What Can We Learn from the Monks?

Written by Father Bill 6 Comments

Discipleship Journal’s edgy impression of a monk.In the September-October issue of 2005, Discipleship Journal published an article by Tim Morey, pastor of Life Covenant Church in Torrance, California.  Morey reported on lessons learned from an interesting source: monks.  Discipleship Journal does a lot of that kind of thing and no one blogs on it.  But, I’m blogging on this one (having just come across it), because of what Morey did not say.  In these days of general gender confusion, what he overlooked (or omitted ?) to say is more significant than what he actually said.

First the title of his article:  “What the Monks Taught Me.”   Discipleship Journal’s layout designers for the print-version of this article had some fun with the title, illustrating Pr Morey’s article with edgy, soft-focus motion-blurred torso-shots of monks in their habits (see the photo at the beginning of this blog for an example, preserved at Discipleship Journal’s archive). 

In the print-version of this article, the title was rendered in humongous Roman letters (at least 60 points), except for the word “Monks” which was twice as large as the already gigantic title.  The graphical message was clear:  “Can you believe this?  I actually learned something spiritually valuable from MONKS, for crying out loud.”  It’s rather like an article in a weight-loss magazine which screams, “Can you believe that I actually lost 100 pounds eating five cans of CAKE ICING every morning for breakfast?”

Pr. Morey had read some of the early writers who launched and nurtured the Christian monastic movement about 1500 years ago.  His article focuses primarily on St. Augustine, and he makes vague references to the Desert Fathers and Celtic monks.  From these sources Pr. Morey distilled six principles of Christian living.  The monks provide centuries of validation for the wholesome effect these principles produce in Christians’ lives.

So far, so good.  The principles mined from the lives of monks are good on their face.  They are easily confirmed from Scripture, and Morey includes numerous Bible citations to do just this.  Modern Christians would obviously benefit from applying any of the principles. 

Now, recommending the principles themselves is pretty unremarkable, and I’m confident Discipleship Journal would have declined an article that merely announced the principles and gave a simple defense of them. They’ve “been there and done that” countless times in their publication.  So, why is Morey’s article worthy for publication in Discipleship Journal ?

It’s the monks. When a pastor within  broadly evangelical Protestantism in 21st Century America draws pastoral inspiration from  monks who lived a millennium and more in the past – well, that’s pretty radical,right?  It gets our attention, and it’s supposed to. 

But once he gets our attention, Pr. Morey astounds us with a glaring omission.  He utterly ignores the one characteristic of the monks that cries out for comment and elaboration:  the monks were men.  Moreover, they were men who  served our Lord in ways that today’s evangelical men do not understand and do not even know about.  Today’s evangelical men would likely judge the life and service of the monks to be  alien and bizarre.

If spiritual capital can actually be mined from the lives of monks, the obvious place to invest that capital would be in the lives of today’s evangelical men (they are, we presume, a significant portion of the audience Discipleship Journal addresses).  That Pr. Morey does not make this connection sticks out like an angry zit on the Prom Queen’s chin.  

Instead, Morey employs a scrupulous gender neutrality when extracting lessons from the monks, as if these principles should work just as well for women as for men, or work in the same way for either sex, or work well in sexually mixed communities.  He gives no evidence of wondering whether these principles are evident in the lives of monks because they are all-male communities. 

I am composing this blog during layovers in the Omaha and St. Louis airports, as I return home from a weekend spent conferring with three all-male Christian groups. One group is composed of youths in high school, another of undergraduates in a Christian liberal arts college, the third group composed mostly of married men with children.  In fact, a brother named Joel in the latter group gave me Pr. Morey’s article as he handed copies of it to  other members of the group I conferred with. 

All of the men I conferred with are evangelical Protestants; none are monks; none of the  groups are “monastic” in any ordinary sense of that word.  Joel’s interest in the article was piqued by some of the principles Pr. Morey  mentions, principles he knew from his own application of lessons from monks.  He knew that I’d find the monk angle interesting for the same reasons he did.  And, I do. 

But after reading Pr. Morey, I’m amazed that the obvious applications of monastic life and worship to the spiritual lives of modern evangelical men are not found in his article.  These omissions are astounding for the same reason that the article grabs our attention in the first place:  the principles are embedded in a vast reservoir of insight into Christian manhood, preserved in the writings and history of the monks. 

Why is Morey’s article so enthusiastically egalitarian in its treatment of male-only communities?  One answer lies in the fact that Discipleship Journal is an arm of Navigators*, which, like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Youth With A Mission, encourages women as teachers of men and rulers of men in mission and ministry.  Under such an institutional policy, the Journal cannot smile on an article submitted to them which advocates anything smacking of traditional (i.e. patriarchal) Christianity. 

I found a second answer when I visited Morey’s church website  and learned that “Life Covenant Church is proud to be connected with the Pacific Southwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.”  Evidently, that “connection” entails compliance with this resolution of the ECC which was adopted by the Annual Meeting of The Evangelical Covenant Church, in June, 2006.  The resolution was presented by the ECC Commission on Biblical Gender Equality, and this pretty well signals its content. But, for the record, the resolution includes this declaration:

The Evangelical Covenant Church affirms women in all ministry and leadership positions within the church, both lay and clergy. We believe that the biblical basis for service in the body of Christ is giftedness, a call from God, and godly character – not gender.

