A monk is someone who every day asks: “What is a monk?”AndrÃ© Louf, Belgian Trappist
There is some dispute about the origins of the word ‘monk’. It is related to the Greek word ‘monos‘, meaning ‘one’, ‘alone’, ‘single’, but it is uncertain as to whether that referred to a person living alone or to one who was unmarried. The Acts of the Apostles refers to the early Christians devoting themselves ‘to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ and ‘all who believed were together and had all things in common’ (Acts 2:42, 44; see also Acts 4:32). Buddhism also has monks; both Christian and Buddhist monks have a level of detachment from worldly goods, life in community, silence, prayer, and meditation.
Living According to a Rule
One of the most important things governing a monk’s life is the monastic rule. In the West, this is the Rule of St Benedict. The Rule governs most aspects of the monk’s life, such as when to pray, when and what to eat, how to deal with the goods of the monastery, work to be done, how to relate to each other, who is in charge, etc. There are two purposes to a monastic rule: how to live in relation to God; and how to live in relation to each other.
Following a rule of life requires commitment, and that commitment is expressed in the vows a monk makes when he becomes part of the community. Benedictine monks usually make vows of stability, obedience, and conversatio morum, which refers to a conversion of way of life.
Monks pray in common several times a day, not just at Mass but also in the Divine Office, also known as the Liturgy of the Hours. These are times when the monastic community comes together in praise of God.
As well as prayer in common, monks have their own private prayer, which takes various forms.
Besides prayer, monks have work to do. The Benedictine motto is ora et labora, which translates as ‘prayer and work’. The work can be varied: some of it is work around the monastery, whether making bread, preparing the sacristy, tending the garden, etc., or external, such as parish work, school chaplaincy, teaching in the Benedictine Institute, etc.
Monks also study. Chapter 48 of the Rule of St Benedict, on the Daily Manual Labour, lays down times when monks should study or read. Originally, monks would have learnt all the psalms by heart, along with the various Scripture passages that are read at the Divine Office. Now, monks study for priesthood, for higher degrees, and for ways of expanding their own monastic vocation.
Monks usually wear a habit. Our habit is black, although some Benedictine monks wear a white habit. Originally, the habit was much the same as everybody else wore. As fashions changed, monks kept the same clothing. The habit acts as a kind of uniform. It shows that we are all the same, not putting our individuality above what we hold in common. Putting on the habit also reminds us of what we are trying to be – reserved for God rather than in the world. As with a priest vesting for Mass, there are prayers for putting on the habit. Abbot Matthew of Portsmouth Abbey in the USA (another monastery in the English Benedictine Congregation) has written a reflection on the habit and prayers for dressing.
Although it can seem as though monasticism is completely unchanging, that is not fully true. Society changes, and monasticism also has to change. This might sound strange, since monks have ‘left’ society. Yet we still live and work in the wider world; when that changes, we also have to change. In 2015, to coincide with the Year of Consecrated Life, the English Benedictine Congregation published a booklet ‘To Prefer Nothing to Christ‘. This gave the results of an examination of how the monastic life fits into the modern world. We continue to adapt without losing our core identity.