:
I need to withdraw for a while to a disciplined community of solitude, reflection and prayer. I see quite clearly that overcoming self is the greatest victory a man can win. I also see that I myself am not making much progress there; neither do most of the people I see around me in the world. The toughness of a disciplined and strong human will is the ingredient without which there cannot be any real salvation for society or individual, and that will can be shaped best in a modern monastic community.
Although Mar Gregorios had this intention deep down in his mind, never had he had a chance to materialize it. Therefore, though he clearly presented a plan for a modern monastic movement, it is yet to happen. Let us hope and pray that someone will have the vision and the will to take initiative to materialize this vision of this great soul.
² Gregorios, Paulos Mar. (1987). Human Presence. Amity House: NY.
² Gregorios, Paulos Mar. (1992). A Light Too Bright, The Enlightenment Today. Albany: State University of New York Press.
² Verghese, T. Paul. (1970). The Freedom of Man. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
² Verghese T. Paul . (1974). Freedom and authority. Madras: CLS
² Varghese, T. Paul. (1971). Sanyaasajeevitham enthinuvendi? Kizhakkambalam: Bethlehem St. Mary’s convent souvenir. Sneham, Swaathanthryam, Puthiya Maanavikatha (2006). P. 628.
² A Letter to friends (1969). Retrieved from Paulosmargregorios.co.in