“What is a monk?" I am often asked. Sometimes, what is meant, or even asked explicitly, is, “What does a monk do?”
It’s not an easy question to answer because being a monk is not a job, but a state of life. Monks are among the busiest, most talented people I know, but that is not what makes them monks.
Perhaps some comparisons would be helpful. Being a husband, a wife, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, or a friend—these are not “jobs” in the same sense that being an electrician or a lawyer are jobs. Rather, they signify relationships to another—relationships that are deeper than any description or definition. Ask 10 mothers what a mother is, and you will likely get many different answers. They would likely all be right, but none would fully answer the question.
In my mind (ask 10 monks and you’ll likely get many different answers), the question is, in a very mysterious sense, the answer. The fact that it can’t be fully grasped or pinned down is what points us to something beyond ourselves and what we do.
Monks are people devoted to seeking God, and because that definition is elusive and unsatisfactory, it points to God Himself, in whom all real relationships are held.
Primarily, a monk is someone who wants to be real.
He wants to be committed to a lifetime of seeking who God really is, who he himself really is in God, and how God really manifests Himself in all of creation. He strives for this through a daily rhythm of prayer and work with a community of very different individuals committed to the same way of life.
A monk is not some mysterious, other-worldly, and perfectly pious being, although some may think him to be. If he thinks himself to be these things, then he is not being real, and therefore has not yet learned what it truly means to be a monk. A monk seeks God in the ordinary, the routine, and the mundane. That is all that truly sets him apart.
So, a monk, then, is someone who is attentive to all the ways in which God makes Himself present, so that he can be fully present to God.
He seeks God in the butterfly wafting through the meadow, praising its Creator by simply being one tiny butterfly in a vast world that will remain largely unknown to it.
He seeks God in the striking echo of one word of the Psalms recited in choir, a word heard a thousand times before but which suddenly takes on a deeper meaning for a reason he can’t fully explain.
He seeks God in the pre-dawn silence that penetrates his soul like a hand does a glove so that the two become one without anything between them.
He seeks God by suddenly recognizing and appreciating the goodness of a quality in a confrere he hadn’t noticed before, and without discussing it, is inspired to strive for that quality himself.
However, a monk also seeks God by trudging to church morning after morning, sometimes drowsy from a fitful night of sleep plagued by a thousand nagging worries.
He seeks God by praying for the ability to forgive a confrere who deeply wounded him with a sharp remark, knowing that the two must continue working on a long-term project together.
He seeks God by saying yes to a favor asked of him; one he doesn’t wish for but knows is needed.
He seeks God in the bottom of a toilet bowl he’s scrubbed more times than he cares to remember. While he’s doing that, he seeks God by thinking of all the ways the age-worn monk in the bed five feet away has done of all this through the years—remaining faithful to God’s call and encouraging others to remain faithful to theirs through his own prayer and work.
The mystery of being a monk, then, lies deep within the reality of being human while delighting in the divine. The monk strives to see, believe, and be transformed by the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ present all around him at each moment of every day.
Through his prayer, work, and life with the monks of his community, he may marvel or be confounded. Yet through it all, he is committed to integrating all these aspects of his journey to achieve what is necessary for his salvation—a real relationship with God, a real relationship with himself, and a real relationship with everyone and everything around him.
This is a monk.