Monks, in a nutshell

By Leo Campos

“Are you a monk?” I have been asked this question many dozens of times. Sometimes the person really means “What is a monk?”, and a short conversation about monasticism ensues. At other times they mean “You are a monk?”, the tone normally surprised, especially when they see my children playing around. Of course, for some people the word “monk” (or even worse “nun”) may evoke some strange caricatures. Quite often it involves rigidity, inflexibility to some set of incomprehensible rules, and otherwordliness. To others a monk is equated with a solitary out in the desert, as if a monk was some sort of Spiritual Lone Ranger.

Regardless of the reason any conversation in monasticism usually involves a mandatory pit stop at the “But aren’t monks some sort of cloistered uber-Christians?” question. This might be said with a tone of genuine reverence for something exotic, or said with a tone of contempt reserved to those who have read their fair share of John Calvin and are suspicious of anything which might look like “papist” works-righteousness spirituality. Personally, I find that both are legitimate responses and I myself shift from one to the other like a person shifts feet while waiting for a bus on a cold day.

But having lived a vowed monastic life for years now I feel empowered to claim that spiritually the call of the monastic life is absolutely identical to the call of every Christian. If we must insist on differences between lay and religious (and perhaps ordained and all other forms of ministry), then perhaps there is a difference in intensity. It is likely that the average person living a consecrated life in a monastic community prays longer than the average non-monastic in a parish. Please note I say “average” – there are those non-monastics whose prayer life and intensity of asceticism would put many a House to shame – and they are more common than is supposed. But what is critical to point out here is that in principle, the monastic and the non-monastic follow the same form of life (or should!).

Sometimes it is useful to think of a “monastic” as someone who is leading a “consecrated life” – a life consecrated to the service of God in whatever way God designs for them. This might mean a life of seclusion and solitude, or it may mean a life of social engagement, or it may mean a life of radical prayer (radical as in radix). All of these are “lifestyles” which fall within the umbrella of a life consecrated by the Church. In a sense all of these ways of life are missionary lives, sent by God through the Church to do some work – even if that work is to retire from society and pray for it.

But the more I think about it the harder it is for me to discern exactly where such a call becomes the exclusive right of a group of people called “monastics”, and where it is the public property of all Christians by virtue of their baptism. It is true that consecration is the act which clarifies the difference, but in my conversations with brothers and sisters of various colors of robes I find that the call to the religious life precedes the consecration (in theological language the inner grace precedes the outward sign). As it should! We are talking here about the action of God, the Holy Spirit, and the external consecration is simply a “rubber stamping” (in the nicest possible sense of the term) to something which God has already made clean, as Peter found out (Acts 10:13).

But let us not stop there! All I “do” as a contemplative monk is to live out my baptismal covenant. In other words, I do exactly, no more or less, than what every other Christian does. Or better, I try to do exactly what everyone else tries to do. And I fail just as badly at it. But perhaps here’s the point where being a monk can be a service – my struggles can become an object lesson for others. Hopefully not a risible case study in failure, but rather a visible reminder of what we are all going through together. It is a communal experience, where my robes and my public profession become a mirror for others.

When someone realizes that I am trying to be a mirror to them it usually leads to their adoption of various defensive postures and gestures. “Oh I don’t think so, I am not a monk! I am not this or that.” It is unfortunate that we in the Episcopal Church do not live more openly the theology of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the life of the laity and that of the monk are much more closely aligned.

But the monastic life is quite simple really. Take the Baptismal Covenant, which I am sure most Episcopalians have recited hundreds of times in their lives. You vow to live up to God’s calling, and you renounce in your life all that is not God’s calling, be it the voice of your sinful nature or the luring songs of the Adversary. You further promise to live out God’s calling within the pattern specifically laid out by the apostles, together with a supportive believing community, with special emphasis on mutual prayer.

So, in my definition, a monk, professed or not, vowed or not, is a person who gives all they have up to God, who surrenders their life to God in a personal, intimate way. The personal sacrifice made is the ‘monos’ in monastic. But it is never a selfish enterprise. Someone who says “It’s you an’ me God – let’s do it,” and who can understand that such an individual reliance on God is the most profound form of self-sacrifice, is, in my view, a monastic. The robes are pretty and the liturgy and the Offices are well-designed. But robes are just cloth and the Offices just noise without the sacrifice to the community.

To say it another way, only the relationship with God is fundamental, unique and primary, and everything that comes from that relationship, through that relationship, and for that relationship, is the duty and privilege of all Christians.

In a nutshell the monastic life is the Christian life. The question really should be asked by me: “Are you a monk?”

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude , a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the “tech guy” for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

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