I am no monk.
I think it wise to begin an essay with a remark that is both true and verifiable. The truth of this statement could be demonstrated in at least three ways.
First, you could ask my wife, which a monk does not have. “Monachos is derived from the adjective monos, which, though itself of uncertain etymology, is generally understood to involve the idea of ‘one,’ ‘one alone,’ ‘one only,’ or ‘single.’”i The word was used to translate lebaddo in Genesis 2:18, a situation of solitude remedied by the subsequent creation of woman.
Second, you could try to ask my non-existent Abbot, which a monk should have. Benedict specifies this in chapter 5 of his Rule, which Augustine Baker, OSB, translates thus: “Whosoever lives in a religious community is desirous that an abbot should be set over him. From whence we ought to infer that the intention of a religious person ought ever to be to live in subjection to the will of another, and in such a mind to continue all his life.”ii
Third, you could examine my cell … I mean, office. It is lined with more books than the Egyptian monks would have preferred. “A brother said to Serapion, ‘Give me a word.’ But he replied, ‘What can I say to you? You have taken what belongs to widows and orphans and put it on your window-ledge.’ He saw that the window-ledge was full of books.”iii A continued collecting of books is still afforded me by my University Procard account. Theodore told Macarius he was in a conundrum because although he was helped by reading the three good books he owned, other monks also wanted to read them. What should he do? Macarius replied, “Reading books is good, but possessing nothing is more than anything.” When he heard this, he went and sold the books, and gave the money to the poor.iv
Speaking of poverty, I seem to have succumbed to the logismoi of avarice exactly as Evagrius describes it. “Avarice suggests to the mind a lengthy old age, inability to perform manual labor at some future date, famines that are sure to come, sickness that will visit us, the pinch of poverty, the great shame that comes from accepting the necessities of life from others.”v The whole purpose my TIAA/Cref account is in anticipation of lengthy old age, inability to perform my labor in the classroom at some future date, and the great shame of having to move in with my children.
Yes, there seems to be plenty of evidence to validate my first sentence: it can be proven by an existing wife, a non-existent abbot, and the luxury facing me on the shelf. Three strikes when it comes to celibacy, obedience, and poverty.vi
Diverse pursuits of holiness
But the Christian ascetical tradition does not intend me to feel bad about this. None of us are being asked to compare ourselves to monks like Anthony or Syncletica, John Climacus or Benedict. If one of us thinks we have a call to monasticism, we should have it checked out (I mean checked out by the novitiate), and if not, we should strive for the holiness Lumen gentium commands of everyone. “All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity … The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one.”vii
There are diverse ways to pursue the fullness of Christian life, but the greatest division of ways has been whether it is pursued in the world or out of it. The Christian who is not called by God to labor in the desert is still called to labor in the city, both labors having been bestowed and empowered by baptismal grace. This has long been recognized in the distinction between commandments and counsels. Critics from the Reformation thought this distinction created a two-tiered class of Christians, but Francis de Sales, who began his ministerial career answering Protestant objections, explains the real reason:
The counsels are all given for the perfection of the Christian people, but not for that of each Christian in particular. There are circumstances which make them sometimes impossible, sometimes unprofitable, sometimes perilous, sometimes hurtful to some men, which is one of the reasons why Our Savior said to one of the counsels, what he would have to be understood of them all: He that can receive it, let him receive it.viii
De Sales summarizes the distinction between commandments and counsels according to their origin (the former is absolute will of God, the latter represents the will of desire), their force (one obliges, the other invites), and their obligation (the transgressor of a commandment is culpable and deserves damnation, one who fails a counsel is less worthy of praise and deserves to be less glorified).ix However, he hastens to add that although the counsels cannot and should not be practiced by every particular Christian, everyone is still obliged to love them all, and it is a great sin to contemn monasticism. “If a robe of gold does not suit you, will you say that therefore it is worth nothing? Or will you throw a ring into the dirt because it fits not your finger?”x
Asceticism may have been perfected in the sands of the desert, but it is born in the waters of the font. The monastic life is described as “leaving the world,” but our Galilean rabbi tells each of his disciples that they do not belong to the world (John 17:16), that the world will hate them (Jn 15:19) and that they must hate their life in this world (Jn 12:23).
