Why have most people never considered a monastic vocation?
There is a wonderful anecdote from the life of Pachomius, who is considered to be the father of cenobitic monasticism. Prior to the 4th century, monasticism was asceticism all alone. Monks lived in huts and hermit caves and pursued a rigorous life unaccompanied by the distraction brought on by other bodies and voices. Pachomius is the one who first created a community (or cenobitic) organization where monks lived together sharing a common life of work and prayer. It was in the living together where the anecdote arises.
The story is of a quarrel. One brother struck another brother who responded to the violence with an equal blow. “Pachomius called the two monks into the presence of the whole community and, after having interrogated them and obtained their confession, expelled the one who had struck first and excommunicated the other for a week.”* From the text, which is found in Vaticanus Graecus 2091, the anecdote continues:
While the first monk was being led out of the monastery a venerable old man named Gnositheos, eighty years of age—and in fact, as his name indicated, he had knowledge of God—came forward and cried out from among the monks: “I, too, am a sinner and I am leaving with him. If anyone is without sin, let him remain here.” And the whole crowd of brothers, as though they were one man, followed the old man, saying, “We are also sinners and we are going with him.” Seeing them all leaving, the blessed Pachomius ran out in front of them, threw himself on the ground with his face in the dirt, covered his head with earth, and asked forgiveness of them all.
All the brothers returned, including the one who started the brawl in the first place. In his monograph on the monastic rule, Italian philosopher and political theorist Giorgio Agamben brings in another observation from Pachomius:
“If murderers, magicians, adulterers, and those who are guilty of whatever other sin take refuge in the monastery to work out their salvation…who am I to drive a brother from the monastery?”
People who join religious orders and monastic communities are no different from you and me.
This is the point of the story. This is the realization that Pachomius had when he threw himself in front of his brothers and covered his head with the earth—we, all of us, are in great need of a space where we can do our worst.
The strict ascetic form of monasticism, and indeed, a history of strict observance of rules and regulations, has often made it feel as though it is out of reach for most people. We tend to place monks and nuns into some other category. We do the same with priests, pastors, leaders, and even entrepreneurs. We point out what we call “extraordinariness” in others while assuming that whatever they are doing, attaining, preaching, or selling—is something that is beyond our grasp. Maybe what they are doing or saying IS in fact out of our grasp. But that isn’t the point is it? The question is what is within our grasp? To what have I been called? We need to stop defining our life by what we aren’t or can’t do; we need to define our lives based upon what we are, and what God might be inviting us into.
Monks and nuns play croquet by the same rules as you and I. They are normal people who do not necessarily have a higher calling—but rather, they have a calling that is specific to them. They found it. They stumbled upon it. But it is rare that the religious life begins with some great religious epiphany. Most people never think of joining the monastic life because it hasn’t really been an option. It’s never really been on the table for the majority of people living what we might call normal lives. The form of monastic life has often been restrictive to the degree that perpetuates the lie that some people are better suited for the “contemplative” or “ascetic” life. But what if it was an option? What if it was an option for you, even for just a season of your life?
The above quote from Karl Barth calls us toward the process of discernment. What is my particularity and what is God commanding me to do? The trouble is that not many people know what their own particularity actually is. Most people don’t know what God's unique invitation to them is because there really isn’t time and space in our culture for these kinds of questions to be deeply considered.
When I read the above story of Pachomius coming to his senses and realizing that he was about to expel a brother for committing an offense, it made me feel like I was in good company. When I read that two brothers came to fist-to-cuffs over something that was most certainly, in the long run, inconsequential, it felt like something I could belong to.
Most people never consider joining a religious order because they can’t imagine that the kind of life that it entails is one that includes the occasional fist-fight. But it does. We are starting a 21st-century monastic expression because when people are given the space to know their worst—to truly see it come to life—the best things come of it.
*Agamben, Giorgio, and Adam Kotsko. The Highest Poverty Monastic Rules and Form-of-life. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2013.