Monks’ Friendships Amongst Each Other

Monks’ Friendships Amongst Each Other

Friendship: There is a significant difference between friends and acquaintances within a monastery. The relationship between monks within a monastery is a relationship of spiritual love and brotherhood and it is not proper to refer to it as a mere friendship. It is not possible for a monk to befriend all the monks within his monastery, but rather he can choose a small number of monks to befriend – one or more monks who have a common goal, are united in their way of thinking and in their personal characteristics and behaviours. They would be close to each other in times of illness or if either of them are passing through distress or a tribulation. Their relationship may also involve disclosing some but not all of their privacies to each other.

There are many characteristics with which a friend is adorned, St. Maximus mentions some of them in various points:

1.        A close friend is one who stands by his friend during times of adversity in enduring hardships, trials, and calamities, viewing these issues as if they were his own, without being disturbed and without complaining.

2.        A faithful friend is like a solid secret, because if his friend experiences prosperity and abundance, he has the best advisor and the best collaborator. And if he experiences distress, he has the best helper and the dearest friend.

3.        Those who follow God’s commandments meticulously…are the only ones who do not abandon their friends if God permits for them to be tempted. As for those who despise God’s commandments, they join their friends if their friends are prosperous, and then they forsake them if they fall into distress. They often forsake them and side with their enemies.

Friendships and their Influences on the Monastic Council

Although monastic life in its essence is solitude and distancing oneself from everyone in order to be connected to God, nevertheless, we do not deny that with the emergence and progression of monastic gatherings inside and outside the monasteries, friendships emerged between the monks. Hence, friendship in monastic councils has a serious impact, whether on the monastic council as a whole, or the monk who loves to sit and converse with them. Undoubtedly, the conversations and behaviour of friends affects the individual. You can learn about the personality of any monk through your knowledge of the friends with whom he deals.

As a result, the early church fathers of monasticism highlighted the importance of this in their sayings:

St. Mari Isaac the Syrian said: “The conversation of the virtuous and the wise counselor are a fortress of hope.”

St. Abba Pakhomious said: “If you are unable to be rich in God, then cling to the one who is rich in Him, so that you may be happy through his happiness and learn how to walk according to the Gospel’s commandments. If you love the pure, they will be your friends, and with them you will reach the city of God, which is filled with light.”

An elderly monk once said: “If an active monk resides in a place with monks who are inactive, he will not succeed unless he controls himself and does not recess; thus he will be deserving of a good reward. As for the idle monk who resides among the perseverant and the active, if he pays attention, he will walk forward and will not recess.”

Another elderly monk said: “Whoever gathers with brothers who are active, even if he himself is inactive if he does not move forward he will not fall behind. Similarly, whoever gathers with brothers who are negligent, even if he is active, if he does not lose he will not win. Let him who falls rise up lest he perish, and let him who rises preserve himself lest he fall.”

Another elderly monk said: “If you walk with a good companion from your cell to your church, he will advance you by six months. And if you walk with a bad companion from your cell to church, he will recess you by a year. The Holy Bible teaches us, “Do not be deceived; “Evil company corrupts good habits.”” (1 Corinthians 15:33)

Types of Friendships

There are many types of friendships that vary according to the goals and behaviours of each group, however, they can be divided into two types of friendships:

The first type of friendship is called the materialistic friendship and it is centred on worldly or tangible matters: This type of friendship arises between monks at the start of their monastic life. The focus of this type of friendship involves tangible matters such as eating together, gathering in laughter, good times, and taking walks together, passing the time, or anything like that. This type of friendship is usually not beneficial for a monk as it can involve criticism of the monastery’s officials, objection to the policies of the monastery’s officials, criticism of behaviour and actions of the monastery’s monks, sarcasm, gossip, and backbiting of others. After the conclusion of these types of sessions, the monk returns to his cell to find that he is overcome by laziness, boredom, and restlessness, which may lead to spiritual apathy throughout his spiritual life. As such, St. Mari Isaac the Syrian warned against this, saying, “Do not be a friend of the person who loves to laugh and who likes to receive from people and defame them, because he will lead you to become accustomed to be slack.”

The monk may continue in these relationships for a short or a long period of time until he recovers from them after he realizes their harmful effect on the salvation of his soul as well as the futility of such friendships in the life of monasticism. These friendships often do not last long, because disagreements will soon arise between their members due to the ego of either individual, feelings of restriction or uneasiness or the inability to remain committed to the friendship, especially in light of the shallow basis on which these types of friendships are founded.

These forms of friendships symbolize the house that is built on sand and has no foundation. When the winds arrive, they bring this house down to rubble – it falls and its fall is great. Therefore, if any disputes arise upon these friendships, they end up falling and dissolving, because they are only bonded by shallow materialistic and worldly means that are close to annihilation.

