Who in the outside world has worked wonders, raised the dead, expelled demons? No one. Such deeds are done by monks. It is their reward. People in the secular life cannot do these things, for, if they could, what then would be the point of ascetic practice and the solitary life?
~ St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 2
This statement by St. John Climacus might be scandalous to some, especially if I have any readers from a more “charismatic” strain of Christian piety. Indeed, he might be overstating his case a bit (really, “No one”?), but I find this saying, in general, to be a helpful caution.
Contrast this with the following from the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Monasticism [in the ancient and medieval period] was represented as an individual achievement which the mass of the laity could not expect to emulate. By this limiting the commands of Jesus to a restricted group of specialists, the Church evolved the fatal conception of the double standard—a maximum and a minimum standard of Christian obedience.
Bonhoeffer is reacting to a certain portrayal of the double standard, as if there were two ways of the Christian life, rather than just one. In particular, he is especially upset not about monastics per se, but at the sort of Christian who seems all too comfortable, who does not acknowledge that the grace of Christ is costly and demands one’s whole life.
Fair enough. I don’t disagree. Surely I have suffered from that very ailment myself. Lord have mercy on all of us, myself most of all.
Yet, I think Bonhoeffer’s complaint about the ancient “double standard” is something of an understandable misunderstanding. The “double standard,” recommending “ordinary” virtue for people in the world and perfection only for those who have dedicated their whole lives to the way of life, is not two ways per se but two ways of traveling the same way. That is, it is like the difference between walking and riding a bike. The person on the bike is (presumably) going to get farther faster. It is a prudential distinction, not one of principle.
I find this particularly important for a number of reasons.
First, to return to my initial point, it is good to remember that the more fantastic gifts of the spiritual life ought to be expected only in relation to the extent one actively partakes of the life of God, putting sin to death and progressing in virtue. This is the sole focus of the life of a monk or nun.
Second, it is very important to note that there is a difference between monasticism and life in the world. Monks are able to, indeed must, fast more, sleep less, pray more, and so on. People in the world, instead, trip over their children’s toys, work overtime just to make it by, celebrate all sorts of life events—birthdays, baptisms, weddings—and so on. The lives lived in each vocation are markedly different and make room for progress in the spiritual life in different ways.
This second point leads to the third. A friend of mine recently asked me whether the Orthodox Church has anyone like “St. Joe the Plumber.” The traditional conviction is that, yes, indeed there are likely very many. Many, though living in the world and though the life according to nature itself is an achievement, have managed to embody that love that is above nature and become a living flame.
Today is All Saints Day in the Orthodox Church, and by some liturgical accident, it is also the feast of the Holy Apostles. One reason we commemorate All Saints Day is to give due veneration to those many saints whose names have been forgotten. Many may have been monks, but many more, I would bet, were average people in the world, living the Christian life as best as they could given their circumstances, and yet excelling at it. Indeed, though the Holy Apostles became extraordinary ministers in the Church, even many of them were married and worked blue-collar jobs.
To give a terribly biased example, I would think of my godparents. They are both in their eighties, and both are surely living saints.
My godfather is a wonderful Dutch Opa (not to be confused with the Greek “Opa!”): exceptionally kind, calmly caring, finally affectionate. I say “finally” because in my limited experience with the Dutch many have admitted outward displays of affection to be a struggle, yet I have always thought that the Dutch grandpas excelled at it. It is as if they save it all up for their children’s children. If this does not match the situation of any particular Dutchman, the fault surely lies with my own misperception. Anyway, that’s my godfather at least.
My godmother is exceptionally pious, in all the good ways. I swear, for her every breath is a prayer. She loves and welcomes every person who comes through the door at our church, and she always remembers their names if they happen to come back. If someone needs help, she becomes their advocate. She has helped people find jobs, friends, and—in my case for sure—their spiritual homes.
Best of all, both of them are so humble. They would deny every word above. They see only their own faults, but in an admirable way, not in one laden with despair. They are hopeful people, and they love their Lord and his Church and everyone they meet and likely every blade of grass, for that matter. They are precisely the sort of people that I hope someday to be when I am their age.
Their lives, however ordinary, are achievements. Though they may never have “worked wonders, raised the dead, expelled demons” or anything else (though I would not be surprised if they had), yet their lives shine brightly and testify to the grace at work within them, simply by being the best Christians they could be as a husband and wife, father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, godfather and godmother, friend, neighbor, and so on.
One may call it a double standard, but I think being these things are wonders enough. It is too rare to find those who do it so well.