Jesus Wasn’t a Monk but He Kind of Was

 

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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.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $9.99 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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What Could Writers Learn from Monastic Ministry?

writing ministry like monastic ministryWhen I started to take my writing seriously, I hit a point where I had to cut out some interests and leisure activities from my life, including most sports (except hockey OF COURSE), television shows, radio, and almost all of “pop culture” (I dare you to ask me about the latest top 40 songs or movies in theaters). That was the only way to make some space for my work.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all, and if I wanted to take writing seriously, I had to make some sacrifices. When I saw how badly I wanted to write, these weren’t very difficult sacrifices to make. In fact, I’ve sometimes made a loose connection between my calling to write with the calling of a monk.

Mind you, these are “loose” connections, but it’s not so far-fetched to compare the calling of the writer to the calling of a monk—at least a writer who is committed to seriously writing. In fact, I’d suggest that many writers could stand to learn a bit from the commitments of the monastic way of life.

Without minimizing the commitments of monks, here are a few ways writers resemble monks:

 

Monks and Writers Withdraw

Monks devote their lives to prayer and work. Some may be more in tune with the times than others, but generally the task of the monk is withdrawing from the pleasures of this world in order more perfectly align themselves with God.

Monks serve as a living signpost of sorts that the goals and promises of our world are fleeting and feeble.

Withdrawing is essential for writers. Writers can’t just hammer out 1,000 words while watching a hockey game or while a kid hammers on your leg with stuffed rabbit—not that I’ve tried to do either…

We have to withdraw for contemplation and reflection in order to feed our writing time. Time for reflection is needed in addition to the actual time we sit down to write.

Those of us with kids and other commitments will need to withdraw in small chunks of time, be that while doing the dishes, showering, driving, or taking a walk. I’ve had to cut way back on my podcasts over the years just to make sure my mind has time to develop ideas before I sit down to write.

If you keep saying, “I don’t have anything to write about,” there’s a good chance you need more time to withdraw and let your mind wander.

 

Monks and Writers Develop Awareness

From my outsider perspective, it strikes me that a major part of monastic work is learning to become aware—especially aware of what can get in the way of God’s presence. If a monk’s primary task is to commune with God, the first step is to remove the obstacles that get in the way of God.

Writers learn a similar kind of awareness—identifying their emotions, stories, and contexts and then sharing stories and ideas that flesh them out. We have to recognize what drives us, what stirs our anger, and what leaves us devastated.

When we write from this place of awareness, we create meaningful connections with readers. We’ll hear people say, “You put my experiences into words perfectly.”

I don’t think writers have a special “writer sense” that allows us to see the world differently. The main difference is that good writers take time to become aware of the world and then reflect longer.

There aren’t extra hours in a day that writers get. We have to develop our awareness and then let it flow into our writing, testing out different phrases and metaphors as we work on putting it all into words.

 

Monks and Writers Practice and Practice and Practice

Monks take vows of long-term commitment to their way of life. It is a life-long apprenticeship that they won’t get right overnight.

Writers commit to the long term with their work. Developing a personal style and learning how to effectively communicate with readers in print is no small matter. I started writing for publication back in 2005, and I’m just now starting to understand what I need to aim for in my writing—whether I can actually succeed at connecting with readers in the end is another matter entirely!

Keep working at your writing. Keep practicing draft after draft after draft. I have found that new writers, myself included, tend to overestimate their abilities, even if they have to overcome their insecurities in the first place. There’s no way around it. We have to labor over our words, absorb feedback, and keep hammering at our keyboards and scratching with our pens.

 

Monks and Writers Serve

Writing serves others just as monks have a calling to serve the church. They create a space for the holy through both their monasteries and their practices. Whether monks host retreats, intercede for others, or provide for the needs of others, the monastic life is not self-serving.

Writers learn this lesson as they figure out  how to write for an audience, providing what their readers need and connecting with them on a level that matters to them. When I started out as a writer, I tended to “preach” to my readers. I ranted and lectured.

I’m still learning to this day the art of writing books that say, “Do you struggle with this? Me too, here’s my story…” It’s far easier to just tell people what to think. That can be a ministry I suppose, but ministry is far more likely to happen when we share the stories of our imperfections and struggles, inviting readers to join us as we try to sort things out.

 

Is This a Stretch?

It may be a stretch to compare writers and monks, but if Micha Boyett can compare stay at home moms to monks, it’s worth a shot. My experience of monasticism is limited to what I have read and to a few conversations with monks. It’s not exhaustive by any means.

Nevertheless, I can’t help noticing the connections between the ministry of monks and the ministry of writers. And if we can’t imagine how a writer could possibly be like a monk, perhaps we’d be better off if we could start imagining such a notion and give it a shot next time we struggle to focus or hit a creative roadblock.