St. Barsanuphius warns one of his spiritual children who asked him about this: A brother asked an elder: Should someone establish a friendship with a brother his age? The elder responded, “It is good for no one to have a friendship with a brother his own age, because friendship drives away spiritual lamentation. As for you, do not befriend anyone who will make you lose your spiritual lamentation because losing this will cause you great harm. Without toil and mourning, no one can acquire anything good. Train your eyes not to turn to anyone, and protect your heart from dangerous conduct that leads a monk to lose all his fruits.” The saint continues his conversation, saying, “People in their youth should be very cautious in everything, because Satan is swift to trap them. First of all, when they sit together and begin to talk about what is beneficial to the soul, their conversation soon leads to quarreling, deceit, laughter, slander, and many other types of evil, thus fulfilling what was said by St. Paul the Apostle, “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)It is for this reason that they fall because of their obsession with friendship. Their brotherly love for each other is limited to refraining from criticizing each other, getting angry with each other, or belittling each other…”

There are also other types of worldly friendships that cause the downfall or perishing of any monk, one of which is for the monk to have friendships with lay people. A monk may forsake the friendship of his fellow monks to search for other friendships outside of the monastery – with the laypeople or the guests who visit the monastery. In this state, the monk becomes as one of the laypeople but in the attire of a monk. The monk’s behaviour begins to change into the behaviour of laypeople, and his conversations change from spiritual topics into worldly topics and issues. These types of friendships completely destroy the monk’s spiritual life, and if they continue, they will destroy whatever he has left of monasticism.

The elder monks always caution their spiritual sons the monks from mingling with laity. St. Theofan the ascetic says, “Life within the monastery is difficult for those who want to live in the company of laypeople.”

St. Anthony said, “Do not mingle with secular people in general.”

Another church father said, “Do not befriend a commander in chief.”

Another elderly monk said, “Do not befriend a young man and do not hate anyone.”

St. Anthony said, “Do not talk to a boy in his youth, do not befriend him whatsoever, do not associate with him in general, and do not be hasty to ordain him as a monk.”

St. Eklimakous said, “He who loves to mingle with people will not be able to dedicate time for himself, as such, he becomes a hindrance for himself.”

St. Mari Isaac the Syrian said, “He who lacks arrogant friends lacks distress.”

Abba Isaiah said, “Be careful not to acquire friends for yourself from among the worldly leaders, so that God does not distance Himself from you.”

The second type of friendship is called the spiritual friendship, and it is centred on everything that is spiritual. This type of friendship is formed among the group of monks, as it transcends from materialistic friendships to spiritual matters. Its basis is the contemplation of the Holy Bible or any spiritual topics, memorization of hymns, or any sacred spiritual conversation about any spiritual topics. In general, these friendships are always composed and united by the Holy Spirit, like the harp that plays sweet melodies and produces spiritual words and sounds that please and refresh the soul.

The bond of this sacred friendship increases with the passage of days and years, because its foundation and establishment is the Lord Christ, because He says, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Even if the forces of evil try to shake such friendships, wanting to destroy them for their purity and holiness, they will never be able to do so (1 Corinthians 13:8) Even if some disagreements arise between the monks due to the seed of Satan, these disagreements will soon disappear and everything will return to its normal course thereafter; rather, the love between them will be refined and become all the more stronger.

Such friendships are widespread among monks within monastic councils, and they are encouraging to the monk and a strong motivation for him on the monastic path. These spiritual sessions may involve raising a specific spiritual topic that relates to an individual monk in the group, and through conversations and discussion, his thoughts and his ways are corrected without anyone noticing anything. Therefore, these friendships protect the monk from deviating intellectually or becoming spiritually sluggish. They also protect the monk from any right-wing blows directed by Satan the enemy of goodness, to destroy the monk. If opinions differ among members of the monastic group, and they do not agree on a specific spiritual opinion, they go to seek guidance from one of the monastic elders in the monastery or from the father of confession to take the most prime response from him.

St. Paul of Tammoh elaborates on this, saying, “If you choose a trustworthy friend and he accepts you as a friend, if you are weak then he will strengthen you and make you brave; he will make you a hard worker, and he will become for you a sold fence and a strong support that will help you. He will be for you like a shading tree, where you can rest from all your labours. You will have strength, steadfastness, and solace in your hardships, and you will find him bearing all your burdens in your hardships; if you cast all your burdens on Him, He uplifts them from you.”

St. Stephen of Thebes also says, “If you choose a friend, let him be a believer whose deeds are better than yours, a person who loves God, who is not preoccupied with the things of this world that drown people…be a friend to the poor, to the lover of God, to the humble, to the stranger who preserves his sojourn, to the one who is girded with the fear of God, and to the poor who carries the cross and puts a guard over his mouth, (Psalm 40:3). O my son, be a friend to all who fear God.”

These friendships are characterized by the fact that they inflame the heart with love for God. After each monk departs to his cell, having received a tremendous spiritual charge, he stands to pray with joy, consolation, and contemplation without getting restless or bored. He yearns that his prayer would not end; if he opens the Bible, he does not want to close it. Rather, whenever he finishes a chapter, he begins the next one, and continues this way for extended periods of time. The monk may return to his cell with a verse that he liked or a spiritual topic that was brought up while conversing with his friendly fellow monks. The spiritual thoughts prevail in the monk’s mind and continue with him for many hours to the point where if he tries to overcome those thoughts in order to take a short nap to rest prior to midnight prayers and praises, he cannot overcome them until the midnight bells ring and he goes to church to pray.

