THE LETTER, reproduced here, was written by a monastic spiritual father, who, when he asked for prayers for one of the sick members of his synodia, had been asked by a correspondent why it was monastics, being dedicated to God, should suffer in the same way as lay people do.
First, monastics live, get sick, and die. They are like any human being. Monastics are brilliant, of normal intelligence, and slow; they are sometimes uneducated and sometimes superbly educated; they are handsome, plain, and ugly; they are tall, normal, and short; they are thin, of medium weight, and fat; they are weak and strong; they are virgins and widows and widowers; they are healthy and unhealthy; they are gentle and they are stern; they have natural spiritual abilities and they struggle for spiritual gifts -- monastics, monks and nuns alike, are as diverse as any group of people.
As I repeatedly tell lay people, one of the worst habits in the Church is to speak of clergy and lay people or Black (monastic) and White (married) clergy as somehow distinct and thus to divide the faithful. We are, clergy and non-clergy and unmarried and married clergy, ALL the people of God. Thus, we all set an example for one another. We are all called to the same virtues and prone to the same foibles. In this common Christian witness to one another, monastics simply set (ideally, at least) a more austere standard.
If laymen are called to fast, monastics fast with them, but forgo meat at all times. If married Orthodox couples fast from the flesh during lenten days and periods (as do observant Jews, incidentally -- a fact which so many modernist Orthodox forget when decrying this ancient tradition), monastics do so all of the time. If Christians in general are called to live modestly, the wealthier giving alms to the poor, monastics are called to own nothing. If families give comfort in their love, monastics show that we can make anyone a family member through love. If life on earth can give us innocent pleasure, monastics show us that living in the spiritual world brings us more enduring pleasure. The list goes on.
If, then, monastics simply set a more rigorous example of Christian life, it stands to reason that they should give witness in resisting temptation, in enduring misfortune, and in learning to cope with physical disease and all of the ailments that, in a fallen world, befall innocent people as well as evil people, children as well as adults, and the religious as well as the irreligious.
Thus, God often inflicts the strongest and best monastics with tremendous trials, so that they can serve as an example to the weaker in spirit and body of the powers that we have at hand in spiritual life, if we simply call on them and trust in God. We can endure much more than we think. If happiness can tell us what life should be, were we not fallen creatures, adversity also serves a purpose: that of showing us what strength still survives in us, even in an imperfect world. Thus the ascetic life of monasticism aims at adversity of an instructive kind.
Second, an anthropomorphic god who punishes people with illness and rewards them with health is not the True God as we Orthodox understand Him. God is, in His essence, unknowable, beyond understanding, and beyond our very concepts of being itself. But He manifests Himself in love: in the only force in which we can grasp what is beyond our cognitive understanding. Thus, God chastises us in love, often allowing illness to befall us, in order that we might understand that life exists beyond life as we know it and to remind us that the earthly life is transitory and impermanent. Illness and the prospect of death serve this purpose well. They are not punishments; they are lessons.
At the same time, God, in His ineffable mercy, allows the spiritually strong (and especially accomplished monastics) to suffer illness, deformity, and even severe pain, so that they can increase in their communion with the spiritual world and, once again, set a good example for others. If, in our everyday lives, we can find no pattern to the chaos of suffering and disease, in the persons of gifted monastics we can see a glimpse of the order and meaning that lie within the apparent chaos, since graceful affliction contains order.
In suffering monastics (that is, in those who are worthy of this gift and spiritually strong enough to endure it), we find evidence that life is not chaotic, that order underlies the fallen chaos, and that one can grow and prosper in illness and in the worst possible circumstances. We have a glimpse, in such instances, of the superficiality of our world view and of our notions of happiness and of pleasure. We are given examples in actual men and women of the Divine power that comes from God, as well as a taste of the ultimate joy that comes from union with Him.