"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 their jobs are not what make them monks — any more than one person’s occupation makes him or her a husband or wife.
Here at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana, as at any other Benedictine monastery, there are nearly as many jobs as there are monks (of which there are more than 80). Among the many occupations practiced here (many in cooperation with lay co-workers): education/administration in the Seminary and School of Theology for the formation of priests, deacons, and lay ministers; continuing education for priests and lay faithful; formation for permanent deacon candidates; maintenance of physical facilities, grounds, and operations; health care; firefighting; welcoming guests and directing retreats and conferences; arts and crafts (including, but not limited to, a monk who is a nationally recognized liturgical artist and consultant); gardening; carpentry; library science; computer science; writing, editing, and publishing (including our Abbey Press); Benedictine oblate program, with well over 1,000 oblates from across the country; administration and program development; youth liturgical leadership training for high school students; parish ministry, chaplaincies, and diocesan assignments; Hispanic ministry; spiritual direction; forestry; tailoring; music and liturgical arts; food services; and community outreach (which includes, but is not limited to, distribution of food and firewood to the economically disadvantaged).
All of these comprise the works and apostolates of Saint Meinrad Archabbey at this point in the 21st Century. In times not so distant, there have been others which eventually gave way to changing times and circumstances. Among these: the operation of a college and high school, as well as a farm, a vineyard, and a sandstone quarry. Yet in their wake, other more recent works and apostolates have arisen, been developed, and are flourishing. Among these: the Retreat program, the Oblate program, One Bread One Cup, Abbey Caskets, the Institute for Priests and Presbyterates, and the lay-degree program in the School of Theology.
Throughout all this, however, there have been three constants since Saint Meinrad was founded in 1854 by the Benedictine monks of Einsiedeln in Switzerland. These are, in no particular order: the Seminary, pastoral ministry, and the Opus Dei (Latin for “Work of God,” which refers to what is commonly known as the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours) celebrated by a community of monks living according to the "Rule," of St. Benedict.
Whatever our jobs may be — and over time, these may change institutionally or individually — it is this last aspect that strikes at answering the question, “What is a monk?” No matter what occupations the monks here have held over the years, what truly makes us monks is the Divine Office (chanting of the Psalms and scriptural Canticles, and praying on behalf of the Church and world) celebrated faithfully each day since our founding, and the spiritual work of prayer, sacrifice, and the common life in seeking God according to the "Rule," of St. Benedict. This way of life involves taking solemn and perpetual vows of obedience, stability, and conversatio (a Latin term, roughly translated, meaning conversion and fidelity to the monastic way of life; this vow also includes poverty and celibate chastity). It is this way of life to which many are drawn to Saint Meinrad as guests, students, monks, employees, oblates, etc.
“Nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God,” St. Benedict says in his "Rule" for monks. Written more than 1,500 years ago, Benedict’s "Rule," has been the leading guide in Western Christianity for those called to the Benedictine way of life (either as monks, nuns, oblates or lay people who are simply interested in incorporating aspects of the monastic way into their own lives). In the monastery each day, the monks here (and in many other monasteries throughout the world) arise before dawn and keep silence until the bells summon everyone into the church to chant the Liturgy of the Hours for Vigils and Lauds. The first words spoken for the day are in unison and directed toward God: “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51:17).
So, before any business or conversation for the day is conducted, the monk is immersed in God’s Word so that it may shape his prayer, work and community life. At regular intervals throughout each day, the monk returns to this time of prayer — in the spoken and chanted Word, in the Eucharist, in lectio divina (the prayerful reading of Scripture or other sacred texts), in the depth of his heart, and in spiritual counsel. Here at Saint Meinrad, the monastic community gathers five times each day, seven days a week, in the church for Vigils and Lauds, Mass, Midday Prayer, Vespers, and Compline. Prayer is the first and last work of the day for the monk, and what guides, sustains, and completes all other work. It is a sacred rhythm of living that gives rise to the Benedictine motto: Ora et labora, or “Pray and work.”
St. Benedict’s"Rule," is not a complex treatise on contemplation. Rather, it is a practical and adaptable framework for monks to center their time and being in God’s presence — in prayer, work and community life. No matter what we are doing, or how busy we are, we are called back every few hours to the church for our common prayer. And we have two specific periods each day — one in the morning and one in the evening — set aside for personal prayer and lectio divina. When the bells announce these periods, the faithful monk goes, and leaves everything else behind (physically if not always mentally, it must be acknowledged).
“Monastic life is not difficult — it’s relentless,” says Father Harry Hagan, who was my novice-master. No matter what else we do, our ordered round of prayer continually calls us back to listen and respond to the Word of God, who is the center of our lives. Hopefully, over a lifetime, this rhythm of listening and responding to the Word slowly becomes part of us, reshapes who we are, and flows out to encompass all of life. We bring our lives to prayer, and our prayer to our lives. With God’s Word permeating our lives, we are confronted with ourselves and extended beyond them into the life of the wider Church and world. So, the life may be relentless, but it is relentlessly full of grace.
So, what is a monk? Good question.
In a certain sense, I believe that the question itself is the answer. The fact that it can’t be fully defined or grasped 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. A monk is someone called to a lifetime of seeking who God really is, who he himself really is in God’s eyes, and how God is manifested 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. A monk seeks God in the ordinary, the routine and the mundane. That is all that truly sets him apart. So, a monk is someone who is attentive to all the ways in which God is present, so that he can be fully present to God. The true mystery of being a monk — as it is for any Christian, albeit in different states of life — 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 other members of his community, the monk may at times marvel at what he experiences or simply be confounded (feelings we are all familiar with, yes?). Our profession formula recalls the words of Psalm 119: “Uphold me, O Lord, according to your promise, and I shall live. And do not confound me in my expectation.” Yet through it all, the monk is committed to integrating all these aspects of his journey— however marvelous or confounding they may be—to guide him along the road of salvation that beckons each and every one of us.
As St. Benedict says both at the beginning and end of his "Rule," “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. … Let us prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
This is what a monk is, whatever else he may do.