Q: If one desires to enter the monastic life in a few years, what could he/she do to know and learn more about the life and to prepare for it?
This is a loaded question.
This response is coming from experience and not just on whim or random opinions. All of the advice below has presupposed two things:
a) That you are truly exposing yourself to your spiritual father with full honesty and integrity about your monastic desires, that you are not hiding from him anything at all, and that you are following whatever spiritual plan/regimen with him that you have agreed upon
b) You make sure that you have a healthy understanding of marriage and do not see this Sacrament as in any way inferior to monastic life. The two are ways of salvation, but only one of them was instituted by Christ Himself.
First, monasticism is a calling, it’s a particular vocation for particular people, but it’s not an elite thing. Many people are enamored by monasticism in a very romantic sense. They have spent time reading monastic literature, they are moved by monks or bishops that they have met, or they went on a retreat and fell in love. This is all well and good, but it is insufficient reason for entering a monastery. Many of us go through “phases”, and love the external appearance of something, or the philosophy itself, but not its application. Just like we may have infatuations with people or things, the same can happen with the thought of monasticism. The best way to deal with this aspect is time.
Retreating regularly is important. Going on retreats is like “dating” before engagement. During retreats you are exposed to the monastic life. You need to do more, however, these days, than just staying in your room to pray while at the monastery. You need to actively observe the life of the monastery, the interaction of the monastic community, and the tone of both the prayers and the general ethos of the monastery. This is the same as getting to know a girl and her family. When you marry someone, you also join their family. In monasticism, yes, you are marrying Christ, but you are also entering into a household as well, and the fit might not be good. It is also possible that you may find that the life that you’re observing does not match the exterior appearance that you had seen. The more you go, the more that you get to know if the internal life of the monastery matches the external. Just as you would need at one point to accept a spouse with all beauty and flaws, you would have to make that decision with a particular monastery. It’s not something to decide in haste.
When retreating, be very careful of two things: overfamiliarity and overexposing yourself. When you get too close to fathers in the monastery, your relationship with them changes. For example, you may find yourself forming bonds of friendship meeting regularly either for walks or in some cases entering cells. This may feel very good and loving when you are visiting, but this can become a problem for you if you are one day to enter that monastery. When you are visiting it’s fine, and the monk can control his time, but you may find that you have a different style of living when you enter the monastery, and it will be difficult for you to put limits (or vice versa) and barriers on your time and social habits when you are there for the rest of your life.
Overexposing yourself is a different danger. Sometimes people visit the monastery and open up to all the monks and spill their deepest thoughts, revelations, aspects of what they believe is their calling, and other very intimate information. They may share specific struggles they are going through in their spiritual life. I am not going to comment on whether or not that is wrong, but you may find that you are embarrassed about that when the person that today is your Abouna, tomorrow becomes your brother. Furthermore, let’s say you had a vision of a saint and you felt this was part of your calling to monastic life. If you were to tell a monk in the monastery that, it could become a source of warfare for you and/or that monk if you were to enter. Monastic warfare is different than the warfare in the world, and that’s something you may not appreciate until immersed in monastic life.
These days, you need particularly to look at a monastery and see if there is a successful image of discipleship or not. Monasticism is not monasticism if there is not discipleship. You enter as a novice to learn from an elder. If there is not a spirit of discipleship, then it is probably not wise to go to that monastery, no matter how much you love it. The early monks left the world and attached themselves to an Abba in willful and voluntary obedience. Anyone can “wait long enough” in a monastery for a monastic habit, but that doesn’t make the person a monk. As the monastic adage goes, “Eldership is not by age”. You need to be well aware of that, as self-guided monasticism is extremely dangerous for your spiritual life, and may entirely break you. You also ought to reflect on your life right now and see if you live a life of discipleship, or if you are very self-willed.
Finishing school is of utmost importance, as well as working for a period of time. A person who goes to the monastery should be giving something up, not going because they want to escape or because they were not successful in the world. For that reason, finishing your education is imperative. Working for a few years also really helps. Getting work experience allows you to encounter the world and see how you react to it. It helps you develop personality and be more grounded, it helps you become a more stable individual. It also functions as a good test to see how much you love or are influenced by money. It’s one thing to be willing to go to the monastery when you already have nothing, it’s another thing to find out that you have no self-control when you are making a salary, or that you love your money. These are not deciding factors per se, but they are helpful to and telling of the person. A monk needs to be socially responsible because he lives in a community. He also needs to know if he has attachment to riches and objects because it may be difficult for him to have nothing afterwards (if he plans to be a monk in the truest sense).
Self-evaluation is important. A monk is not someone who is anti-social. A monk needs to be socially intelligent because living in community is very difficult. You ought to get some guidance and see whether or not you are able to deal with the blessings and difficulties of living in a very closed community. This is something to “think about” in your preparations. If you think that a monk is able to enter total solitude and contemplation when he enters the monastery, you may be surprised to find out that this is not the case. A monk cannot even become a hermit until he has learned to live a life of love in the community first.
At the same time, you need to examine what kind of ties you have in the world. You need to see if you are able to be alone regularly. When I say alone, I mean not just physically alone, but mentally. Are your thoughts with the world or with others? Are you able to spend hours in contemplation and silence, or do you need to be checking in with your phone or social networking apps? If you are not able to be totally alone, you need to evaluate yourself honestly and if this is a life that is really for you or not. Monasticism is being alone with the One.
Time, time and more time. The best way to determine certain things is the test of time. Time shows the stability of the thought, it shows whether or not you grow more and more in peace toward the idea. Time brings you more experiences, new thoughts, random events, all of which can affect you, and it’s important to see how those things do or do not affect you. If you see monasticism as simply a way of salvation, then you should not be upset or unhappy at whatever God has planned, because you will know that whatever He wills for you is what is perfect for you. Time opens/closes doors, thoughts, inclinations, countless things. Anything good is worth waiting for, and what you should be seeking is His will, not yours.
At all times — seek with
God’s will, and live a life of prayer. Submit yourself to Him and let Him guide you, and He will. Do not be stubborn, keep your heart open to hear His voice. The biggest comfort in a life of any specific calling, is the knowledge that God chose it for you, and not you yourself. As a spiritual father once told me, the only consolation he has when things are hard in his vocation, is that he can say to God, “My Lord, you called me to this service, I did not call myself – so please, help me!” So be honest about everything, because you are not walking a path to impress others, you are supposed to walk the path that God has deigned best for you, and to find out which path that is requires utmost honestly and self-reflection.
There are many other things to consider, but it might be best to leave it to you and to your spiritual guide to get into particulars.