“Consecrated persons are also a sign of this universal call to holiness, which each person receives at their baptism.” -Pope Francis
2015 is the Year of Consecrated Life in the Catholic Church. This year isn’t just for religious, but for the entire Church. Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Letter to all Consecrated People ,addressed the laity also when he wrote “In this letter, I wish to speak not only to consecrated persons, but also to the laity, who share with them the same ideals, spirit and mission. …I urge you, as laity, to live this Year for Consecrated Life as a grace which can make you more aware of the gift you yourselves have received.” The letter explained that the year’s aim is “to look to the past with gratitude,” “to live the present with passion,” and “to embrace the future with hope.” Pope Francis called upon the consecrated to be joyful and prophetic witnesses and “experts in communion.” In the spirit of the Year, I am writing a series focusing on monastic virtues and practices; silence, obedience, prayer, poverty, chastity, detachment, etc.
The goal of this work is to make consecrated life tangible, and to help people learn the valuable lessons consecrated life can teach the entire Church. To help the laity “be more aware of the gifts you yourselves have received” and recognize that we share the “same ideals, spirit, and mission” as the consecrated of the Church, whom we are celebrating this year.
St. Pope John Paul II in Orientale Lumen stated, “Moreover, in the East, monasticism was not seen merely as a separate condition, proper to a precise category of Christians, but rather as a reference point for all the baptized, according to the gifts offered to each by the Lord; it was presented as a symbolic synthesis of Christianity.” I will draw from my own experience as a monastic associate (oblate) of a monastery to help explain what it means for the monk to be the reference point for all the baptized.
The Latin Church uses different language from what I am accustomed to in my own Byzantine Church but still, we are talking about the same things. In this series I will use the word monastic to mean a consecrated or religious person. I will also use “monk” to refer to either a monk or nun.
So let’s begin. First, what does it mean for the monastic life to be the “reference point for all the baptized”?
Monasticism is the reference point because it is a summary of the Gospel. A monk is a person who’s existence is about attaining theosis (communion with God), striving to live the life of the saints; a life of holiness. Monasticism is the reference point for all Christians because communion with God is what all Christians are called to. St. John Chrysostom put it this way:
“You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities. … Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence.”
The monastic life is a source of inspiration for Christians wanting to grow closer to God. The example of monastic practices, habits, and virtues can be closely examined and peeled back to reveal the goal and purpose of such a vocation. Their lives are a “symbolic synthesis of Christianity” or, an illustrative combining of the Christian life. Pope Francis recently said it this way:
“Consecrated persons are also a sign of this universal call to holiness, which each person receives at their baptism.”
In our modern culture (and probably all of history), fleeing the world, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, doesn’t make much sense. This path can even appear to be a waste, a hiding and running away from the world and the needs of others. This attitude only shows how much the monastic life is misunderstood and how much the Christian life is as well.
Leaving the World
The original monks literally left the cities to dwell in the desert—alone and with nothing. Since then, monasteries and convents have been founded all over the world. They are found in large cities, small towns, deserts, and country sides. When entering monastic life, wherever the monastery is located, a leaving behind of worldly things must happen. Leaving the world of one’s youth: family, friends, and home. The pursuit of riches, fame, and worldly endeavors is abandoned for a life of askesis.
In a recent conversation I had with one of the novices at Holy Resurrection Monastery, I asked what he thought of the monastic life now that he has entered the monastery and how leaving the world has helped him.
We talked about the need for obedience, community, and the daily routine of prayer and work. Brother Jonah explained that joining the monastery has shown him how attached he was to worldly things, especially in ways he had not realized. His passions have been put into perspective there, he sees much more clearly the things he needs to combat and fight against. He further explained that having less distractions, less belongings, no friends close by to go visit, has forced him to face two things: himself, and God.
I couldn’t help but smile while listening to this brother describe seeing God clearly now and still knowing, he was only seeing an outer layer of God who is a great mystery. He once saw God as a tyrant judge but now sees Him as merciful—the God of love. He explained to me that it is much harder to hide from yourself when you go to bed at night, close the door of your cell, and are there alone. Once you face yourself, you start to see not only the illusions you created about yourself, but also, the illusions you have created about God. The god you once worshipped so clearly and so properly, you now see was in part an idol of your own making. A god created by your own ideas and desires.
St. Teresa of Avila said, “We shall never learn to know ourselves except by endeavoring to know God; for, beholding His greatness, we realize our own littleness; His purity shows us our foulness; and by meditating upon His humility we find how very far we are from being humble.” This is the lifelong work of a monastic and also must be the lifelong work of any Christian: to know ourselves and God.
So, where does this leave the rest of us–those of us not undertaking monastic vows and fleeing the world to face God alone in a cell? I believe it leaves us with a clear idea of what we need to be striving after. We too need to take stock of our relationship with God, our struggle with our passions, our false ideas of who we are and who God is—our attachment to things, people, and ideas. The monk does this through many practices, but a lessening of distractions to make time for real, deep prayer and an honest examination of ourselves can be done by everyone.
We distract ourselves with many things in our modern world, at times good things even. We have to learn to quiet our lives down, live simpler, so we can follow Christ. The story of the Rich Young Man in the Gospels tells us what to do. “‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus answered, ‘You know the commandments: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.”‘ And he said to him, ‘Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.’ And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:17-22)
The Rich Young Man obeyed the commandments, but he wanted to do more to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell what he owns and give to the poor. He wants obedience, and love for neighbor from the young man. And then He tells him, “and come, follow me.” We must keep the commandments, love our neighbor as ourselves, and most importantly, radically change our hearts and lives by following after Jesus Christ. Keeping the commandments and doing acts of charity are the stepping stones to a real encounter with God. We must act further, we must follow Him. We must focus our lives on Him first and let our lives flow from there, from Him, the God of love.
This is why monks leave the world. This is why all Christians must leave worldly things behind. “Come, follow me” is an invitation to the Kingdom of God, the kingdom that is within. The kingdom which can only be uncovered through work, prayer, and love.
In this series, I will continue to share monastic life as an example of how all Christians can answer our Lord’s call to, “Come, follow Me.”
Editor’s note: This is the first part in a weekly series, “Lessons from a Monastery,” focusing on bringing the lessons of monks and nuns to our everyday life for Lent and The Year of Consecrated Life. Check back at CE each Wednesday or sign up for our free, daily email newsletter.