An examination of the word “monk,” as well as the earliest examples of Christian monasticism, suggest that a monk is a person who lives alone or is a solitary. In practice, however, this is not the case. Well before St. Benedict wrote his famous Rule there were various types of monks. Some lived alone, but with St. Benedict and other masters of the spiritual life, this form of monasticism was not encouraged until he or she learned to fight spiritual battles in community. Thomas Merton, as one recent example, had to wait many years until he was allowed to live alone. Other monks lived in a semi-community setting, having private cells or homes but gathering together at certain times or for certain events. More frequently, however, monks live in communities where a common life is consistently shared.
Although living the shared life (at least in the Western Latin Tradition) is the most common form of monasticism, it is wise for us to keep in mind that, spiritually speaking, we are born, exist, live, and die alone. We may be born into, exist within, and move toward community, but we do so as individuals.
This is as it should be. In his enriching little book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen suggests that a crucial element of the spiritual life, of life lived in the Spirit, is solitude. Deepening this solitude are silence and prayer. When properly nurtured, solitude, silence, and prayer, empower us to live dynamically relational lives.
How does this work?
The primary role of every monk, and every ordained clergy and Christian, is to pray. This is NOT an option. It is certainly NOT a luxury. It is an absolute necessity. Monks pray the Offices– principally Evening (Vespers), Night (Compline), Morning (Matins), and Midday prayers. Traditionally, priests were also expected to pray this liturgical cycle from the Lectionary with (not necessarily “in”) the Church– although usually only the Morning and Evening Offices were required. In fact, however, EVERY Christian must have a “prayer life,” and, more so, a life of prayer. Prayer is our profession, our life-breath, our “primary speech” (Ulanov).
This requires the silence of being, a listening heart, and solitude. Apart from the imperative of praying in and with the entire Church, we must enter our own closets (cells) alone and “pray secretly” to our Father in Heaven. That is, private prayer in sustained solitude is essential. The cultivation of solitude, of the solitary life, will always precede empowered social engagement and prayer.
“Closet” and “cell” exist within the cloister. To emphasize this, the monk has the cowl (that is a hood) as a perpetually present closet of prayer. Note these words: closet, cell, cloister and cowl. All of these words speak of solitude and the solitary life. But solitude and the solitary life are not to be seen or embraced as an “end.” Rather, they form only a beginning. Solitude is the soil of effective prayer. Silence is its fertilizer. Solitude has a unique capacity to sanctify, and silence teaches us to speak– pray (Nouwen).
To be a monk in the world, to be an effective Christian, we must cultivate the solitary life. “Alone” must begin to have some appeal to us. Although our American inclination toward individualism presents unique and extremely dangerous problems in this regard, and ANY form of “Lone Ranger” Christianity is anathema, the disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer must not be neglected.
When asked for a “word” from a disciple, one monastic Elder told this monk to enter his cell, because his cell would teach him everything. There is truth in this.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.