A Sense of the Monastic Life

Monastic life finds its true meaning in three principle aspects

I. — Monastic life is a contemplative life

There is no doubt that it is a special life, different from that of others. The monk leaves men and the world to live alone in his convent or his cell, and this seems strange to the world. This is because monastic life is above all else a contemplative life, an interior life. The interior life is the life with God, and the exterior life is the life of the senses, without the vision of God. And the monk seeks God because man must find God before anything else: but God is present everywhere, and external life reflects God through things, senses and reason. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” in (Psalm 19:1-2 [nrsvace]). This is why life in the world, in its various forms, is not contemptible: it reflects God but only indirectly. While the monk longs to know God directly: “Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” (Saint Augustine Confessions, i. I.). And because the monk sees the world “better” than others, i.e. because he sees the world “in God”, he seeks God by isolating himself from the world. Because he has seen a thin reflection of the light of God and his glory throughout the world, he yearns for the direct vision. For the righteous man He is «… the light of the world. Whoever follows Him will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.» To arrive at this vision of the world, it is essential to return to oneself completely. “You should, then, return; or —to put it more truly— let us return, brethren, to ourselves”: so begin the teachings of St. Nikephoros the solitary in the letter to his disciples. In ourselves we meet God, and monastic life is a life of contemplation in solitude only because it aspires to meet God within man.

How is the monk called to this particular way of life? Monastic life does not belong to us: it comes to us from God. The Fathers distinguished three types of a calling from God: 

  1. The direct call, for example: Saint Anthony the Great was attending church one Sunday, he heard the gospel of that day: If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). He felt within him the direct summons and said to himself: these words are addressed to me personally. He therefore left everything immediately, gave away some of his family’s lands to his neighbours, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds to the poor. He retired to the desert and eventually became the Patriarch of all monks. 
  2. the indirect call, which is the call of God through the misfortunes, disappointments or events that God gives us on our journey until we ourselves enter into monastic life. 
  3. lastly: a monastic vocation which leads a man to the monastery following clear reasoning and intelligent judgment; He enters without much enthusiasm at first, his call becoming more distinct much later. Moreover, no merit is attached to one vocation to the detriment of the other, what is important is the persistence of the individual. And those that have been called in this third category often surpass all others in the realisation of the monastic ideal.

II. — Monastic life is a life of repentance

La recherche de Dieu ne s’accomplit pas une fois pour toutes, mais plutôt dans un effort continuel, i.e. dans la repentance. “…a bad tree bear good fruits” (Matthew 7:18). In Greek repentance “metanoia” means the transformation of man, a change, a transition from one state to another. The life of the monk in this sense, is a life of unceasing interior repentance. It is a search for God which never ceases, a search that continues every day for the rest f your life. The best description of the condition of the monk can be found in the words of St. Paul: «but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [ἐπέκτασιςepectasisperfection through an eternal and progressive participation in God]” (Philippians 3:13). 

Monastic life is an “épectase” which does not know how to cease: because “to arrive” at perfection would be equivalent to a lamentable fall (Saint Gregory of Nyssa). God is the only truth we can never get enough of; and within repentance there is always an immeasurable thirst for God. The soul by nature desire and loves God; and when the soul is not seeking God, it tends to grow darker and becomes obscured. But when the soul stops seeking God, it tends to seek pleasure, becomes hedonistic and becomes its obsessed slave; and when it has dissipated, begins to look for alternative pleasures as substitute and therefore goes on and on … All the happiness we perceive, unless it emanates from God himself become useless, show signs of wear, become useless and dries up, because the happiness we felt is “finished” it had come to the end of its life. As for the thirst of the soul, that remains infinite. And that’s why nothing but the love of God can seal it. The soul that indulges in the pleasures of the world becomes poorer instead of being enriched, it looses its liberty, its strength and vigour. The happiness of the world is, lamentably, a false concept of happiness and that is why we see the world as being in the grasp of suffering, desolation and unrest: a peace within God is without limits. The soul that indulges in its passions becomes empty and depart this life, it dies. A monk’s “asceticism” is the only a war that will conquer a death which has arisen through the pursuits of passion. Dynamic peace is the peace of God. Men today seem to find the peace of God detestable and find it find intolerable. They look upon it as spinelessness, a form of cowardice and even death, humanity finds any kind of state or adventure of the century preferable to the peace of God. Humanity refuses Christian peace and run behind what they call world peace. World peace is fleeting, short-lived, a “dead” peace; unlike the peace of God which is permanent, ever-lasting. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (John 14:27). The peace of God is a living peace, and people cannot become a slave of anything that is there, “not even of virtue”. In God our joy and our peace will spread to all the ends of the earth (Bl. John van Ruysbroeck Can. Reg., Admirable Doctor Divinus Ecstaticus). For virtue is not a goal, and the epectasis continues. The more we have knowledge of God, the more we thirst to know him; and the more we understand and embrace it, the more our capacity begins to understand and expands (just like a leather waterskin which expands as you fill it). “you would not seek me, if you had not found me.” (Blaise Pascal Memorial). A humans is a creature, indeed, yet he has been admitted to God’s table. “… man is a creature who has been ordered to become god. It is through the mediation of Christ that we will succeed in accomplishing this instruction.” (Saint Basil the Great). “To come” to God is idolatry and a graven image and “to find God is precisely to seek Him unceasingly” (St. Gregory of Nyssa). The search does not stop after one dies but it continues in the afterlife. Therefore, I think we could safely say that the life of the monk is simply an appetiser of eternity.

