The English words monk, monastery, and monastic all come from the same Greek root word monos, which means “one.” For monastic women and men, this oneness has multiple aspects. Most obviously, this oneness expresses itself in singularity of life. Monastic women and men are unattached to an exclusive other in their lives. They intentionally remain unmarried and embrace celibacy as a lifelong commitment. The first Christian monks went out into the desert to live alone and apart from society and all forms of conventional socialization. Another aspect of oneness for monks, whether they be women or men, is singularity of purpose, to live exclusively for God. When the newcomer is asked by the elder monk, “What do you seek?” the monastic response is, “God.” It is the only acceptable answer; everything else is secondary, tertiary, or not even part of the conversation. A third aspect of oneness essential to the monastic vocation is singleness (or purity) of heart. Not only does the monk seek God alone and above all else, she or he strives with the help of God’s grace to develop an undivided heart, to be wholly one within oneself in thinking, loving, and desiring God’s will alone.
Guests to our monastery frequently ask the question, “What is the difference between a convent and a monastery?” The answer to this question is that the members of a monastery follow a monastic rule of life, embracing particularly monastic values such as stability, solitude, and silence. The life of Christian monastic women and men is centered on the commitment to cherish Christ above all through regular common and personal prayer and through forms of work that assist the members in supporting their way of life. Forms of work that take us beyond the walls of the monastery we call “external ministry, while work within the monastery is called “internal ministry.” Both forms of work have equal dignity and the same potential for glorifying God in everything. Those who believe that monks “sit around and pray all day” are not very familiar with monasteries at all. Yes, monks strive to “pray ceaselessly,” but those who are capable of manual labor are expected to support the life of the community to the degree that they are able. It is in serving one another, as well as serving others, that Christ is seen and served, thus fulfilling the monk’s singular purpose of seeking God with an undivided heart. All is done with God and for God and for the praise and honor of God.
So, what relevance is this to the rest of the Church and world? Monastic women and men strive to live the same Christian vocation as all those who are baptized in Christ but in a more radical way. We pray with and for the Church and the world first and foremost, that it may become all that it has been made and called to be by our loving God. We honor the dignity of all human persons whatever their race, age, gender, education, religion or nationality because we know them to be made in the image and likeness of God. We choose to live on the margins of society so that we might stand in solidarity with those who are forced to live on society’s margins because Jesus was so often found with the people who were on the margins of society in his earthly life and ministering to them. We promote values that nurture creation and living in a manner that is simple and sustainable. Hopefully, our lives are a witness to the way God desires all people to live in justice, harmony and peace. We strive for peace and pursue it because when God is in the center of all that we are and do, peace flows naturally from it. And, perhaps one day, the whole world will live with an undivided heart.
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB