What Monks Can Teach Us About Intentional Living
Try our juice cleanse!
I’m giving up social media for a month.
I am sure I’m not the only one who has sought balance and simplicity with these kinds of pronouncements.
Campaigns for minimalism and simplicity are springing up to counter the dramatic influx of technology and noise that crowds daily living and invades our minds. People have started to recognize the need for health, well-being, balance, and for eliminating what is unnecessary. And yet, for all of this talk, we still find ourselves consumed by the daily grind and losing a sense of mindfulness.
When did we forget how life is meant to be lived? What kind of lifestyle truly allows us to flourish?
One place to find ancient wisdom to these questions is with monks — they live in secluded monasteries so that every aspect of their lives can support a healthy and thriving relationship with God, others, the earth, and themselves. I recently spent time at a monastery in Kentucky — the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani — and discovered that we can learn a few things from monks about living a good life.
One of the first things I noticed about monks is their attitude toward work. No one becomes a monk in order to escape the burdens of the world — one only has to observe their daily life to see that. The monks themselves keep their monastery afloat without outside support — they are completely self-sufficient. They serve as their own janitors, cooks, gardeners, and breadwinners.
At Gethsemani, the monks make a livelihood by making fudge (with bourbon, of course, because they’re in Kentucky). But all of this is wrapped around their life of prayer — they don’t live to work, but vice versa.
Josef Pieper, a midcentury philosopher, says that we work so that we can do something other than work. Work exists to support the truer work of living, he explains, and when this is understood, work can be done steadily and without stress. Even work, then, becomes an act of prayer, a meditative offering to God.
Can we also approach work with inner peace, trusting that whatever gets accomplished will be good enough?
A monk’s day begins at 3:15 a.m. with a prayer period called vigils, the first of several times they gather together throughout the course of the day to pray the psalms. Other people around the world are on the same rhythm, offering the same prayers and reflecting on the same psalms (praying in this way is called the liturgy of the hours), and it creates a steady clockwork that orders everything that happens in the day. It centers the soul.
Thomas Merton was a globally-known theologian, writer, and mystic who spent his life as a monk at Gethsemani. He used the Buddhist practice of a “mindfulness bell” — its intermittent ringing punctuated his day and called him to center himself in stillness.
Mindfully approaching God can happen in many ways and at any point in our day. The lesson from monastic life is that prayer or mindfulness or stillness can only shape us if we make it a regular practice.
Pieper not only believes that we work so that we can have time free of work, but so that we can have leisure. Leisure activities are things we do that aren’t oriented toward some product or goal — they are activities that have meaning in themselves, like playing music or reading or socializing.
Even time that is “free” in monastic life is occupied by rejuvenating leisure — study, contemplation, and play. Monks do not accomplish anything practical in these periods, but their leisure fleshes out their lives with meaning.
Do we create space and time for leisure? Setting aside Sunday or a Sabbath day — or even part of a day — for rest or contemplation or creativity might help us feel more fulfilled throughout the rest of the week.
You know monks have figured something out about living well when you experience the peaceful ways in which they live in harmony with nature. Most monasteries reside in some rural, bucolic setting, where the monks can work the land according to the seasons, making it easier to contemplate creation and observe God’s handiwork. There is every indication that this is how we are meant to live — cooperating with creation as creatures ourselves.
What would happen if we retuned our daily lives to the turning of the earth? It may not be realistic to wake up with the sunrise and retire at dark, or to spend every good-weather day out of class or the office, but small reorientations around the ebb and flow of nature can create a healthy consciousness of our place within it.
Monastic life is governed by incredible order. Under the direction of an abbot, each monk sacrifices his own personal freedoms to seek harmony with the whole community. Prayers and meals occur at the same time each day, and duties are distributed according to ability and need. Every part of life has its place and time, regardless of personal whims. This kind of order might seem restrictive, but it actually leads to freedom — the true freedom to choose contentment in any situation.
Monks virtually eliminate indecision by committing to their rule for the day, and are then free to be their best selves. If your days/weeks/months have a premeditated structure, you can enter fully into the present moment, instead of being victimized by “choice paralysis.”
So maybe we can ask: toward what — or whom — are we ordering our daily living? Beginning each morning with a routine can kickstart a sense of order for the day. Making a schedule removes the guesswork and prevents our time from running away, leaving us to wonder where it went.
Steven Lawson is the creator of the Monk Manual, a personal planner built upon this idea of freedom in order. He encourages us to “treat time like money” — after all, it is more precious. How do we choose to spend it?
All of these components of the monastic lifestyle are fully integrated with each other. The active life and the spiritual life are not merely balanced, existing side by side, but they become one and the same. Monks call prayer the “work of God,” and their actual work is prayed. When I visited Gethsemani, I left with a tangible sense that monks are truly living life moment by moment, fully immersed in the present while moving toward the eternal.
I propose a return to monastic life for the world at large, as a possible answer to the search for living one’s best life. It offers deeper currents of wisdom than the current trends of self-improvement and minimalism. Peace, joy, and purpose are not only available to monks who step away from the world — they can be found by any seeker willing to apply intentionality and discipline.