A Nun (portrait by Russian artist Ilya Repin, 1878)

One of the biggest blessings I have received since returning to Malaysia is getting to know Orthodox monks and nuns. One of our priests is a monk, and we typically have one or two nuns serving. They are a vital part of our small Orthodox Christian community in Malaysia.

The nuns take care of a lot of important tasks in the church. They clean, garden, and prepare food for our after-liturgy coffee hour, lead in the choir, and handle a lot of the church administrative duties. Their contributions are very valuable! When I was in America, my local church did not have any monastics serving. It fell on the parishioners to do all that work, and things were very difficult.

Even though their service to our parish is very important, the example they set for us is even more crucial. Orthodox monastics take on vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. These are very big sacrifices: a vow of obedience means not being able to decide how to live your own life. A vow of poverty means committing to living simply, and not being able to accumulate wealth or ensure your own financial security. A vow of chastity means giving up on  marriage and raising a family. When they are in monasteries, they spend all their time in prayer, in repentance and in hospitality: interceding for and serving those who are in need. For a us in this generation, obsessed with wealth, obsessed with possessions, and obsessed with ourselves, these faithful men and women are a powerful witness that a life of prayer, servanthood and self-sacrifice is possible, worthwhile, and necessary.

I remember asking once a nun serving in Singapore how long she was going to live there. She answered that she could not know- if the bishop asks her to go to Africa tomorrow, she would pack her bags immediately and go. As someone used to living a predictable, comfortable life, the idea of having so little control is really scary- may God grant me so much faith!

Their example is especially crucial in a place like Malaysia, since there is not a long tradition of  Orthodox Christianity and we have a lot of recent converts.  As Orthodox Christians we believe that thought and action are inseparable: it is not enough that we can learn Orthodox theology by reading books, we also have to learn how to behave in a Christian manner. From the example of the monastics we learn how and when to cross ourselves and to bow during services, but also how to treat one another with kindness, to serve others in a selfless manner, and to always be harsh on our own sins while showing mercy and patience when others do wrong.  With very few exceptions, the monastics that serve here don’t speak any English- but from spending time with them I have discovered that you can learn a lot from someone even when they don’t say anything.

My protestant friends have a hard time understanding monasticism. They have asked me, would it not better serve the church and the world to have a successful career and raise a healthy family? It is easy to understand their point of view. I have met monastics with law degrees and PhDs, and you could argue they are not putting those qualifications to good use. But Jesus calls all of us to serve in different ways, and all of those ways are crucial. At the core of the Christian life is the idea of dying to oneself, of loving self-sacrifice for God’s sake and for the sake of other people. This is embodied by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and this is lived out in the lives of Christians in many different ways. There is a need for faithful doctors, lawyers, teachers, workers, fathers and mothers- and they live out Christian lives of prayer, repentance, sacrifice and servanthood in their own manner. But there is also a need for people who are called to give up everything to follow Christ, in a most literal way-  those called to the monastic life have this opportunity.

As our Orthodox community in Malaysia grows, it is my hope and prayer that there will eventually be a strong Malaysian community of nuns and monks to pray for our country, to serve as a living witness to Orthodox Christians here, and eventually to bless other nations- in the same way these faithful Russian and Ukrainian monastics are a blessing to us now.