I’ve written a couple of posts recently about the life and teaching of Fr Lev Gillet, who used the nom de plume ‘A Monk of the Eastern Church’. In the Western parts of the Christian world, we tend to have a fairly fixed idea of what a monk is: they wear habits, keep themselves to themselves and live in big old monasteries in a monastic community. None of these things was true for Fr Lev for most of his life. He did live in a monastery for a time and he did often (though not always) wear his clerical attire (though rarely with the monastic veil) but he lived a busy life, travelling around Europe and to Lebanon, leading retreats, preaching, reading in the famous old reading room for the British Museum, meeting friends… In what sense, you might ask, was he a monk? Is ‘monk’ in the Eastern church simply a synonym for ‘celibate’?
To be a monk in the Eastern sense is primarily to be one whose life is give to prayer – alone with the Alone (monos pros monon, hence ‘monachos’) – and the celibate life is at the service of this primary call. Many monks do live in communities, large or very small, and some serve parishes. Monks who are chosen to serve as bishops continue their calling while serving the wider church as teacher, pastor and priest. So Lev Gillet’s monastic life was in no way compromised by his living in Notting Hill or Paris for it was an interior life devoted to the vision of God in purity of heart.
Thomas Merton discerned something very similar. Although he did live in a monastery, or latterly in a hermitage in its grounds, he insisted that the monk was primarily a ‘marginal person’ who has ‘broken through the inevitable artificiality of social life’. A monk was someone not associated with the establishment or hierarchy (desert monks were famously suspicious of clergy!). Merton saw that this calling could be followed by anyone, irrespective of their ‘canonical status’ and gained further insight into the inner nature of this way of living through his conversations with Buddhist monks on his Asian journey. For them, the monk’s journey deeper into the monastic life was not a matter of fulfilling certain training criteria but of the deepening of wisdom [please note, those selecting candidates for ministry…]. It’s also important to note that the word ‘monk’ is not gendered in this use and is, indeed, used of all monastics in certain Buddhist orders.
So for Merton, the calling to be a true ‘monk’ is open to anyone who, in their inner life, sits light to the expectations of social existence and conforms only to the image of Christ, the marginal one who, inwardly free from other ties, could be the universal brother. This seems to me to be a calling worth embracing and living out in as many different ways as there are people willing to respond to it.