The Ordinariness of Monasticism

Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense.
– Shunryu Suzuki

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.
– Romans 11:36

People want to know what it is like for me to have joined a monastery – a hard question to answer. In part it is difficult to explain, as you would expect, because of the great difference between this life and the one I had before. I do not want to overstate that difference; but the commitment made by a contemplative monk (or nun) is quite a radical one, and in many ways one cannot understand such a life without some taste of it. I sought a break with the past in coming here; and while that was not my entire or only intention, it is certainly being fulfilled.

Yet there is another side to this. It is also – perhaps surprisingly – difficult to describe this life because of how ordinary and normal it is. Whatever my aims may have been in the past, I am not becoming a monk in order to escape the world or to be different from others.

On some level, monasticism is simply Christian life lived more explicitly and intensively. Similarly, there is a sense in which Christian life itself is simply human life, lived with the conscious acceptance and sacramental experience of the same divine grace that is present always and everywhere. (For there is only one world, and one history of that grace which encompasses it in God’s salvific will.)

So I am here to live a normal life, to be an utterly ordinary person. And a great deal of what one does here is completely in that spirit: it is ordinary life, lived with an explicit awareness of that sacredness which – acknowledged or not – pervades all life.

It is hard enough to do justice to both sides of this paradox: that life in the monastery should be so different from life beyond its boundaries, and so much the same. But the difficulty is compounded when one realizes that the sameness and difference are not readily-distinguishable opposites: there is not “the numinous, transcendent part here, in church” and “the mundane, ordinary part over there, in the kitchen.”

Often enough one feels nothing profound while in Church – and just as often, one may feel a deep oneness with God and creation while washing dishes. More often, though, there is not even that sort of clear distinction. Instead there is the kind of mysterious mutual-indwelling that theologians call perichoresis: the transcendence is in the normality and the normality is in the transcendence – though there are moments when one or the other predominates on the level of conscious experience, allowing us to understand them as distinct.

All of this is also true of Christian life in general; and for that very reason, it can be said even of life in general, with or without explicit faith – since God is not absent from anyone’s life. But this is not to say there is nothing “different” about being a monk (or a Christian for that matter). It simply means that all our differences, all our distinctions, are to be understood in the context of a more basic human similarity.

Clearly, our human differences – especially in faith – do matter; disagreements are not to be shrugged off in the cheap and unworthy manner of modern relativism, or hidden by a false form of pluralism that destroys the notion of truth. Christ’s own claim, to be the definitive self-communication of God to man, can in no way be relativized.

Even so, there is no difference, even in matters of faith, that goes deeper than our common humanity – that basic “unity of the whole human race” of which Christ’s Church is a kind of sacrament. I cannot even understand or correctly evaluate the true differences between my life and yours, except by first seeing the fundamental similarity that makes those differences, of whatever kind, significant.

*

If it were otherwise – if all our differences, however important they may be, did not exist against the backdrop of a greater commonality, within the universal Light of Christ (Jn. 1:9) – then I would not be able to experience monasticism as a form of solidarity with the world, as a way of being “a brother to the entire world” (in the words of Fr. Lev Gillet).

And if I could not experience monasticism in that way, I am not sure I could be a monk at all. I come from a largely non-religious background, and my Catholicism is – and must be – a faith lived in solidarity with the world. This does not involve any compromise in faith or morals, of course. But a Christianity that encloses itself within the Church’s visible bounds, barricading itself inside its own walls as if this were a purification in the eyes of God, would be a perversion of faith and an insult to Christ as far as I am concerned. While monasticism cultivates a certain necessary seclusion (as Jesus himself often did, even during his public ministry), a monasticism that becomes merely self-enclosed – neglecting the bond of solidarity with mankind – must be questioned according to the words and spirit of the Gospels.

