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?”