In that respect, the desert disciple is not doing something the city disciple does not do, he is only doing it more overtly. I’m dead; the monk is dead; you, dear reader, should be dead. All the little fishes caught in the baptismal font by Christ are to consider themselves dead to sin (Rom 6:11). He took one rusty nail out of his hand and bent it into a fish hook to catch us – but the surprising move is that some of us he has thrown back into the world for a labor providentially assigned them there. Although the secular Christian has not “left the world” by going to the desert, he most certainly should have “left the world ruined and ruled by Satan.” Paul’s question is addressed to every Christian: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (Col 2:20).
The Christian labor in the world is represented by Martha, the Christian labor in the desert is represented by Mary, but unlike so many homilies I have heard, the Church fathers do not disparage Martha’s work. In chapter 8 of The Conferences John Cassian says “Martha was performing a service that was certainly a sacred one, since she was ministering to the Lord and His disciples,” and even if Martha’s request for help from her sister was denied, “certainly it was to no unworthy work, but to a praiseworthy service that she summoned her.” When Jesus says Mary chose the good part “he says nothing of Martha, and certainly does not appear to blame her.” Rather, when Jesus says Mary chose the better part, he is saying Martha’s work is inferior. And why is that? Because “a bodily ministry cannot last forever with a man, [while Mary’s] desire can never have an end.”
Augustine makes the same point in one of his homilies. When Jesus said Mary had chosen the best part, not to be taken away from her, “he did not say that Martha was acting a bad part; but that ‘best part that shall not be taken away.’ For that part which is occupied in the ministering to a need shall be taken away when the need itself has passed away.”xi He is not saying Martha’s reward is not eternal, he is saying Martha’s work is not eternal.
The Christian ascetical tradition has therefore observed a similitude between the diverse labors, done in the diverse locations of city and desert, and some Eastern Christian authors have coined the term “interior monasticism” to account for this. Interior monasticism does not mean inferior monasticism; indeed, the point of the phrase is to say that both the monk and the secular Christian are engaged in the same struggle. Although the monk confined himself to the desert to fight Satan, the one whom he fights is not confined to the desert.
Baptism and monasticism
Paul Evdokimov begins in a liturgical location when he talks about the interior monk. In fact, it is the same sacramental site I have already mentioned, i.e. baptism, but Evdokimov can open up an explicitly direct pathway between baptism and monasticism due to the Eastern Christian inclusion of a rite of tonsure. He writes,
The total character of the consecration of every baptized and confirmed person, stressed in the rite of tonsure, places such a one in extreme tension every instant, in one’s yearning for the ultimate, the impossible. This rite of tonsure, an organic part of the sacrament of Chrismation/Confirmation in the Eastern Church, is identical to that of entering monastic life. The prayer of the rite asks: “Bless your servant who has come to give you as his/her first offering the tonsure of the hair of his/her head.” Its symbolic meaning is very clear. It is the total offering of one’s life. In undergoing the rite of tonsure, every lay person becomes a monastic of “interiorized monasticism,” submissive to all the absolute demands of the gospel. The faithfulness of the newly baptized will resist the trials of time in the assault of temptations, for Christ is going to fight in him and with him.xii
Marriage is another sacrament relevant to interior monasticism. Vladimir Solovyof says “True asceticism, i.e., spiritual power over the flesh leading to the resurrection of life, has two forms – monasticism and marriage.” xiii Evdokimov continues the thought. “On the face of it, monasticism and marriage are utterly opposed. But at a profound or level, where our life is intertwined with the life of the Spirit, we can see that they are intimately related and complementary. The sacrament of marriage internalizes in its own way the monastic state; indeed, it originally included the specifically monastic rite of the tonsure.”xiv
Evdokimov connects marriage and monasticism again in Woman and the Salvation of the World:
The Old Slavonic word for monk, inok, derives from inoi, meaning ‘another,’ which corresponds well to the symbolism of baptismal rebirth. The monastic state may be the most striking expression of this baptismal rebirth, as witnessed by the customary change of name, but every baptized person who has received tonsure is, spiritually speaking, inwardly a monk, ‘another,’ different, of a new species. The monastic state and the married state are the two parallel forms of the royal priesthood of believers.”xv
Asceticism is not masochism, it is therapeutic restoration. Therefore Evdokimov concludes that monasticism is of the essence of the Church and that “monastic spirituality, as an inward state of the soul, is normative for all, expressing in its various forms the profound longing for the ‘one thing needful’ of the Gospel.”xvi This search for the one needful thing is a return to the paradise we abandoned. “In the perfection of this attitude, all became a single act – the carrying of the cross … Asceticism undoes the act by which Adam ceased to be fully himself, in wishing to belong only to himself and in refusing to go beyond himself in God. It takes up again the vocation of Adam and pursues a conformity to the obedient Christ.”xvii
Evdokimov collects a number of examples of this sentiment among the Church fathers. John Chrysostom said, “when Christ orders us to follow a narrow path, he addresses himself to all men. The monk and the lay person must attain the same heights;” and again, “Those who live in the world, even though married, ought to resemble the monks in everything else. You are entirely mistaken if you think that there are some things required of seculars, and others for monks… They will have the same account to render.”xviii What did Christ command? He told us to seek the one thing necessary, do violence to ourselves in all things, lead a life according to the gospel. “It is quite evident that these words exactly define the state of every believing layperson. Saint Nilus thought all monastic practices were required of people in the world.”xix
I’m beginning to think that maybe I should re-examine my opening sentence. I still have my wife, I still lack an abbot, my shelves are still lined with books, but Evdokimov proposes a deeper, interior dimension of each vow.
