Someone who lives apart from the world in an all-male community, devoting himself to prayer, contemplation, and the performance of religious duties. He may prefer to live as a hermit, dwelling alone and meeting other members of the community only occasionally, as in church and at mealtime in the monastery refectory. A cenobitic monk, on the other hand, lives in a cloistered community and follows a strictly organized pattern of daily life.
The Four Main Aspects of Monastic Life
- Isolation from the world and withdrawal from human companionship. In the solitude of his own cell the monk finds solace in prayer and the study of the scriptures and devotional literature. According to Saint ANTONY, the first monk and the father of monasticism, “just as a fish would die out of water, a monk would perish if he tarried long away from his cell.”
It appears that in the early ages, some monks followed this rule without exception and declined to renew contact with even their closest family relations. A monk, however, may absent himself from his monastery for a limited period and a specific purpose, such as some service beneficial to his monastery or the church in general. We know that Saint Antony interrupted his stay in the desert on two occasions: he visited Alexandria at the height of persecution to comfort the victims and again during the Arian heresy to strengthen and encourage the faithful.
- Chastity, which by mortifying the body helps a monk to attain a purer and more dedicated spiritual life (see 1 Cor. 7:7, 38; Is. 56:3-9; Mt. 19:10-12; 22:30). In the words of Saint Jerome (c. 342-420), “It is a mark of great faith and of great virtue, to be the pure temple of God to offer oneself a whole burnt-offering, and, according to the apostle Paul, to be holy both in body and in spirit” (Adversus Jovinianum 1.12).
- Obedience and readiness to comply with and submit to the guidance and commands of his abbot, not only when he is still a neophyte but throughout his life. Among Coptic monks, Saint John the Short (see JOHN COLOBOS) is considered a paragon of virtue and obedience. It is related that his mentor Saint POEMEN once handed him a dry and withered branch asking him to water it regularly. Though water was not easily available, John continued to look after it until the tree flourished and gave fruit. Poemen offered its fruit to the monks saying, “Eat the fruit of obedience.”
- Voluntary poverty in fulfillment of Christ’s teaching, “sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mk. 10:21; see also Mt. 19:29).
To be accepted as a neophyte, a candidate must be over seventeen years of age and supply a recommendation from a priest who is usually his father confessor. He has to undergo a period of probation extending from one to three years.
A Monk’s Daily Life
A monk’s day usually begins at midnight, after he has slept during the first half of the night, with the service of the midnight psalmody and its prayer, followed by readings from the Scriptures until daybreak. He attends the Liturgy (if celebrated), and engages himself in the particular vocation to which he is suited or which has been assigned to him, be it carpentry, gardening, cooking, baking, copying, or another communal service. Throughout he is supposed to be silently praying or attending other prayers according to the time of the day. “Pray continually,” Saint Antony ordered his monks, “avoid vainglory; sing psalms before sleep and on awaking; hold in your heart the commandments of Scripture.”
While sitting at their meals, monks do not engage in conversation about worldly or social topics, but eat silently, listening to a fellow monk read to them passages from Bustan al-Ruhban (Paradise of the Monks) and similar works of edification.
Monasticism has experienced a revival in the second half of the twentieth century. The monks who now take their vows are young people who are mostly university graduates. Their skills or professions (medical doctors, for example) have benefited their monasteries and the communities around them. By special order of the patriarch they serve in churches in Egypt and abroad, when needed, as priests or helpers to a priest. They have not abandoned meditation and prayers. They still live under very rigid monastic rule. Monasticism is not disappearing but some aspects of a monk’s life have had to be modified to fit modern times. Monks today choose their way of life through true faith and conviction, not as an escape from the world.
- Banub Habashi, et al. Al-Rahbanah al-Qibtiyyah. Alexandria, 1948. Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of Nitria and Scetis, 3 vols. New York, 1933.
- Kirullus al-Antuni, Hegumenos. Kawkab al-Barriyyah, al-Qiddis al- Anba Antuniyus. Cairo, 1950.
- Risalat Mar Murqus. Alexandria, 1948.
- Riyad Suryal. Al-Mujtama’ al-Qibti fi al-Qarn al-‘Ishrin. Cairo, 1984.