As a noun, the word monk represents a discipline of life unattainable and undesirable for most of us. It’s doubtful that many of us are going to cloister ourselves away in a monastery, taking on a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We love our possessions, sex, and independence too much. Like a pair of pants one size too small, monk as a noun just doesn’t fit us very comfortably.
If we’re Protestants we struggle with monks theologically. Our thoughts may run something like this: monks believe in purgatory, give homage to Mary, pray to the saints, and teach something called transubstantiation. If we’ve done any kind of study into early church history, we most certainly have run across stories of monks, and their even more radical friends, the hermits. Who wants to starve themselves to near-death, live in the desert, sleep on the ground, and go without any of the comforts we’ve grown accustomed to? (All of which, I might add, is an unfair caricature of most hermits.) To use monk as a noun, to be a monk, seems unnecessary if not unfortunate. When we see a monk on the street or in a movie, we might feel sorry for them. (The funny thing is, they often feel sorry for us.) Look at all they’re missing. But are they the ones missing out, or could we be the ones?
As I see it, the word monk must change from a noun to a verb or we will never learn to benefit from this ancient form of Christianity. We don’t have to believe everything a monk believes in order “to monk.” We can remain a Baptist, a Pentecostal, or a Lutheran, and still monk. And might I suggest that not only can we monk—but monk, we must. Why do I say such a thing?
“Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” (Richard Foster)
Those who monk become deeper people. The spiritually shallow will never adorn the gospel enough to make it something attractive to those who need it.
Let’s face it. When people outside the church look at those of us inside the church, they often don’t see much of a difference. Our divorce rate is about the same, we struggle with the same addictions, and we can be just as prejudiced, self-righteous, unforgiving, and mean as the next person. Our “religion” has had little effect on our materialism, our consumerism, our fascination with celebrities, and all that we call entertainment. We are just as busy, stressed, and worried as those who make no profession of faith. Our children can be just as ill behaved, despite a steady exposure to a great children’s ministry at our church. We drive as fast, eat as much, and find humor in the same things everyone else does. When we invite those outside to join us, what are we asking them to join? We’ve already joined them! It’s hard to admit, but we’re not really all that different from those who don’t profess faith in Christ.
We’ve been brainwashed, bamboozled, tricked. Our culture, particularly if we live in a western society, has slowly infected us, and we are barely aware of it. In fact, pretty much all of the things we’ve had contact with from birth up to the present—our parents, our schools, our friends, mass-media, and sometimes even the church—have all played a part in making us less than who we were created to be. We are not whole. We are partial at best.
My true self—that part of me made in the image of God—has been suppressed, pushed down, and buried. That which is on the surface, what is seen by those around me, is my false self. In Seeds, an excellent compilation of the different themes found in the writings of Thomas Merton, editor Robert Inchausti says, “The world cultivates the false self, ignores the real one, and therein lies the great irony of human existence: The more we make of ourselves, the less we actually exist.”
If we are ever going to resurrect our true self we must monk.
The above article is an excerpt from my book: Mile Wide, Inch Deep: Experiencing God Beyond the Shallows, Soul Care For Busy Pastors and the Rest of Us. Find your copy here.