Author's Comments: This was
one of my favorite writing assignments in college. The
assignment was to write a Letter of Vocation, as if you were a
medieval monk. T'was a great deal of fun.
A Letter of Vocation
February 22, 1995
The following is a rare example of a medieval Letter of Vocation
originally written in English. The authorship is attributed to John
Montague the Younger, of Nottingham (b. 1103? - d. 1154), while
abbot of Saint Albans, northwest of London. The recipient of the
letter is unkown.
To Robert of Halifax, his dear friend under Christ, John
Montague, friend under Christ.
Word has been sent, by your father, of your decision against
joining the monks of Repton. Let me counsel you in this matter of
utmost importance. It is possible that the teachings of the more
rural monks of Repton failed to encourage you to uplift the sword of
our Lord and fight that noblest of battles; that is to say, the
battle over men's souls. I shall endeavor to teach you of the vast
reward promised by our Lord for service, but as Quintus Septimius
Tertullianus taught us, veritas non erubescit, that is to say, truth
does not blush. Therefore, I shall also direct you of the nature of
our hardships that we must endure in our Lord's service. My pen
writes to you in the worldly language of our parents in this letter,
so that you may truly understand my humble explanations of service
to God. However, I shall make all due attempt to prevent myself from
overspeaking the matter. As the sainted Jerome taught, Venerationi
mihi semper fuit non verbosa rusticas sed sancta simplicitas, that
is to say, I have always revered not crude verbosity but holy
To be bound to God by holy devotion is to sit at the peak of
Zion. While your brothers travel the distant and most holy land of
our Savior to free it from heathenry and pagany, you must consider
your place as a warrior of God in another fashion. To devote
yourself to Christ is to place the eternal power of the Lord as your
shield and your sword. The sword is the cross, I needn't remind you,
but the shield is a more exact likeness of Christ on the cross. The
sturdy wood of the shield is the wood of the cross. The leather
nailed to it is placed foremost in grave peril to receive the dents
and slashes of infidels to preserve the mortal body from harm. This
is as Christ did for our souls; he permitted himself to suffer the
dents and slashes of the Pharisees to preserve our mortal souls from
damnation. What a wonderful gift this is! What better way is there
to make some small reparation for this sacrifice by devoting our
mortal lives to our Lord? Certainly he who is highest can provide
greater kingdoms than is possessed by a hundred thousand infidels.
The quote of your brothers is yet again as apt for you. Deus vult,
that is, God wills it. I recall, myself, when I was considering the
monastic life, wondering what reward I could receive from a trial
that seemed so difficult to complete. However, when I realized what
I have just said above, there was no question left in my soul as to
where my purpose lay.
There are three habits a devoted monk must observe. Our Lord
directs us to keep our tongues free from vicious talk and your lips
from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your
quest and aim. This we observe by silence always, excepting matters
of importance which require the workings of the tongue. Saint
Benedict directs us to the prophet in this matter. I said, I have
resolved to keep watch over my ways that I may never sin with my
tongue. I have put a guard on my mouth. I was silent and was
humbled, and I refrained even from good words. Solomon the Wise says
that where men talk too much sin is not far away.
A life without possession is also a part of monastic faith. It is
presumption for a monk to give, receive or retain anything as his
own, without his abbot's order. Our Lord directs us that The whole
body of believers was united in heart and soul. Not a man of them
claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held
in common . . . It was distributed to each according to his need.
Such as it is in the monastic faith. It is good that no monk need
concern himself with fine clothing or drink or food or home; it is
the duty of the abbot to insure that all monks have what they need,
but also that they do not have in excess. Saint Benedict directs us
that private possession is an evil practice.
The third tenant of monsastic faith is continence. This would
include abstinence from that most ugly and reviled coupling of man
and woman, but also includes self-restraint in manner. A monk does
not laugh. His only unrestrained expression of emotion should occur
in the presence of God in his house, and that expression is commonly
blessed weeping. Though the rule given us by Saint Benedict sets
down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome, the rules must be followed
even should they become such. Is is not wise to put down your wordly
possessions, as well as your fleshy possessions, to be more able to
serve God? How can an earthly coupling with a mortal woman be
greater or more fulfilling than a spiritual coupling with our
Savior? Where she offers you slavery to the mortal flesh, our Lord
offers you freedom of your immortal soul.
The life of a monk is a simple one. He must divest himself from
the worldly existence which leads men astray and is rife with pagany
and heresy. Saint Benedict gives us the tenant of work when he said
orare est laborare, laborare est orare, that is, to pray is to work,
to work is to pray. Saint Jerome wrote to Paul that a monk's life is
solitary. This is yet more proof that we must remove ourselves from
the earthly politics of man so that we may be better able to stand
before the Lord without the temptations or distractions of lesser,
worldly things. A monk's time is spent in work, prayer, and study.
You may wonder how one could devote his entire life to the study and
understanding of one book, but in considering this you must remember
that this book is no mere book, but a guide to existence, given to
us through the mercy of our Lord. Besides that point, a monk's study
also includes reading of the traditions of the Church fathers, and
the reading of classical literature. This final point of study may
strike you as unusual, as it does not, at first, directly relate
itself to the worship of God. However, these ancient pagan authors
were blessed, more so because they did not know what sin they
committed, because they had not yet received the word of Christ.
Their wisdom is great, but the wisdom of our Church fathers is
greater, and the wisdom of the Holy Scripture is infinitely greater
still, for it is the wisdom of the Almighty.
A monk must beware, however, that he not fall into the pit of the
theologian, who is little more than a teacher of the Scripture. Our
way is to ascend to heaven based on faith for its own sake, not
based solely on works or study. It is through this silent devotion
that we hope to rise to sit at the feet of Christ again, as the
first monks, who were the holy Apostles.
We must remember that mere observance of the Rule without a true
faith in God is deadly duplicity. Cucullus non facit monachum, that
is, the cowl does not a monk make. Beware that you do not stray from
that highest purpose of monestary life, that life of the cenobite.
There are three other types of monks. The first, and next in
devotion to God, are the hermits or anchorites, who separate
themselves even from other monks so that they may be able to secure
for themselves a more personal and solitary contact with God. Below
them in holiness are the sarabaits, who profess themselves to be
monks, but ignore the direction of our Lord through his Church. They
are, as Saint Benedict tells us, liars to God. The fourth, and most
detestable of monks are the gyrovagues, who wander about from
monastary to monastary, remaining only as guests. They are slaves to
worldly pleasures, and are barely fit to be called monks. It is the
cenobite, who follow the Rule given to them by their wisest fathers.
It is my dearest hope that you understand these words that I have
humbly written for you. Your soul is of concern of your father and
he requested that I write on his behalf, he being unable to do so.
However, it is my duty also to converse with any individual who may
forget or, worse yet, ignore his calling because of avarice or lust
or pride. Not nearly all men are capable of undertaking the ultimate
devotion required of a follower of the monastic faith. All who are
capable of this great trial are guaranteed a place among the
seraphim and cherubim, in eternal service to God.
LeClercq, Jean, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A
Study of Monastic Culture, Fordham University Press, New York, 1961.
Radice, Betty, ed. and trans., The Letters of Abelard and
Heloise, Penguin Books, London, 1974.
Fry, Timothy, ed., The Rule of St. Benedict in English, The
Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1982.