One of the most common questions monks get asked is one version or another of “What do you do with your day.” When I’m having a bad day I sometimes feel a little moved-in-on by this probing, but I try not to show it. On good days I am happy to unfold my schedule, maybe at greater length than the questioner was expecting.
What they are doing, though, is showing interest in our life as monks. It’s not the sort of question one would ask of a colleague at work or someone whose public life is similar to one’s own. But monks are not similar in that respect. As ordinary as we often think our daily lives are, and as little we think others might be interested in us, many people find us different, interesting, perhaps a little exotic.
And I guess we are. Our schedules are not the same as most people. We are up early and in chapel at 6 am for Vigils, and again at 7:30 for Lauds, with an hour in between, which we generally use for lectio divina or prayer. Breakfast is silent, as are the 12 hours before, from the end of Compline the night before. We have a community meeting and then work in the morning. Most days at noon we have the Eucharist, then dinner. By that time we’ve been at it about 8 hours or so, so most of us take a nap. Then more work or study, followed by tea at 4:00, which is our usual time to check in with each other. Vespers at 5:00, supper at 6:00, informal recreation often follows supper, and then Compline at 8:00.
This is not the sort of schedule most people outside of monasteries follow. Which leads many people to wonder, in a perfectly commonsense way, Why? Why do all this? What is the point? What is a monastery for?
People have been writing about this question for at least 1,650 years, if you date the beginning of setting and answering the question with the Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius shortly after the saint’s death in 356. It is a very considerable body of literature! But that’s no excuse not to answer reasonable and kindly questions.
I can’t speak for others, but my own answer would be that a monastery is “for” creating a place and a style of life to allow both the monks and our guests to pursue closeness to God seriously. Anyone can do this anywhere, of course, and many people do it in their daily lives without monasteries and do it better than we do. God bless them! I have been privileged to know more than a few along the way. Such great people!
But monks generally need to be with other people who want to do the same thing and so try to create a place and a way of living that facilitates it. Maybe we need it because we are fallible, not especially strong, or because we are not very heroic and need mutual encouragement. At any rate, what we do is build places and styles of living that facilitate rather than hinder the pursuit of God.
In subsequent blogs I hope to explore some of the monastic customs that we use as tools for this pursuit. I hope you will find this interesting and return here from time to time to see where it’s going.
Br. Adam McCoy, Prior