Contemporary and Traditional Monks
What is the meaning of the term monk?The word monk derives from the Anglo Saxon word monc, which itself derives from the Vulgate Latin word monicus, the Latin monachus, and the Greek monachos and monos — all of which mean alone, all-one, "the single one."* The dictionary defines monk as: originally, a man who retired from the world and devoted himself to asceticism as a solitary or cenobite; now, specifically, a member of a religious order, as the Benedictines or Cistercians, devoted primarily to contemplation and solemn liturgical observances. Monks are cloistered and carry on all their activities within the limits of a monastic establishment.
The monk does not regard "the ordinary as irrelevant." The monk does regard that "our perception of its depth is undermined by inattention." Hence, "the monk is attentive or 'single minded.' The greatest fault is a divided heart. The monk (is a person) who has gained a heart that (is) all of one piece, a heart ... undriven by the knotted grain of private, unshared meanings and of private, covert intentions."* (*"The Practice of Place: Monasteries and Utopias" Philip Sheldrake in The American Benedictine Review, Vol 53:1, March, 2002, pp22f.)
May it be remembered, as Karh Barth wrote: And one thing is sure—that even in his hut or cave the hermit will never be free from the most dangerous representative of the world, i.e., himself. Church Dogmatics, Vol. 4.
A Traditional MonkIn general, a traditional monk is someone who has left the world to enter a monastery that St. Benedict set up as "the school of the Lord's service." The person in effect leaves the world to learn how to better serve the Lord. Within the monastery walls the monk learns to perfect his relationship with God within the community of his fellow monks (or nuns, if female, as may be understood throughout this section). Within the closed (cloistered) community, monks maintain a monastic chanting practice, singing the Divine Office as in Gregorian Chant. This solemn liturgical service, along with the Celebration of the Eucharist, forms the ora or prayer of the monks. The labora or work of the monk is that in which the particular monastery engages itself in its locale. The motto of the traditional Order of St. Benedict is Ora et Labora. In short, the traditional monks lives within a community of like-minded people and the context of perfecting one's relationship with God by learning how to serve God in relationship with one's fellow monks.
A Contemporary MonkThe White Robed Monks of St. Benedict form a contemporary Catholic religious order of people who have Earth as their monastery, the school of the Lord's service. Instead of "retiring from the world," the contemporary monk remains active in the world. His or her work (labora) is whatever one does as employment. The person's community is the people within one's environment at home, at work, or at play. This person may be married or single. Essentially, this person wants to more formally perfect his or her own personal relationship with the Lord in the company of others in the world rather than in a closed environment. With Earth being their monastery and each with his or her own familial structure, it is impossible for contemporary monks to come together physically several times a day to chant. Consequently, each monk maintains as his or her monastic practice a formal meditation practice, specifically zazen as practiced in the Soto Zen tradition. As a Contemporary Monastic community, it may be said that we practice solitude and community in cyberspace.
ListeningOperationally, the contemporary monk, through a formal zazen practice, perfects his or her relationship with the Lord by learning how to Listen, the first word of the Rule of St. Benedict and the motto of the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict. The monk learns how to listen to the Lord, discerning His Will by listening through (ob+audiens, obedience), rather than obeying, one's own self-generated delusions (false beliefs), illusions (false perceptions), and allusions (false stories). (Please refer to the Prologue of The (Zen) Rule of the White Robed Monks of St. Benedict.) The contemporary monk penetrates the veil of the World and practices relating to self and others as each truly is. The contemporary monk readily appreciates that the world and others are not necessarily as he or she believes, perceives, or historicizes. By learning how to listen, the contemporary monks truly lives out the metaphor: in the world, not of the world. (Please refer to an abbatial instruction entitled: A Monk's Reminder for perhaps greater clarity and further insight.)
Monks: Traditional and ContemporaryMonks in either tradition follow a rule of life. Benedictines follow in some form the Rule of St. Benedict. A corner stone of the rule is the practice of humility. A monk in either tradition practices humility, learning to obey, subsuming their own will to the Will of the Father as echoed in the Lord's Prayer:
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven....
A monk learns to differentiate between one's own human will which is naturally predicated upon self-generated beliefs, perceptions, and stories and the Will of the Father. By learning to be still within the context of a monastic practice (of sitting meditation or chanting, among others), the monk learns to live the meaning behind the words of the Psalmist: Be still and know that I am God. (PS 45:10) Eventually the monk's daily life, with work and prayer being one in the same, evidences itself in humility as the realization of ultimate reality. We are children of God. Hence, the monk comes to know Compassion.
This spirit of compassion a monk engenders through monastic practices. A monk's practices of prayer, zazen, silence, and mindfulness engender within the monk a sense of life as it really is. The monk does not need thus to delude him/herself by romanticism or cynicism, optimism or pessimism. When integrated into a monk's daily life — from waking through sleeping — the monk's spiritual practices enhance the monk's ability to choose to perceive all before life and death with insightful wisdom and to act with authentic compassion, in some cases being Compassion itself.
Peace and Joy!
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