What makes someone truly a monk is his interior attitude, not the practical externals associated with his state of life. Long hair and long beards are "monastic" in one milieu, while shaved heads are the norm in another; some monks don't eat meat while others do, some wear habits while others don't. Trying to determine what is more monastic on the basis of such criteria is futile; the essence of their lives goes much deeper than such banalities.
|There is a monastic, contemplative dimension in every human being's life.|
The questions that consume us, which all human beings must face to one degree or another if they ever hope to achieve maturity and real happiness--these are what characterize monks and nuns. There is a monastic, contemplative dimension in every human being's life. Monks have simply chosen to pursue this formally in a full-time, radical way.
"Monk" translates from the Greek mónachos, which comes from monos, "one, one alone." Although this etymology has been used to justify the solitary life of the hermit as the purest vision of what a monk is, such an interpretation is mistaken. Monks ordinarily live together in close-knit communities, not off alone by themselves. Granted that there have always been hermit-monks, yet from earliest times mónachos was readily applied to those monks living together and sharing everything in common.
Mónachos also means "unique, one with Christ." It in turn translated the Hebrew word yahid, which means "exile," one displaced from one's true homeland. This, more than anything else, is what characterizes the true monk. To encounter the true God and find our real home in this reality is the monk's perennial task, making him by nature a wanderer (though living in one place), a pilgrim (though already tasting the goal), exploring the vast wilderness of the human heart (though guided by those who went before him).
Thus, the monk's deepest reality lies beyond simplistic definitions and the various ways monastic life manifests itself. Instead, a monk tries to embody a particular vision of what life is with an intense singularity of purpose. Specifically, the Christian monk focuses on the relationship of the divine and human, and inspired by the example of Jesus he is consumed with the meaning and experience of this mystery each moment of his life. This is his joy and delight, yet it also becomes an unquenchable passion that refuses him rest.