>I have been asked this question many dozens of times. Sometimes the person really means “What is a monk?”, other times they mean “You are a monk?” Nevertheless the confusion is usually followed by some version or another of “But aren’t monks some sort of cloistered uber-Christians?” – this might be said with a tone of genuine reverence for something exotic, or said with a tone of contempt reserved by Protestants to those who subscribe to some sort of papist works-righteousness. Both are legitimate responses, BTW, and I myself shift from one to the other like a person shifts feet while waiting for a bus on a cold day.
Here’s the fundamental point of how I view monasticism, if we get this out of the way it may make the rest a little simpler – and shorter! The call of the monastic, unlike the call of the ordained priesthood, is absolutely identical to the call of every Christian. Interestingly, in the Orthodox Church lay and monastic spirituality are the same. If we must insist on differences, then perhaps there is a difference in intensity. It is likely that the average monastic prays longer and fasts more strictly then 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!)
I was directed this wonderful essay entitled “The Ascetical Ideal of the New Testament” by Fr Georges Florovksy which outlines quite well the equality of monastic and non-monastic lifestyles.
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 as a hermit, or it may mean a life of social engagement as one of the mendicant orders of friars such as Franciscans, or it may mean a life of radical prayer (radical as in radix) as a Carmelite or a Carthusian. All of these (well perhaps with the exception of the solitary hermit) are lifestyles which are consecrated by the Church. In a sense all of these ways of life are missionary lives, sent by the Church to do some work in some area of society (inner or outer).
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 monastic, and where it is 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 life preceded the consecration, in theological language the inner grace preceded 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 way to something which God has already made clean, as Peter found out (Acts 10:13).
Although it is sometimes tiring to be asked about my robes, or the fact that I do not wear them, it is an understandable question. Yes monks wear robes (most). No I do not wear a robe. Yes I am a monk. This little piece of logic makes for a hard puzzle for some people. But let us not stop there! I must add: all I “do” as a monk is to live out my baptismal covenant, in other words, I do exactly, no more or less, than what you do. Or better, I try to do exactly what you try to do. And I fail just as badly at it, worse, in fact, since I give myself a special title.
This, of course, normally leads to 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 I do not live under a theology like that of the Orthodox tradition – such questions would not happen there!
It is quite simple really – take out whatever form of baptismal rite you are familiar with. No matter what Christian denomination you belong to, as long as they follow traditional formularies they all pretty much say the same thing: 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 believing community, with special emphasis on prayer.
In a nutshell this is monastic life. It is also Christian life. The question really should be “Are you a monk?”