A few negligent monks stand against these friendships in the monasteries, they mock those who have these types of friendships, with words of sarcasm; sometimes they may label them as crazy. As these spiritual individuals are being ridiculed, they slip into the kingdom of heaven. In this regard, St. Abba Timothy says, “If you befriend God, everyone will rise up against you and put their heel on your head; however, at the end they will adorn you with a wreath of rubies and a royal crown they will place upon your head.”

Fr. Joseph mentions the means that lead to a continued friendship:

First: Disdaining temporal matters and despising everything we possess because it is wrong to care about the vanities of the world and such matters more than we care about the most valuable things, which is love for one’s neighbor...

Second: Every human being should cut off his desires and not think of themselves as wise and experienced, refraining from favouring their own opinions to those of his neighbor.

Third: He also needs to know that everything - even what seems useful and necessary - takes second place after the blessing of love and peace.

Fourth: He must ensure that he doesn’t get angry whether in good faith or for a vile reason.

Fifth: He should try to heal all of his brother’s anger towards him, even if it is without reason, in the same way in which he would like to get rid of his anger against his brother. Also, that he may know that his brother’s anger against him is as evil as his own anger against his brother, so he should exert all his energy to completely exclude anger from his brother’s mind.

Finally, and what is undoubtedly decisive: the monk must realize everyday that he has left this world. This not only inhibits anger from lingering, but also controls all movements of desires and sins of all kinds.

Friendship with God – the Friend Who is Closer than a Brother

The monk continues his spiritual friendships with the monks for a long time, through which his spiritual life grows, and his love for God deepens. Here, God intervenes to wean the monk even from these spiritual friendships, so that God becomes the only one in his life – God is the friend Who is closest than the brother. God becomes to him the only source from which he draws his satisfaction and consolation.

One of the elders expressed this and said: “The Shunammite woman and her husband received Elisha in their home.... The fathers liken the Shunammite woman to the soul, and Elisha to the Holy Spirit, and they say that at any time the soul distances itself from materialistic relationships, the Holy Spirit visits it, and it becomes capable of giving birth even if it is barren.

It is necessary for a monk who is immersed in his friendship with God without anyone else participating in this special friendship, not to have disagreements with any of his brothers in the monastery, lest his friendship with God be a type of introversion or incorrect isolation, which can cause him psychological illnesses. St. Abba Timothy says, “If you want to be God’s friend, do not make anyone sad, even if they insult you the most. Rather, leave the matter to God.”

What encourages the monk and motivates him to bond with the One (God) includes several things, among which are:

1.        Being solely satisfied with God: After the monk spends a period of time seeking his spirituality through spiritual friendships with fellow monks, he finds that he is still in spiritual need of God, because he did not feel spiritual satisfaction. He then begins searching for the source of true satisfaction that quenches his need, and he finds none other but God alone. This will lead him to drift away from others, as he becomes unbound from the bonds of spiritual friendships with his brothers the monks, replacing it with friendship with God alone, in whom he finds the true satisfaction of his entire being and life within the monastery.

2.        Old Age and the love of spending time in one’s cell: With the passage of time and years in a monk’s life in the monastery, he ages and the amount of work that he is required to do either decreases, or he would be completely exempted from it if the monastic council feels that this type of work is not suitable for this elderly monk. As such, he would have more time to spend in his cell without leaving except when necessary. In this, a stronger relationship develops between him and God, and it becomes a close friendship. The monk delights in talking to God always in prayer, hearing His voice through His words and in constantly reading the Holy Bible. As a result of not leaving his cell often, a monk’s relationship with others diminishes and gradually fades, while inside the cell his relationship with God is strengthened, and without the monk realizing it or even pretending – his friendship with the monks is replaced by his friendship with God.

3.        God’s faithfulness in His friendship: Every day that passes by the monk, he experiences in it God’s faithfulness towards him. As a monk, how many times has he made a covenant with God, to live for Him and not to commit sin, but he broke this promise. Despite all the evils, sins, and betrayals that he committed towards God, he still finds God’s mercies pursuing him in order to renew the covenant again. On the other hand, if a monk breaks a covenant with a friend of his, the relationship will be restored but not as it used to be, rather it will be a calculated and a sensitive relationship. Furthermore, he feels God’s many gifts and blessings for him, which God bestowed upon him and which he did not possess before his betrayal to God, for he recites, “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more…” (Romans 5:20)

The monk notices God’s infinite love and holy faithfulness, in complete contrast to his own lacking love for God and his frequent betrayal of Him. He also compares God’s love to the fluctuations in the love between friends – their dishonesty in promises and in the friendship as a whole. All of this pushes him to abandon everything and become attached to the One Who is closer to him than his brother. What is even more astonishing is that God allows some disagreements between the monk and his brothers, so that the monk may liberate himself of any connection, even if it is with his fellow monks in the monastery, in order to be linked to the One friend, who is God. Here, the monk achieves the true and main goal of monasticism, as St. Mari Isaac the Syrian said “Dissolution from all, to be connected with The One.”