Two weeks ago, I participated in a week-long retreat at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Still River, Massachusetts. The retreat program – which gave its inaugural lecture series this year – is run by two professors from the Catholic University of America (CUA) and is dedicated to examining the thought of the greats of monastic spirituality.
One thing I saw over the course of the week was an elderly priest who would frequently pray alone in the chapel connected to the monastery. He always seemed to be in a state of intense prayer, even more than the other monks.
I never found out his backstory. But, based on my first impression of him, this sort of behavior could be interpreted as a sign of one of two things: either as one on the road towards the ideal of Christian asceticism, or as asceticism gone wrong.
To understand what I mean, we must understand the basis for the monastic (and more general ascetic) life. Christian monasticism was influenced in particular by the words of Matthew 19:21 – “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all your possessions to the poor…[t]hen, come follow Me.” This text was the inspiration for the first great Christian monk – St. Anthony the Great – to sell all his possessions and live a life of secluded contemplation. This text was also influential in the conversion of St. Augustine, and inspired him to help create several monastic or quasi-monastic communities after his conversion.
Why would anyone chose to live such a life? The Augustinian priest Fr. Adolar Zumkeller, in his work Augustine’s Ideal of the Religious Life, makes a distinction between between several different senses in which Augustine uses the word “world”. The term “world,” first and foremost, could refer to God’s creation, in and of itself. The world, in that sense, is good, as it is the creation of an all-good God. It reflects the goodness and glory of God, and thus man can use it to attain his final end, namely union with God. Yet, the term “world” could also be used to refer to God’s creation as it was warped, contaminated, or distorted by sin. Sin and evil disturbs the order of creation, which by its nature is meant to reflect the goodness of God. This is the logical conclusion of the Church’s view on creation, since, if God is all-good, He would never cause or create something evil, lest He cease to be morally perfect. Evil thus cannot be something built into the order of creation, but rather results from the warping or corrupting of the created by sin. Thus, the term “world” in this second sense refers not to God’s creation, in and of itself, but God’s creation in its fallen state. 
It is in this latter sense that Christians say, “Be separate from the world,” or when Scripture describes the Devil as “the prince of this world” (cf. John 14:30, 2 Corinthians 4:4). The world, in the sense of God’s creation, in and of itself, without any admixture of evil, was what humans had prior to the Fall, and this is what will eventually be restored in the eschaton (cf. Revelation 21). Yet, in the present, humans live in the world in the second sense. Considering the state of the world in the second sense, it is much easier to get caught up in the things of the world – that is, to have a disordered love of the world. Humans are meant to desire higher goods above lower goods. A disordered sense of love can be seen when people desire lower goods above higher goods, and a disordered love of the world exists when people treat created goods as if they were the highest good (God). It is much easier to do that than to put aside a particular good for the sake of a lesser good. It is much easier for man in his current state to turn the desire for wealth, or even simple financial security, into greed. It is easy for our desire for beauty to become vanity, or, when ordered towards another, lust. It is very difficult for a person to receive acclaim or recognition, and not become full of themselves (the sin of pride). It is difficult for a human to be in “the world” but not of “the world”, for a person to live among the temptations of day-to-day life and not get absorbed by them. It is also difficult for a person to completely put aside the things of this world from the get go. Imagine making a vow before God to forego your right to pursue wealth and material success; to forego your right to pursue sexual pleasure; to forego your right to personal or private property ownership; promising to live in a state of perpetual obedience to your ecclesial superiors; devoting yourself to a life of perpetual prayer and manual labor.
This lifestyle may seem extreme, but for some it is the safest path towards a state wherein one achieves a state of detachment from the world (in the second sense of the word), humility, and self-giving love. In the world, it is easy for a person to live for themselves alone, to act simply for the pursuit of their own immediate wants and needs; in the monastic life, you life solely for God and your fellow monk.
To go long periods of time, sometimes even a lifetime, without the freedom of movement, sex, or wealth is near impossible for some people. It is for this reason that not all people are called to the monastic life. Yet, the goal of the monastic life – not being absorbed by the things of the world, living for God and our fellow man and not for ourselves, humility, a radical sense of openness to God, all of which are necessary for us to cooperate with God’s grace and salvific plan – is the common goal of all people. We achieve this goal through different means. Some people are called to continue living in the world, to live a life marked by creating a balancing act between being in the world and being of the world. This is the lot of the average person, and even most of the clergy, who do not live the secluded life of a monastery. Yet, others are called to live a more monastic life, which is, in a sense, a crash-course in holiness. The term “holy”, in Hebrew and Greek, had as one of its meanings “separate.”  That which is holy is that which is set apart for a higher cause. All those who, in the end, are saved, will be set apart (set apart from the world in its fallen, sinful state, set apart from the reprobate, etc.), but the monastics attempt to live a life of intense separateness from the world in this life, to better dispose themselves to the separateness of the next world.
God calls all people to holiness, but God calls us down different paths towards holiness. Why God calls a person down a particular path as opposed to another is something that will be unknown to us in this life. Nonetheless, God only gives us the grace to go down the path that He calls us down. If we do not go down the path God is calling us, we will never be able to make proper use of the gifts He gives us. They will not bear proper fruit. I was an acquaintance with an Eastern Orthodox priest who told me the story of a group of monks. In spite of living an intense ascetic life – frequent prayer services, frequent fasting, living a life of poverty, intense meditation and manual labor – they said that they could never live the life of a married couple. On the other hand, the highly materialistic mindset of modern-day society would make the monastic life difficult for the average person.
What all of this implies is that God’s gifts are given for a specific purpose, and to fail to use these gifts as we ought will fill us with spiritual hardship. It is for this reason that spiritual discernment is of the utmost importance. For one called to the monastic life, the solitude of the monastic life leads to a state of intense intimacy with God. The purpose of the monastic life is to put aside the things of this world in order to attain a higher level of closeness with God. The result of the monastic life, if done correctly, is that there is nothing but you and your God. But, we see what happens when a person not called down the monastic life enters to monastic life. One good example would be Martin Luther. According to his own accounts, Martin Luther chose to enter into the monastic life rashly, as a result of a near-death experience, and quickly fell into a state of scrupulosity and despair. Although he never condemned the monastic life as such, even after his excommunication, he was very critical of the monastic life throughout his career.
As I lived in the monastery, I saw how the monastic life, even with its relative isolation and regularity, can be viewed as the opposite of restrictive. It is, in many ways, peaceful, meditative, and prayer-filled, and in many ways is conducive to the sort of intimacy between the individual and God for which the monastic life was created. Yet, this cannot and will not happen for one who doesn’t act in accordance with God’s plan.
This applies to any path in life. Any way of life – monastic or worldly – can feel constrictive for a person not called down that path.The events of life can either be liberating or constricting, depending on how we use them. The world can either become a rat race, in which we aimlessly wallow in our sin, or it can be the means of salvation. Likewise, the monastic life can either be a holy solitude, or a lonely isolation. It depends on whether we properly respond to God’s call.
- Adolar Zumkeller, O.S.A., Augustine’s Ideal of the Religious Life. Translated by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. Fordham University Press, 1986. Pg. 210-217
- James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., A Concise Dictionary of the words in the Greek New Testament: with their renderings in the Authorized English Version, pg. 7. Also, James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., A Concise Dictionary of the words in the Hebrew Bible; with their renderings in the Authorized English Version, pg. 102. Found in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Reference Library Edition) (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers)