Friday, August 28, 2009

Monasticism, Community and the Island

Recently saw the Russian film, the Island. (not to be confused with the 2005 sci-fi action movie of the same English title.) It is about a monk and an Orthodox monastery on an Island off the coast of the North sea. It is a beautiful depiction of monasticism, community and the struggle of the spiritual life. The story revolves around hte character of Father Anatoly, and the abbot Father Filaret and Father Job, a younger monk who is also in charge of much of the daily functioning of the monastery. Father Anatoly is troubled by a grave sin he committed before he found himself in the monastery, but people come to the monastery in search of him, believing he is a holy man and attribute miracles to him, and one whose prayers are especially efficacious. But Father Anatoly is not an easy man, and usually pretends that he is the aid of Father anatoly. Father Anatoly also plays pranks on his fellow monks and doesn't always pray in the church with the monks but prays the set prayers and psalms either in his cell or out in the steppes away from the monastery. He is also the monk who tends the boiler of the monastery and lives in the boiler room. Overtime we do come to see through the harsh treatment of those who come to him, the pranks, and isolation that he is a holy man, a holy fool, and probably a Saint. In a sense through being a fictionalized account we have a story of a holy fool that is not a hagiography, and can experience the challenge of Christian holiness without the aura of knowing for sure who Father Anatoly is.

I think there are many lessons people who live or seek to live in intentional community can gain insight about the nature of intensive communal living, even if not strictly speaking monastic. The Island shows that monasticism isn't retreat from struggle but is retreat to struggle. Even that monasteries aren't the place of the perfect but of sinners, who struggle with deep rooted and often hidden sins. It also beautifully portrays the frustrations and the beauty of being tied to those who are truly other in manasticism and intentional Christian community. Living in this way with others whose quirks, sins and bodily presence, the whole person, can simply rub against ones own person in ways that can make one acutely aware of both the others failings and ones own. The temptation then is to focus on the others sins and failings ignoring ones own. or as in the case of Father Anatoly to be so convinced of ones own failure that one cannot see how God is at work in your presence in the community.

I appreciate that the film in its short vignettes of monastic life and in the depiction of the relationship between the three main characters, shows the reality and the holiness of this form of life: a holiness that does not come from the perfection of the monks but the ongoing struggle over each monks own sins and failings and of accepting God at work in each person for the good of all both those inside and outside the monastery. Things we who look to monasticism and seek to live out the Gospel in this intensive and communal way need to keep in mind in our attempts to serve God and the church in living in intentional Christian community.

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