I assume that Morey welcomed this resolution, having given so thorough a demonstration of its spirit in the article on the monks, published a few months earlier.

Meanwhile, modern Christian men are impoverished in those things that made the monks spiritually rich, strong, and productive.  It is tragic that Morey can read the monks well enough to discern their spiritual wealth, and yet find himself wearing egalitarian blinders that distort the example of the monks he rightly admires.  Consequently, he cannot offer those riches peculiar to Christian manhood to the Christian men of this age who languish for what the monks can teach them. 

It’s ironic that I come across this article on the weekend when I meet with other evangelical men, to confer on deploying spiritual disciplines originally pioneered by the monks.  In the near future, I will share with you a more detailed report on how we are deploying those disciplines in matters of spiritual formation, prayer, and communal worship.

Meanwhile, Pr. Morey serves as an example of how egalitarianism – a novelty in the life of the Church – distorts and obscures the lessons of the monks, lessons which are sorely needed by 21st Century men in Christ’s Church.   

*I am personally acquainted with many Navigator staff, overseas and on American campuses, who are thoroughly committed complentarians.  Almost all of them are “down in the ranks.”  Nevertheless, the management of Navigators is committed to egalitarianism when ordering men and women in Nav ministry.  As this commitment percolates down from the top, I am waiting to see if the effect within the ranks is the same as what I’ve observed within InterVarsity Christian Fellowship over the past decade. 


  1. Kamilla   |  Wednesday, 18 April 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Hi Fr. Bill,

    Could you email me the details of that cake icing diet? Do you have to consume all 5 cans, or will 3 do? You know I do like a bit of cake with my icing. . . . (couldn’t resist!)

    Isn’t it odd that we try to pretend we don’t notice these things? And yet I don’t think one often hears adults who attended single-sex schools complain about the experience. Our casualness about Egalitarianism, trying not to exclude anyone, well, it’s not working very well is it? On the contrary, someone recently commented to me about the easy comaraderie between the sexes when we are not fighting against God. I would tend to agree, and have been blessed with wonderful friendships with some Godly men.

    The trouble is, I wish just once in a while the single ones would notice I’m not just one of the guys. I think the monochrome-inclusive infection reaches deeper than we realize.


  2. Kamilla   |  Wednesday, 18 April 2007 at 4:42 pm

    P.S. don’t mind me. It’s my birthday and I just got abandoned for dinner. I shouldn’t even complain about that, because my college roommate and I had a lovely birthday lunch together (hers was two days ago) and the restaurant comp’d our lunch because they thought it took too long and then threw in dessert!

  3. Fr. Bill   |  Wednesday, 18 April 2007 at 6:02 pm

    Hi, Kamilla,

    First, Happy Birthday! I spent my 60th in bed, hacking and coughing, and feeling respiratorily vile. I coughed until I was 60 years and three weeks old. Blech.

    Second, I’m all for mixed gender settings, dynamics, etc. What grieves me is the loss of the same-sex social environments for men, especially those with a pronounced component of spiritual formation. Women never lost those, but men did. To judge by what I see on evangelical churches’ website calendars, all that remains for them are pancake breakfasts on Saturday morning.

  4. Kamilla   |  Wednesday, 18 April 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Yes, even in education, the women’s schools are “safer” than the men’s schools. Our parish does have a men’s group, I think they meet every other week and they do work on accountability and spiritual growth, support a missionary and have what sounds like pretty decent retreats once a year.

    They don’t do the Saturday pancake breakfast, but they do bake sales to help raise money for their missionary. Some of the men even do their own baking!

    But yes, those safe settings are pretty much gone for men, aren’t they?


    (Oh, and I did the coughing and sneezing thing LAST year for my birthday!)

  5. Fr. Bill   |  Wednesday, 18 April 2007 at 10:40 pm

    Your parish’s men’s group sounds healthier than most standard-fare evangelical men’s gatherings I’ve seen. Do you suppose it’s because they’re Anglican?

    Here’s a notice I ran across yesterday:

    The Men’s Group meets every Thursday night from 6:30-9:00pm at the church. They begin with dinner and Evening Prayer, and continue with a cigar and a good discussion of their current book.

    This Fall they have already discussed Thomas De Zengotita’s cultural critque, Mediated; Alexander Schmemann’s masterpiece of the sacraments, For the Life of the World; and C. S. Lewis’ educational primer, The Abolition of Man. They are currently discussing Thomas Merton’s spiritual classic, No Man is An Island. Discussions are not always lofty; instead they aim to include all men in a discussion of life and faith.

    Not exactly Wild At Heart, I suppose (!), but I also think it provides a venue for a lot of good things to develop among the men over time. This group, too, is in an Anglican parish.

  6. Michael   |  Thursday, 19 April 2007 at 8:29 am

    Fr. Bill,

    Weren’t monks mainly just a bunch of ignorant misogynists who wanted to control women by keeping them isolated in convents and nunneries? [Sorry, couldn’t resist a little parody of feminist-speak.] I’m surprised he can get away with saying anything positive about them.

    Yes, good observation about taking something very patriarchal and sexually-distinct and making any positive applications unisex, conveniently ignoring the elephant in the living room.

    [Sorry about the bad cough; wondered where you’ve been! Happy belated birthday to Kamilla.]


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