Within just a few square miles of my apartment complex you will find multiple shopping centers—flat-roofed stripmalls lined with mobile phone stores, beauty stores, electronic stores, sprawling parking lots paved over and again with different colored asphalt, a patchwork of blacks and grays and crags; you will find a number of car dealerships—BMW, KIA, everything in between; and you will find grocery stores, hardware stores, bowling alleys, and Burger King. There are neighboring apartment complexes just like mine, a branch of an evangelical megachurch, dry cleaners, movie theaters, a modern-looking Wendy’s, and boutique stores without bounds. Just across the interstate, by a CarMax dealership, a gargantuan driving range is under construction. Multiple stories. Maybe a bar and lounge area.
The earliest monks lived in caves. It was the 4th century and they saw John the Baptist—worms, rags, and ambles—as their father, as well as Christ Himself—who wandered the desert, fasted for a month, and practiced celibacy. It was important to the monks that Christ began his ministry only after the desert. The desert is quiet and not only quiet but still. The desert forces you to notice life, which to the poor observer might not exist but to the well tuned eye and ear is all around. The desert is where God spoke to Abraham. The desert is where God spoke to Moses. From the desert, God plucked Israel. There are no BMWs in the desert.
I am married. My refrigerator is full of gumbo, chicken korma, and tonight I plan on cooking a ginger- and cinnamon-spiced pork shoulder with sweet potatoes in my large Dutch oven; I never go hungry. And my apartment is full of nearly every technological device one could wish for. Hundreds of channels on the TV, not to mention more and more on Netflix. Bose speakers, laptops, every kind of kitchen appliance. The coffee I drink, on which I am nearly physically dependent, alone probably costs more than a monk’s daily rations. I have so many possessions, in fact, that, like a hermit crab when he has overgrown his shell, I must soon shed this place and rent or buy a bigger one.
They ate very simply, keeping little gardens outside their caves, or maybe subsisting off cheese and bread and water. Their caves, or as they called them their “cells,” were, as you can imagine, not filled with the day’s newest technologies. In the “Verba Seniorum” there are little parables about how to live the monastic life, like this one: A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. One imagines no television in these cells.
In the late 1960s Thomas Merton wrote a paper, which he was to share in Calcutta, about modern monasticism. He wanted there to be a dialogue between monks of the East and West, for them to learn from each other even in the midst of—and never sacrificing—their doctrinal differences. In that paper, Merton wrote that across time, culture, and doctrine, whether contemplative or mystical, intellectual or ascetic, three characteristics define what it means to be a monk: a “certain distance or detachment” from the world including “monastic solitude, whether partial or total, temporary or permanent”; a “preoccupation with the radical inner depth” of one’s soul, one’s interior spiritual life; and a “special concern with inner transformation,” the idea of a narrative of growth for the soul, that the soul is reaching for something greater than itself: enlightenment or revelation or salvation or the divine itself.
I am no theologian. I do not attend seminary and have no degree in divinity, but I read the Scriptures and I try to ask God for help in discerning them, and the more I read the teachings of Christ and, in particular, St. Paul, and the more I learn about monasticism—a growing interest of mine; in addition to the growing volumes on my bookshelf I have made a number of trips to a Trappist abbey for which, upon leaving, I immediately pine—the more I read about monasticism, and the more I experience just a taste of what monks practice, the more I believe that it is not only integral that we Christians learn from monks but that the Scriptures teach all Christians to practice a form of monasticism.
Monks practice celibacy, fasting, and the eschewing of personal possession. Jesus does not condemn marriage, but He does call for a radical chastity in the Sermon on the Mount: I say to you that whoever looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. As if His own experience in the desert was not an obvious mandate for fasting, Jesus deftly says, When you fast …. Moreover, he calls for fasting so discrete that we do not draw attention to ourselves, but rather focus on our own soul. Similarly, Jesus says, When you give to the needy …. He also says, Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth.
All the monk’s practices aim to transform and tailor the inner life. The liturgy, the forms, the calendar. And the prayer. Much of a monk’s life is spent in prayer, whether contemplative or discursive. Jesus uses the same phrase in the Sermon on the Mount when speaking of prayer: When you pray … and He of course withdraws over and over again in the Gospels, away from the crowd. Like a refrain, like liturgy.
In his letters, St. Paul writes about the interior life extensively. But I think maybe all my study and reading of Scripture, or at least of St. Paul, has taught me one single thing: to really believe the Letter to the Thessalonians when it says, Pray without ceasing.
Christian monks practice the way they do because the foundations of these practices are rooted in the teachings of Christ, and the commonality of these practices between Christian and non-Christian monks throughout the ages points toward, I think, imago dei, that the same God has made all human beings in His image, and that traces of His character exist in some degree, however warped and flawed, in all of us. The need for discipline, for silence and stillness, for the cultivating of our interior selves. The higher spiritual calling for detachment to this world—in the aim toward a greater love.
I am not called to be a monk, but I believe I am called to live a monastic life.