So why should I care about monks?

There is probably no figure so countercultural today as the monk. Having retreated from the world he gives himself wholly to pray for it. Actor Jonathan Jackson brought some unexpected attention to these misunderstood intercessors as he received his fifth Emmy award. Watch:

Who are the monks of Mount Athos? TV news magazine 60 Minutes wondered the same question and wangled an invitation for their crew to go and find out more. It’s a good start for understanding why Christians of whatever stripe — not just Orthodox and Catholics — should appreciate the prayerful labor of the monastic.

Foreign as the life of led by these monks may seem, a person doesn’t have to travel halfway around the world to encounter monasticism. I live in Nashville, Tennessee. Several hours away is the Hermitage of the Holy Cross. I know one of the monks who lives there, and several men in my church visit regularly.

But what is surely foreign to most of us is the life of prayer, self-renunciation, and single-minded spiritual pursuit. I can barely remember to pray some days. These men live to pray.

However foreign that sounds, some of it is undeniably true. This line hit me: “If we had nothing but consolation all the time, we really wouldn’t grow. In fact, we’d grow weaker.” God gives us both consolation and a cross, no matter what our vocation.

Most of the monks on Athos, at Holy Cross, and elsewhere are cenobitic — that is, they live together in small communities of prayer. But some monks are hermits or anchorites, largely pursuing a solitary life of prayer. Here’s a documentary about Fr. Lazarus, a Coptic monk who lives in very the birthplace of Christian monasticism.

While there are aspects to Fr. Lazarus’ story that are undoubtedly off-putting and strange to the modern Christian, I found this sentiment very moving and echoes the deeper desires of my own heart:

I was a man proud of himself. I was sure that I am the captain of my ship and the master of my fate. I was sure that I am the one who determines my own destiny. Now I believe that I am in the hand of the Lord. I believe that I have changed completely from being the master of my own life to being the loving son, the servant, the slave of Jesus Christ.

Not all are called to such a life, but some wish to experience it regardless. Anglican priest Peter Owen-Jones traveled to Fr. Lazarus to find out what such a life was like — not easy by the look of it.

In the past I discounted monasticism. After all, Jesus said we were supposed to remain in the world, right? Absolutely, yes. But I’ve come to see that a monk on his knees is more grounded than anyone. No monk lives in total isolation. Even a hermit like Fr. Lazarus comes to church for the eucharist. But for all our sakes, as Jonathan Jackson said, they pray.

“Even the anchorite who meditates alone,” in the words of T.S. Eliot, “[p]rays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.”

And for that we can offer our thanks. I for one can use all the prayer I can get.

How does it make you feel to know there are people whose lives are dedicated to praying for you and the world and who do so continuously?


Worth considering: Check out Frank Viola’s post, “Is Jesus really the only way?

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  • C. S. Lewis wrote about our longing for a far off country. I think that the monks are perhaps much closer to it. But it comes down to calling. I can appreciate what they do in prayer, but I can also confidently say that being a monk is not my calling.

    • Joel J. Miller

      You’re right about calling. We have to respect Paul’s image of the body. We all have need of each other. But we all have different functions and jobs. Like you, I’d make a lousy monk. I’m glad there are people who are called to that life.

  • When I am at the monastery I am always taken by the rythym of the monks life, especially that of prayer. It is very soothing and it seems so natural in the environment they have created. The I get home and the rythym I would like to maintain is shattered by chaos of life. I realize I am not called to be a monk but I do believe we are all called to lives of prayer.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Amen. It’s useful to remember that monks are sometimes called ascetics, spiritual athletes. We may not be called to their level of spiritual engagement (remember what Paul said about married being unable to attend to spiritual matters as well as the unmarried), we are called to pray nonetheless. God is concerned about drawing all people to himself and saving them through repentance and transformation. For some that happens in a monastery. For others in a family, on a job, in the world. But if we’re Christians, it happens to all of us.

  • The video with Peter Owen-Jones was really thought-provoking. It kind of makes you question everything. I remember having a similar experience when I spent two weeks on Mount Athos in the early 90s. I so want to go back.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I found that one very compelling as well. Athos seems amazing; the closest I’ve come was Scott Cairns excellent book, Short Trip to the Edge.

  • John Trent

    Have you read Kyriacos Markides’ books involving Mount Athos? I highly recommend them.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I have not, but I’ve been told by several people that it’s great. Probably should add it to my list.

    • John, Kyriacos wrote another book “Inner River”…its great too!

      • Joel J. Miller

        Wishlisting that one too. Thanks!

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    I met a Presbyterian minister who regularly took two weeks each year to make a retreat with the Cistercians (Trappists) at Conyers, GA, just East of Atlanta. He said he could not minister without this yearly retreat.

    At many monasteries around the world, especially those of a Benedictine discipline, an individual could sleep in a room, eat with the monks, pray, and celebrate Liturgy with them, and it cost you whatever you wished to donate.