What is a Monk?

Images arise: sandals, tonsure, a rope for a belt; fat, jolly friars partial to frothy beer; gaunt, hooded ascetics with a fondness for self-flagellation; Saint Francis as a perch for birds; a lone figure silently tending a garden; saffron robes mottled by a green forest; saffron robes on monks chanting the sutras in ornate temples. Some images are true. Some are fiction. Always male. I guess women who follow the way are referred to as nuns.

"I feel that I am a Buddhist monk, not the Dalai Lama."
The word "Monk" was never an official title. It was a popular word, the origins of which are unclear.
The English form of the word undoubtedly comes from the Anglo-Saxon munuc, which has in turn arisen from the Latin monachus, a mere transliteration of the Greek monachos. This Greek form is commonly believed to be connected with monos, lonely or single, and is suggestive of a life of solitude; but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the word mone, from a different root, seems to have been freely used, as well as monasterion, in the sense of a religious house with "one heart and one soul." In any case the fact remains that the word monachus in the fourth century was freely used of those consecrated to God, whether they lived as hermits or in communities. (Catholic Encyclopedia)

But, as Saint Jerome once said, "Interpret the name monk, it is thine own…"

To be a monk is to follow an uncharted path. It is a journey of discovery, a quest to find the source of the river. Along the way, he or she may stop to test the water, to gauge its clarity and determine what direction to take. A monk, however, doesn't stop to build a church along its banks or form an organization to advance the expedition. The quest leaves little time or energy for worldly matters.

A  monk will forsake family but sees people he or she encounters on the journey as a brother or sister. Nevertheless, a monk often walks alone.

A  monk has few friends for not many also search for the source of the river.

A  monk is celibate so to be blind to the world of duality, seeing neither male nor female, neither old nor young, neither beautiful nor ugly, seeing not the flesh, but the light of the soul.

A monk lives simply treating possessions as cumbersome burdens. Though grateful for all that given, he or she remains detached.
Always, a monk tries to be "as innocent as a dove and as wise as a serpent."

One day a monk left the monastery to purchase supplies in the marketplace.
A curious merchant asked, Hey, what do you monks do all day?"
The monk replied, "Each day we get up, we walk, we stumble and fall,
 but we get up again and continue our walk."

A monk is imperfect. Only God is perfect and a monk seeks perfection through God.

A monk is a child and will stumble over his or her mistakes. Chastity, simplicity, obedience, devotion are all practices and like someone practicing a musical instrument, the wrong note will trouble the harmony.
The way of the monk is difficult. Obstacles get in the way. Sacrifice is painful. Confusion lurks at every turn in the road. The monk will, nevertheless, continue to walk and stumble because the monk is homesick.

Some see the monk as mad or foolish. Some will see only the images of picture books and movies. Look closely and see the scarred bare feet from thorns trampled underfoot. The ache of loneliness when no one listens. The tear-filled eyes that have seen the suffering in the world. The broken body that has struggled to free itself from the web of trivialities.
Look closer, however, and you will also see a smile. For the monk who has found the source of the river is given "what no eye has seen, no ear has heard, what no hand has touched, and what has not arisen in the human heart."


  1. Interesting article, thanks for posting!

  2. a monk stumbles over rocks all alone
    moves on though tired out to the bone
    with no belongings that are his alone
    he knows sky as roof and earth as home
    and all that exists therein as his own

  3. wonderful description of a monk on this blogg. although many celtic monks were married and had family. they believed that many things could be learned about our relationship with God as Father through their being parents, and much could be learned about agape, unconconditional love through their devotion to their spouse, and that they could show by example to those around the unity and community of familly, so as to be able to live it out as the body of Christ.