We only know our differences rightly by seeing them in the context of our commonalities. And this principle extends to the very heart of the Christian faith: Christ himself is at once the most extraordinary possible person – extraordinary beyond all comprehension, being by nature the Second Person of the Godhead – and a man like us, whose joys and sufferings were in many ways quite ordinary. We come, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, to Christ’s divinity through his humanity: we know what distinguishes him by first knowing him as one of us. And his humanity is not a guise: we can relate to him, now and eternally, as truly our fellow man, even after having come to know him as the Eternal Word of God. (If we cannot relate to him in this way, it might be asked whether our profession of orthodoxy corresponds to our life!)

“Christ is God in a human way, and man in a divine way” – as Edward Schillebeeckx once wrote, in his more reliably-orthodox days. Monasticism is an imitation of Christ, and it would be strange for it not to share in this logic of his person: it is transcendent in an ordinary way, and ordinary in a transcendent way. Monks do spend more time in church than others, especially in the tradition of Byzantine Christianity; but the One worshipped in the chapel is “everywhere present, filling all things” – and every service, every day, begins by recalling that fact.

Ironically, I have found that I pray better during these services when I regard the monastic Divine Office as simply “my job” – more similar to the retail, food-service, and office jobs I had in the past, than different from them. When I look at these services almost casually, as “shifts” one clocks into and out of, then I feel free to encounter God there in a relatively effortless way and to be fully present before him. But when I call to mind the sacredness of our work – it is then that I typically become tense, frustrated, and lost in distractions while in church.

Does this mean that the monastery’s liturgical cycle is merely a job like any other job, no different from a secular career? Not exactly. On the contrary: it means there are no “merely secular” jobs. Every true duty is sacred; every job is meant to call forth our devotional service of the Lord.

Liturgical prayer has a more explicit holiness about it, but the holiness it has is the same kind found in any good and honest work. For there is only one ultimate holiness, that which belongs – in the most diffusive way – to the Man who lived and worked in obscurity for 30 years. Grace is one single reality; and that gift, the grace of Jesus Christ, is present throughout all time and space.

So monasticism is a very ordinary thing – in a world where nothing is “merely ordinary.”

*

My life – my Byzantine Catholic monastic life – is more like yours than not, whoever you may be. That is because you, regardless of what you believe or do not believe, also bear the Cross of human existence, the General Cross we all bear. However you may understand or misunderstand that Cross, you still carry it: along with me, and all others, and God Himself – who took it upon Himself freely, fully, and definitively. And this could never have happened, or been of any effect for us, if we ourselves were not all more alike than different.

Primarily, and above all, it is life itself – not the obligation of celibacy, or liturgical services, or any special form of vowed living – that is difficult. Life itself is the great Cross to be borne, prior to any particular, subordinate commitment. The first and hardest religious task – and there really are no “secular” ones – is ordinary life: its obligations and opportunities and (above all) the personal interconnections therein, which can never quite be undone once established.

The main and most real task is this General Cross, the cross borne even by those outside the visible bounds of faith. Every particular vocation must be seen in light of this universal Cross, as part of it and as a unique way of living it out.

If I am truly to “renounce Satan,” I must continually reject the worldview of the fallen angels: which means giving up the notion that I am fundamentally different from you, the idea that I can stand apart from you and revel in what distinguishes me. For this is simply a Satanic temptation – even when the distinction in question is one’s faith in Christ, or some particular visible form of commitment to him.

A monk and a non-monastic are always far more alike than different. And if the monk truly forgets this, then it would perhaps be a mercy of God for him to lose his vocation and be once more adrift in the world.

image: R.A.R. de Bruijn Holding BV / Shutterstock.com

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former atheist, and incurable philosopher, with experience in journalism, speechwriting, and monasticism. He published a short autobiographical book, “Shouting Through the Water,” in 2014 (available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), and is preparing a sequel reflecting on his post-monastic life. His current interests center on the integration of psychology and meditation within a traditional Christian framework

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  • guy

    A profound and beautiful reflection of Christ’s life shining out in yours and your brothers’. Thank you!

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