The Mystery of Monasticism: History, Spirituality and Vocation
By Br. Matthew Mattingly, OSB (Monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey)
Published Online (2009)
Introduction: What is a monk? What exactly do they do? What is the purpose of their way of life? These are the questions people often have when they first visit a monastery. To those looking in from the outside, the monastic life with its concealing cloister walls, its unusual clothing, its highly ritualized lifestyle, and its unwavering silence, must appear as a great mystery, even a conundrum.
As a monk, the temptation is to respond to these questions with a list of our works, of our apostolates and ministries, the things that keep us occupied—what we do “for a living.” Monks throughout history, in fact, have done many different things. They have been farmers and ranchers, teachers and scholars, they have copied and printed books, they have served in parishes, they have been preachers and missionaries, artists and musicians, craftsmen and tradesmen, they have operated seminaries, retreat centers, guest houses, and so forth. They have engaged in any number of revenue-generating enterprises over the years, some exciting, most mundane.
Monks are not angels. We have to eat, we need a sheltered place to sleep; monks do need to earn a living. Nevertheless, a monk, to be true to his name, must always resist the temptation to define himself and his way of life in terms of his work, what he does for a living. The works that we do are always secondary, and never necessary, to our identity as monks—save one thing. The one activity common to all monks today and throughout history has been the constant daily round of prayer. The monastic vocation is essentially that. It is the call to a life devoted to prayer.