From the above two, it would follow that for the monk there are some practical consequences:

  1. The monk must never stop in his inner development: this is evidenced by how Saint Sisoës the Great, desert Father, a  solitary hermit pursuing asceticism in the Egyptian desert  (feast on July 6): his brothers monks, encircle him around his deathbed; they suddenly noticed that his face had lit up; what do you see, they ask him? I see our father Anthony the Great; then revealing more he sees the holy apostles; then his face shines more and more: he sees Our Lady the Blessed Virgin. His brothers then see him move his lips and ask him what he is saying: I beg the Virgin, Mother of God, to obtain a temporary postponement for my beginning my repentance … Thus Sisoës the old man, so famous among the Fathers of the desert, and who has spent his life fasting, on vigils and exertion, pleads for the Virgin’s intercession on his deathbed, as he views the majesty and splendour of the glory of God, before he begin his journey of repentance!
  2. The monk must not expect any noticeable result for his effort until after death: an aged St. Paphnutius, Confessor and solitary was spending a day in a village where lustfulness reigned most shamelessly; seeing the sins of its inhabitants being perpetrated in the middle of the street, he began to cry and ask God for forgiveness of his own sins … A monk should not expect any result for himself, but aims at God and God only. The reason being, is that the monk asks nothing for himself, not even virtue; the world considers the life of a monk as a failure and sees it as unproductive, sterile and pointless.

III. — The life of a monk is a life of glorification like the angels

Every creature has received from God its existence and the ability to maintain itself in existence. God alone is absolute existence, God alone is, and is “realised”: God is reality. As for us and all creatures, we are a mixture of reality and nothingness. The angels themselves grow in endless existence and being (“the secret hidden from the angels …”). To grow in God you must first be installed in Him. This makes us in a special state that is both static and mobile; we are on the one hand situate in God and on the other drawn to Him, we therefore live in Him just as we are drawn to Him. The monastic state is a movement. And because the angels are in this very same state, they “find” God, from them the cries of glorification spontaneously flow without ceasing. As for the monks, they take it upon themselves to glorify and praise God unceasingly upon the earth through the use of psalms and prayers. The monks are the ones who established the liturgical formula of praising God which we call doxologies, i.e. the celestial glorification of God on earth. And for the monk, he can never cease glorifying Him, because he sees God.

IV. – Monastic life not only renews the spirit but also increases humanity’s knowledge

This point is linked to the previous paragraph and we are able to define this new knowledge which opens before the monk as doxological knowledge. Monastic life, in fact, renews the activity of the monk and re-shapes his intelligence. Saint Paul advises us to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2) and have in us “the same mind that was in Christ” (Philippians 2:5). A Christian (the person who has the spirit of Christ) is the one who opens their eyes anew toward heaven, true “knowledge” is that of looking at the whole world through the eyes of Christ. This is what we call the “beginning of wisdom”, of which the psalmist speak in Psalm 111:10. In point of fact, it was the monks gave the world real “science”: liturgical praises, divine dogmas and the practical methods which lead one to God, what the Fathers call the “science of all sciences”. This is why intellectual work should never be neglected within monastic institutions. The monk, on the contrary, has to learn, he needs to read the writings of the Fathers and meditate upon them. He must also be able to express his new experiences, and not keep them to himself, in view of the fact that they are a gift from God to the monk and all that is given to us is not ours to keep. A monk is duty bound to give it to others precisely and according to the “spirit of Christ” who, “in the form of the Divine, emptied himself …” for the love of all of humanity.

To summarise, the monastic life for us hermits, monks, religious and laity here on earth, is an anticipation of our life to come in the house of Our Father: It is an angelic life. It is not a question of words or symbols, but it is a fact. Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, put monastic life into much simpler terms for us. He defined it as “the eighth sacramentof the Church. Just as the sacrament makes the grace of God invisible through visible matter and in its form, in the same manner that, monastic life presents and realises eternal life within this earthly existence. It is the Mystery of Christ which is the mystery of death and resurrection. The monk dies both to himself and to this world only to be resurrected within Christ and within the divine world. The mystery of Christ is resurrection through death, the cross is a resurrection through death. But for us, who die in the resurrection of Christ which had already been prepared before our death: Christ died so that He could resurrect us with Him, and which through baptism, makes us participate from that moment onwards in the eternal life, to a life of continual interior growth; and therefore we ourselves become the “ambassadors” to the Kingdom before its arrival, we are like examples of it. Monastic life is the mystery of the full consecration of man to God, and his destiny… is truly the eighth sacrament of the Church.