Poverty frees from the ascendancy of the material: it is the baptismal transmutation into the new creature. Chastity frees from the ascendancy of the carnal: it is the nuptial mystery of the agape, the marriage covenant in divine love. Obedience frees from the idolatry of the ego: it posits our relationship as children of the Father. And it turns out that all believers ask for these things in the tripartite structure of the Lord’s prayer: obedience to the will of the Father, the poverty of one who is hungry only for the substantial in eucharistic bread, and chastity, the purification from evilxx
It is as if monasticism will work its way into our interior at various times, if we let it, to become interior monasticism.
Retirement from the world
The moments when that happens will be personal for each of us, and having already disclosed more about myself than is comfortable for a Scandinavian, I will make only one concluding application from my own case.
I am looking forward to retirement. I have not reached the age of 70 yet, but I can see it from here and it is looming with a vivid and joyous appearance. I have scheduled some important play dates with my grandchildren; I have done all the necessary homework in the aforementioned TIAA/Cref account; my wife is reconciled to having twice the husband on half the salary – as the joke goes. I am giddy at the prospect, and finding it hard to wait for my retirement.
Now, by happenstance, I have been reading the life and writings of Elizabeth of the Trinity during this time. Her mother consented that she join the Carmel on condition that she test the interior call by waiting until she came of age. Elizabeth’s obedient impatience can be detected in her letters.
After lunch my poor mother questioned me. When she saw that I had not changed my mind she cried bitterly and told me that she would not prevent my quitting her when I was twenty-one; that I had only two years to wait.”xxi “Two years more! – what a long time! but my happiness will be so sweet that I feel and taste it already.”xxii
That’s just how I feel. Two years to wait until coming of proper age. And then it struck me that Christian tradition has consistently called monasticism “retirement from the world.” And Elizabeth uses the term frequently. She writes to a friend considering religious life that Jesus “wishes you to go out of self, to give up all that preoccupies you, in order to retire into the solitude He has chosen as His dwelling-place in the depths of your heart.”xxiii She describes her own vocation as “passing through this world like our Lady, ‘keeping all these things in my heart,’ retired, as it were, into the depth of my soul.”xxiv And she uses this language in spiritual advice to her sister Marguerite, a mother with babies: “This heaven is the centre of our soul … How simple and consoling it is! In the midst of all your motherly cares and occupations you can retire into this solitude and give yourself up to the Holy Spirit.”xxv
Monasticism is retirement from the world. Although in two years’ time I will not be retiring from the world in that sense, I will be retiring from my world, from the academic world I have been occupying. And it has a touch of interior monasticism about it.
I have begun to count down from the future, instead of counting up from the past. The look of smug pleasure when surveying the pile of books I’ve collected has turned into a look of fretting concern at the prospect of the triage I will have to perform in order to fit a selection into the smaller home office. And what will happen to those in the next move to the apartment? and then eventually to the nursing home? How many of my books can I take along? The monk’s cell scares us with a claustrophobia because it is smaller than our house in the city – how could fit all our stuff in such a room?! – but our residences will continue to shrink in size, one after another, until it is the size of a casket.
All this pricks vanity. What is the point of adding another book to the shelf if I will not have time to reference it in a future article? I have begun to use this calculation when deciding whether or not to hit the purchase button on Bookfinder.com. And what is the point of the few books I have added to the shelves of the world? As an academic, I have the garden variety academic vanity about fame. I have written some books; they are on the shelves of some libraries somewhere; some of them have been reviewed; all of them will be forgotten. I was startled the other day to see that the first book I ever published was now available for 70 cents at a website for used, discarded, abandoned, rejected, and unwanted books (not the website’s real title).
