Monks. Not the sort of people you’d expect to see with claymores and shields asking the battle field chief where he wants them lined up; but in the siege of Constantinople, Constantine the XI had a motely rabble of an army. Lining up against the thousands of murderous Ottomans, there were the steady, salaried soldiers that all Emperors have at their beck and call. There was also a Turkish mercenary, Dorango, who was in the Emperor’s pay and had some men sheepishly guarding one quarter. There were also everyday civilians – butchers, bakers, and mild mannered administrators – who had realised the severity of the situation and raided the garden shed for a blunt pair of shears. And there were sailors and volunteers from foreign lands who were just up for a ruck. There were also monks – although it is not recorded where they came from, or what fuelled their inner fire. Monks are, these days, variously seen as being good, ever so slightly aloof and in some parts; very, very good at brewing hooch. See Buckfast Abbey for details.
Now one assumes that few children grow up wanting to become a monk, so at some point during the course of life something must happen to see the dreams of Wembley, Knebworth and the East Coast main line get buried by the attraction of an uncomplicated existence full of celibacy and silence. Makers of ‘human interest’ documentaries must drool over the prospect of six-month’s in the Abbey with access all areas, and a scattering of hand held camcorders lying idle for late night closed-door confessions, a la John Bentley. How the assorted collection of monks ended up in the Abbey then, is likely as vivid a depiction of modern living’s rich, red tapestry as you are likely to get.
There is no verb to monk but the general day-to-day activity of monks, whilst sharing many similar pastimes such as contemplation and growing vegetables, varies across the different religions. In Eastern Christianity monks are revered: “Angels are the light for monks, monks are the light for laymen”. Their goal, as you might imagine, is union with God and they fill their days praying relentlessly for the world. No small task given today’s tight existence of terror, debt and online trolls. Once past reception, there remains a rocky path to full monk status though.
New recruits start off as novices, and fall into abbey life. In time, when the abbot deems them ready, they are required to confirm their commitment to monastic life. The abbot will then cut a small amount of hair from four spots on the head forming across. The novice will be given a cassock, or robe, with wide sleeves. This robe is typically black to signify that individual is now dead to the world. A new name is given and the fresh recruit is expected to maintain a monastic state for the rest of his life. Admirable, but queasy perhaps for those novices who still harbour a niggle of doubt and an itch for Vegas. Many monks stay a novice for ever, but others push on, later taking more formal vows of chastity, obedience and poverty, should their superiors approve of their discipline and humility. For those who make the cut, life becomes ever more frugal.
In Western Christianity, Benedict of Nursia is generally considered to have been the founder of monasticism. St Benedict suggested vows of obedience, stability and a general conversion of life. All sensible moves for those looking to devote more time and energy to God’s work. It was these vows which were then used by other religious communities who expanded the general scope to include poverty and chastity. Meek living was the order of the day; worldly goods were shunned. Any form of sexy behaviour was a definite no.
Monks who had taken holy orders were called choir monks, those who couldn’t read Latin were called lay brothers. In Abbey life lay brothers tended to the vegetables, did the cooking and kept the verges trimmed; choir monks did a lot of chanting, although the difference between the two has since been de-emphasised. In the Anglican Church being a monk had some hairy times. When King Henry VIII made himself head of the Church of England he ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which was basically an order to burn all the monasteries in England. Most monks took the opportunity to flee to continental Europe where, like the many of today’s Thomas Cook-ers, they found olives, decent claret and better weather. After the revival of the Catholic movement monasteries began to pop up again. Some were quietly contemplative, others more active in the local community. Recruitment though, has declined over recent decades as millennials have become distracted by Vine and Snapchat. New novices are rare, which is perhaps better understood in the context of today’s levels graduate debt , misplaced sense of entitlement and attention spans more befitting of goldfish.
One of the most intense forms of monasticism is found in Jainism, one of the world’s oldest religions. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion that goes in for tranquility, peace and the taming of inner passions such as anger, greed and desire. Fasting is encouraged, so too yoga, meditation in difficult positions and many other activities characterised by basic physical hardship. The overall idea is to achieve nirvana, the liberation of basically everything leaving the soul without attachment or any sort of self-indulgence. Violence is also renounced, as you’d expect, but the Jain monks also carry brooms to sweep from harm’s way insects that may cross their path, and wear a cloth across the mouth to stop the unpleasant, but surprisingly frequent, incidence of swallowing flies. They do not use electricity and wear no shoes; they shun technology, eat one meal a day – always standing up – and pray at mid-day, because that is when the sun is at its strongest. They sleep on the floor and do not touch, or even go near, anyone of the opposite sex. It reads as a brutally hard life.
Big decision to become a monk then. Take a Peroni to the roof terrace and have a long think before making any calls. Like marriage, not to be entered into lightly.