Allow me to reveal just how Protestant I am. I’ve studied the Gospels closely and intensely for the majority of my life, but I rarely made any connections between Jesus and monks, starting with the fourth century desert fathers, right on through the present day. Jesus was out in the public eye preaching sermons and discipling people, right?
When I became more charismatic, I started tacking on “healing people” to Jesus’ list of activities.
What could Jesus possibly have in common with monks who hid in the desert, took vows of silence, and wove baskets or brewed beer (depending on the century) in their free time?
Sure, Jesus went off to pray in the desert for 40 days…
Sure, Jesus spent entire evenings praying…
Sure, Jesus had a vision of God while praying on a quiet mountain side…
Sure, Jesus got baptized in the wilderness and heard God call him his “beloved son”…
Sure, Jesus prayed fervently and personally with God during his most difficult moments…
Sure, Jesus told his followers to pray in the quiet and privacy of their own rooms…
Wait, that’s starting to sound a bit like a monk.
Mind you, there are all sorts of monks. Some are more chatty, some are more handy, some are more interested in preaching, and some are more interested in preserving the quiet, contemplative prayer practices that have been passed down by the historic church. I can’t imagine any Protestants saying that Jesus was particularly “monastic” in his practices or his ministry. I can, nevertheless, see the common threads between Jesus and the monks. They make a lot more sense when I start looking at the ministry of Jesus.
Jesus was kind of like a monk.
The monks also make a lot more sense when I remember that they were a reform movement in the line of a long history of reform movements that took to the desert and wilderness. When the prophets called Israel back to God, they often hung out in the wilderness. When John the Baptist began preaching about repentance… wilderness. When Paul needed to figure out the Messiah in light of Jesus… wilderness.
As Christianity rose in prominence, the monks recognized that the empire’s power and the influence of the clergy could become extremely toxic. They also fled the pleasures of the city, and even if Protestants would like to critique some of their negative associations with the body (Hello there, early church cultural captivity to Platonic philosophy!), we can sort of get it today. They wanted to remove as many distractions from the pursuit of God, and as Christianity grew in power and influence, they also wanted to avoid the temptations of church-based power.
Jesus didn’t go to the extreme of hanging out in a cave 24/7, but the more we look at the way he rejected the power centers of Judaism and any kind of official position within the religious hierarchy of his day, the more he looks like a monk.
The monks became a kind of expression of the Christian faith in a particular time and place, so the continuity and differences shouldn’t surprise us. Just as Jesus heard the voice of God loud and clear alongside a lonely river or atop a deserted mountain, the monks actively sought to hear the voice of God by pursuing solitude rigorously. Just as Jesus battled Satan during his 40 days in the wilderness, we have many reports of visitors to the cells of monks hearing them arguing with demons.
As a Protestant, I have long considered the monks a different class of Christian. Not necessarily a “higher” class (Hey, I AM Protestant after all), just a different class. They did spiritual stuff and experienced God in ways that I’ll simply never touch, right?
As a follower of Jesus, I continue to face the possibility that he was more like the monks than he resembles a lay person like me. He routinely sought quiet moments alone with God and even made great sacrifices in order to make it happen. Jesus modeled the daily pursuit of God within ministry, and he knew deep down to this core that he was God’s beloved Son, a Son that pleased God the Father.
The monks set off to their cloisters in order to uncover this mystery for themselves. How could the God of the universe love them so deeply and fully? They dropped everything in order to find out. They were so committed to this pursuit of God’s love that they didn’t want to risk confusing the praise of church leaders with the acceptance of God.
I’m still a Protestant, but I’m one of the growing number of Protestants who recognize that the spiritual practices of monks are deep, true, effective, and needed. The monks know a great deal about the presence and absence of God, the intimacy of Christ, and the ways that daily attentiveness to the pursuit of God can reorient our lives in ways that we can hardly touch through hours of diligent Bible study and historical-critical exegesis.
I’m not a monk, but I kind of want to pray like one because the monks were kind of like Jesus.