Defying a simple definition, Christian monastic spirituality is primarily an approach to God in response to God's invitation found in Sacred Scripture: "Seek first the Kingdom of God" (Mt 6:33). Monastic spirituality implies a single-hearted (solitary) seeking of God. This may or may not be carried out in the company of others, (the monastic tradition has embraced both), but the focus is clearly on returning to God, and making use of certain specific practices: prayer, fastings, silence, vigils, reading, good works.
All of these are meant to assist one to grow in the likeness of God in whose image we are made. Eastern Christian tradition uses the term divinization for this process of growing in the likeness of God. It is meant to be carried out over a lifetime, but only perfected and finalized in eternal life after one's death.
A Way of Life
Monastic spirituality can also be called a way of life - either lived in a monastery or not - that requires a certain discipline to dispose oneself to meet the living God. The practices mentioned above: prayer, fastings, silence, vigils, reading, good works, are seen as means to that end, and never ends in themselves. In fact according to the ancient Christian tradition of the desert it is better to abandon the practices if they are not assisting one to greater openness and love of God and neighbor.
The Pioneers of Monastic Life
The inspiration for monastic spirituality is the example of individuals who have followed such a path or written about it since the latter part of the third century. These include such persons as Saints Antony, Pachomius and Mary of Egypt, Saints Basil and Macrina of Asia Minor, John Cassian of Gaul, Saints Benedict and Scholastica of Italy, and many others. These men and women have acted as guides in the discipline of seeking God with a monastic spirituality.
For those who choose to embrace a monastic life in a more formal way, in a monastery or hermitage, monastic spirituality includes celibacy, first and foremost as a prophetic sign of the Kingdom of God already present and to come, as well as in imitation of Jesus Christ, recognized by his followers as God-made-flesh, redeemer of the human race.
A celibate lifestyle is also a practical means of freeing oneself for the demanding life of joyful self-giving as a follower of Christ.
Many married and single Christians outside the formal setting of the monastery or hermitage also look to monastic spirituality as formative for their lives. Some of these people may be associated with an existing monastery or hermitage, without living there, but passing some days or weeks each year there participating in the prayer, silence, and work, and for the rest of the year living ordinary lives but striving to incorporate whatever they can of the monastic discipline into their daily lives. These people are often called oblates, from the Latin word oblatus meaning to give oneself as a gift. Most Benedictine monasteries today have such associates.
Monastic spirituality is seen by oblates as providing a better focus for their Christian lives and encouraging attentive listening to God in the silence of one's heart, especially through the ancient monastic discipline called Lectio Divina, meaning a prayerful reading, meditating and praying with Sacred Scripture (the Bible). Other helpful means of focusing one's life include times of reading or chanting each day part of the book of Psalms, the prayerbook of the Christian as it is often called.
The Church has devised various formats for what is called the Opus Dei (Work of God) in the monastic tradition. In addition to Psalmody, other portions of the Bible are read during the Opus Dei and there are moments of silence, prayers of petition to God, and hearing writings of ancient Christian authors, many of them from the monastic tradition. All of this, as well as participation in the Sacramental life of the Church, is meant to promote a life centered on Christ, and extending the love received from God to loving God in return and all those one meets: neighbors, family and perfect strangers.
Hospitality is an important aspect of monastic spirituality, as it gives a concrete shape to the meeting with God in silence and prayer. To love the invisible God one must love the visible neighbor, Scripture teaches. And as a logical extension, there is a call to respect all that God has created, showing a stewardship toward what has been freely given by God for the earthly journey toward heaven.
Monastic spirituality flows from a belief in a God who comes to those who are disposed to listening, who will perservere in seeking God even when it seems pointless or boring. Monastic spirituality is not a running from (obligations, tragedies, brokenness), but running toward - seeking a meaning to the mystery of life in the presence of the living God.