At Christ in the Desert we live our monastic life in community. There are times and places for solitude and privacy during each day, but much of what we do, be it prayer in church, our work, indoors or outdoors, meals in the refectory and recreation some days, we do as a community. This communal form of monasticism is called “cenobitic,” from two Greek words for “common life.”
The place where such a group of monks who live a life in common with others is technically called a “cenobium,” a word more often used in Eastern Christian forms of monasticism than in Western monasteries. In fact, any monastery where monks live in common with a few or many can be considered a cenobium. There are Orders in the Catholic Church, such as the Carthusians, whose lifestyle is more characterized by solitude, so they are not so much coenobitic as solitary in their structure.
Most often in ages past monasteries were situated in places far from civilization, so that a life which encouraged silence and contemplation could be fostered. Some of these monasteries eventually became surrounded by inhabitants who were not monks, but people looking to the monasteries for protection, employment and spiritual sustenance.
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert, founded in 1964, remains to this day in a very remote location. We who live here or who come as guests and visitors treasure the silence, solitude and beauty of our location, completely surrounded by many miles of Federal Wilderness, which assures there will not be development in the area. That does not mean we are anti-social, and in fact we welcome pilgrims and retreatants throughout the year and we have many friends in the locale and farther field as well.
Combining both solitude and interaction with others has characterized the Benedictine tradition since the time of Saint Benedict, who lived from 480 to 547 AD. His monasteries were to be centers where silence and solitude was combined with fraternal charity, whereby individuals could be supported and enriched by the presence of those laboring for love of God and neighbor. By combining both solitude and community, Benedictine monks could and can still live a life somewhat apart from the world but not as hermits.
Living under a Rule and an abbot, as Saint Benedict characterized his monks, the benefits of mutual obedience and spiritual guidance was assured. Coupled with this was and is the ability to participate in common liturgical worship of God throughout the day and year. Christ the Redeemer is present in such “offering the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in the redemptive mysteries celebrated by the monk” (Merton, “Come to the Mountain,” Snowmass, Colorado Brochure, 1964).
Benedictine monasteries have always been considered as sacred meeting places of God and man, of “holy encounter,” like the experience of Jacob described in the Book of Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10 to 22. There Jacob had a dream of angels ascending and descending from God in Heaven. Partly for this reason too, the monastic life is often described as the “angelic life.” This is not because monks are disembodied spirits, like the angels, but because monks should aspire to the ideal of a life of communion with God, something the angels ceaselessly enjoy in God’s presence.
When asked why his monks lived in community, the 12th century Cistercian monk and author, Abbot Issac of Stella, replied with words that are still fitting today:
“Because we are not yet ready for solitude; and because if one of us falls he will have others to lift him up and thus, brother aiding brother will be built up on high like a strong, fortified city; finally, because it is good and pleasant for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
The last reference is to Psalm 132(133), verse one. In Latin the phrase is rendered: Ecce quam bonum et quam iucundum habitare fratres in unum. How good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.
The “goodness” and “pleasantness” of monastic community life is not a question of people simply “getting along,” but it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit at work in lives, shaping them in the likeness of God in whose image human beings are created. Thus, we are not “buddies” in community, rather, we are to be brothers, forming a family under the watchful care of God; men living for the glory of God and in union with God. That of course is the ideal, sometimes not realized very well, but always the goal to which we aspire, and never giving up even when desired results are not attained.
The joy that flows from monastic life comes, as Thomas Merton points out, “from generous sharing in a common spiritual task of praise and labor [ora et labora], and a common search for truth” (Snowmass Brochure). For this reason, monastic community life can be compared to building something, an edifice that gives glory to God.
All must do their part, carry their weight, always taking into account what Saint Benedict calls “the infirmities of body or character” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 72:5, “On the Good Zeal Which Monks Ought to Have”). Monks are to build up and “edify” one another in the communal process to preserve the contemplative dimension that they have come to the monastery to find.
Words that Merton uses in “Come to the Mountain” to describe the kind of love that monks are to extend to one another include being “realistic,” “compassionate” and “understanding.” If monks show intolerance and impatience at every fault of others, they will never be at peace. Such conduct is often rooted in selfishness and introspection. A willing spirit to not only “put up with others,” but to cherish others, even with their foibles, is the path to true peace and happiness. Included in that is Christian holiness as well.
By the choice of an intentional community, hopefully in response to a call from God, and in the case of my own monastery, in a setting quite removed from the bustle of the city, the monk may seem to be denying the values and significance of what is usually considered normal human interaction. In this regard, Merton cites the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, who lived from 1882 until 1973, and who wrote:
“The human city gives its fairest fruit when it is crowned by the contemplative solitude of a few pure souls who in turn, moved by love, intercede for the multitude.”
While some may take exception to monks as “a few pure souls,” I think the sentiment is nonetheless true with regard to monks having a place in the “bigger picture” of God and the Kingdom in which followers of Jesus long to be a part of.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB