When people ask us "What is a monk", we often have to decide on the short, medium or long answer.
SHORT: We are 40 Benedictine monks of the Roman Catholic Church living in Subiaco, Arkansas, USA. We follow the 1,500 year old Rule as written by our holy father Saint Benedict who lived in Italy (you can learn more about that Rule by clicking HERE). This Rule and monastic way of life flow from the ancient biblical model of radical Christian discipleship as found in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35. Those men and women who lived out this radical way of life (most often alone in the desert) were referred to as "monks" or "monastics". Our balanced life of prayer and work (known in Latin as "Ora et Labora") has existed in Arkansas since our founding in 1878 by monks from St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana.
MEDIUM: The life of a monk is concerned with the one thing necessary: quaerere Deum (to seek God). He lives in the Monastery, submits to the authority of the Abbot, and follows the Rule of Our Holy Father Benedict. Monasticism is the most ancient manifestation of the religious state in the Church, which itself has always been held to be the highest and most privileged means to the universal end of the Christian religion.
Through the three vows of Obedience, Stability, and Conversatio Morum a monk pursues the perfect fulfillment of the Gospel precepts. He sacrifices the lesser goods of this world in order to make room for Christ above all and before all, who is Goodness Itself. The monk accepts Christ's words to the rich young man: "If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Matthew 19.21). This Rule and monastic way of life flow from the ancient biblical model of radical Christian discipleship as found in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35.
The monk seeks here and now that union that Jesus Christ shares with the Father. Like the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament, or St. Paul in the New Testament, the monk leads a celibate life as a means to this union. This is an eschatological sign of his exclusive dedication to God, the infinite Good. This union grows through prayer and charity, and the daily joys and sufferings of life in this valley of tears. In prayer the monk spends time with the one he loves. In as much as the neighbor is made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ's Precious Blood, the monk practices Christian charity towards his brethren for the sake of God and in God. A similar dynamic occurs in marriage.
The monk seeks God exclusively. Detached from all creatures, he gives himself totally to the Creator. For the sake of Our Lord, he renounces the highest natural goods: marriage, children, and free will. The monk makes an oblation of his whole being to God, intellect and will, body and soul.
As monks called to such a vocation, unworthy though we be, we hope in the words of Our Holy Father Benedict to "persevere in fidelity to God's teaching in the monastery until death so that through our patience we may be granted a share in the sufferings of Christ, and so receive a share in His Kingdom." (Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue).
LONG: Because of the long and varied history of Benedictine Monasticism over the past 1,500 years, it would take volumes of books to do justice to the subject. We will, though, show you one really cool papyrus and direct you to one nicely written LONG article.
First, we know that monks exhisted in the Church from its earliest days. In fact, the presence of those Christians that we now call monks were attested by scholars well before the end of the first century. These were men and women who were called by God to live out the radical Christian discipleship that was lived by the early church found in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35. Some of these men and women lived alone in the desert ("monochos"), others lived in cities, and even others lived this way of life as a group in a single monastic community (sometimes referred to as "coenobitic monasticism"--St. Augustine was a monk and liked to quote Psalm 133:1 in this regard--"Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!") The earliest "written" use of the word "monk" ("monachos") can be found in a petition that was written in Greek by Arsinoites of Karanis (south of Cairo), Egypt, sometime around 324 AD. The writer was suing his neighbor (and seeking justice) because the neighbor’s cow kept getting loose and trampling the writer’s garden. The writer was able to grab the cow out of the garden, when the owner and friends with clubs started beating him. Luckily, a Deacon named Antonius was traveling on the road with a MONK named Isaac. They came to the aid of Arsinoites so he was not killed (If you would like to see a copy of this actual papyrus, then click HERE. You can also click the link on this page to see the Greek with it's English translation). The existence of Christian monks certainly pre-dated this, but this is the first instance we have of where the actual word MONACHOS was used in writing. We also know from the ancient Pilgrimage Diary of Egeria that a diverse group of monks (coenobitic and anchorites/hermits) were present in vast numbers throughout Egypt and the Holy Land when she made her pilgrimage in 381-384 AD.
Next, the history of monasticism (and in particular where St. Benedict enters the story) is so extensive that a former Abbot Primate, Jerome Theisen, took the time to provide a brief introduction for the general public. This introduction has numerous links which you can use to further explore this fascinating subject. You can find this introduction by clicking HERE.