Are you a monk? Most people would laugh if they were asked that question. “Monk” conjures up pictures of men in archaic dress who live a deeply ascetic lifestyle in a building removed from “the world.” But I wonder whether we tend to put monks and monasticism in too small a box.
I recently did a presentation about Benedictine spirituality for people in a spiritual direction training program. I suggested that “monk” is really an archetype, a concept or image that crosses time and cultures. Over centuries many cultures, faiths and religions have had some version of monks, people who put the quest for God or the divine above all else in their lives. Monks are people for whom faith is the most important thing in their lives and they structure their lives to make that seeking for God or the transcendent the focus of their lives.
This way of looking at monks and monasticism is very different from focusing on monasticism as one of many versions of vowed religious life in the Roman Catholic Church. While many of us, men and women, are vowed religious, perhaps it is time to really stretch the boundaries of the way we think about putting God at the center of our life.
Books about the spiritual life seem to be proliferating. More and more people are going to retreats, forming groups for prayer and spirituality and joining Third Orders. In a world that seems more and more secular and material there is evidence of many people who feel they are thirsting for God in the desert of our predominant culture.
So perhaps it is time for a renewal of monastic life. The first monks went to the desert to lead a more intense, dedicated Christian life after Christianity became legal and acceptable under Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. Benedict of Nursia wrote his Rule in the 6th century, a guidebook for monks who wanted to live intense Christian community at a time when the Roman Empire was falling apart. In the Roman Catholic tradition monks have continually adapted to the changing needs of the times.
Today there are still those of us who are called to go to a physical monastery and make the same life promises that Benedictines have made for over 1500 years. But there are many more people, men and women, Catholic and Protestant, single and married, who are being called to monastic life on its most fundamental level, monasticism beyond a traditional, institutional structure. Being a monk is a habit of the heart, a way of loving and a desire to seek God. Being a monk means a focus on God above all else and a commitment to walk on the narrow path of the Gospel, journeying towards transformation and taking on the full stature of Christ.
Being a monk outside the institution is not easy, but neither is being a monk inside a monastery! It is about dedication, creativity and finding the structures that help you seek Christ above all. Being a monk is about gathering with like-minded seekers and making a commitment to the struggle, to always starting over and knowing that God is with you on the journey.
It is an exciting time for the monastic way of life. New ways of being monastic are being born. There will be birth pangs and doubts, struggles and deaths as this ever ancient, always new way of life continues into the future.
Benedict begins his Rule with the word “listen.” It is an invitation, listen, are you a monk?