We should not expect the glories of this world to last. That is what the monk teaches those of us who are permitted the enjoyable use of things in this world. We drag our treasures along behind us because they are pleasant memories, but the day will come to cut loose the lines. The monks have done so already, in advance, obviously, but we will have to also do so one day. Interior monasticism is about preparing for that retirement from the world.
The law of eternal death
Even the monk’s celibacy is part of the lesson of fastening our hope on something more permanent than the world. The best strategy the ancient world had for dealing with death was to have many children so that one’s name would not die out. But Vladimir Solovyof says celibacy calls to a higher hope. It is not enough that the human race go on by producing lemmings for the cliff. Monastic celibacy repudiates progeny as our only hope, and directs us to the eternality of an individual soul. Solovyof writes,
It is unworthy of a man to be merely a means or an instrument of the natural process by which the blind life-force perpetuates itself at the expense of separate entities that are born and perish and replace one another in turn. Man as a moral being does not want to obey this natural law of replacement of generations, the law of eternal death.xxvi
The monks are not ashamed of sex, they are ashamed of death! “Sexual shame refers not to the physiological fact taken in itself and as such morally indifferent … The condemning voice of sexual shame refers solely to the way of the animal nature, which is essentially bad for man.”xxvii The way of the animal nature places hope in the survival of the species by carnal reproduction, but what happiness is there in the species being immortal if individual members of it are not?
Death is a shame. What a shame that we have to die. “Shame: a painful emotion caused by the awareness of having done something wrong or foolish.”xxviii Adam and Eve were foolish in their wrongdoing; we feel their shame. We must come to terms with death, which is what interior monasticism is all about. Renunciation is a representation of an eschatological love that has higher claims on us than the claims anything in the world has on us. Such love can reach out to God through the world (which is why we do not all have to become monks), but ultimately it will reach God without the world (which is why the monks are witnesses to Christians and the world).
As I said, this interior monasticism will have to pervade each of our lives personally and uniquely. My retirement from the world – my academic world – forces me to reckon with what was the point of an academic career. And for an answer, I was given an image at the end of mass. If a saint’s good deeds do not go unnoticed by God, and a monk’s prayers do not go unnoticed, I thought maybe a theologian’s thoughts do not go unnoticed. Maybe the thoughts in the classroom, in the library, even online (the most ephemeral of all media) can give God glory. And at the end of mass one day I saw a cloud of incense hovering near the ceiling, and I thought: a grain of incense placed on the coal eventually burns out, but it has fulfilled its purpose if it has released a cloud of smoke.
An inspiration from God placed in the mind eventually burns out, but it has fulfilled its purpose if it releases a cloud of glory. The incense flares up and extinguishes (the inspiration is forgotten), and the coal gets cold (death), but a small cloud of glory remains in praise of God. That’s all that matters.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted as a feature on Dec. 5, 2020.)
i The Rule of St. Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, ed. Timothy Fry, OSB (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1981) 305.
ii Augustine Baker, Holy Wisdom, or Directions for the Prayer of Contemplation (New York: Benziger Bros, 1911) 172.
iii Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (New York: Penguin Books, 2003) 56.
iv Ward, 54.
v Evagrius, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981) 17.
vi I am aware of the difference between celibacy and chastity. I am also aware of the difference between monks (who vowed stability, obedience, and conversion of life) and members of religious orders (who vowed poverty chastity, and obedience).
vii Lumen gentium paragraphs 40 and 41.
viii Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God (Wilder Publications, 2011) 272
ix de Sales, 271.
x de Sales, 277-78.
xi Augustine, Sermon 54 On the New Testament, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160354.htm
xii Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998) 73-74. First translated into English as The Struggle With God (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1966).
xiii Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good: an Essay on Moral Philosophy (London: Constable and Company, 1918) 411.
xiv Evdokimov, Orthodoxy (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2011) 299.
xv Evdokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994) 106.
xvi Evdokimov, Orthodoxy, 106.
xvii Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, 120-121.
xviii Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, 137.
xix Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, 137.
xx Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, 139.
xxi Elizabeth of the Trinity, The Praise of Glory: Reminiscences of Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1914) 22, 23.
xxii Elizabeth of the Trinity, 38
xxiii Elizabeth of the Trinity, 84
xxiv Elizabeth of the Trinity, 114
xxv Elizabeth of the Trinity, 131
xxvi Vladimir Solovyof, Justification of the Good (London: Constable & Company, 1918) 138.
xxvii Solovyof, 142.
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