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St. Mael's Reformed Celtic Church - What is a Celtic Christian Monk?

What is a Celtic Monk?

So what exactly is a Monk you might ask. Or better yet, what is a "Celtic Monk"? No doubt visions of hooded staff wielding druid types fill your head as you try to figure out what a celtic monk looks like or acts like. Well I can tell you for starters, This celtic monk isn't much to look at. It's not the look that makes the Monk, it's the discipline.

The Word "Monk" comes from the Greek word Monachos which is then VERY LOOSELY translated into "a person living in solitary or a person living alone". St. Benedict (called the father of Christian Monasticism) was credited for coining the phrase when creating his order. The simple irony here is that most Christian Monks, weren't solitary. They lived in cloistered communities and spent the majority of the day together in large groups for prayer, meals, work, etc. So, simply defining the word Monk, isn't going to do the trick here. A more likely word would be "Friar". Uh-oh, now we have a vision of a portly drunkard rolling kegs of beer into Robin Hood's Camp. Not quite.. Friar which comes from the French Word frère which loosely translates to "Brother" in English. Friars were Not usually cloistered as in the case of Fransiscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinians. So a Celtic Christian Monk may more appropriately be considered a Friar.

A Monk can be Male or Female (Especially in Celtic Christian Orders) although traditionally, Female Christian Monks are called Nuns. Or are they? Roman Catholic Nuns are unmarried celebate woman who have saved themselves ONLY for Christ since he was never married. So, a Female Celtic Christian Monk may be called a Nun, but since a female Celtic Christian Monk can be married...Nun isn't quite the description for her.

Celtic Christian (Modern) Monks rarely live in cloistered communities. There are some Roman Catholic Monks that call themselves Celtic Christian and they have some cloistered communities Like Iona Abby and the like. However, most Celtic Christians in America would be considered Heretical by the Roman Catholic Standards so chances are, you won't find a Celtic Christian Order in a cloisters here in the United States.

Where are we at so far? Celtic Monks are not cloistered, can be male or female, and can be married. "What?! did you just say married?!" Yes, that's correct. Since Celtic Christian Monks focus on the disciplines of their rule of the order they belong to, and the life they lead (I will get more into that later in this section) they can be married. With many many caviats to this statement. For example. A Monk should only ever have had one wife. If the monk is divorced he/she should not remarry. If the monk is single, he/she should not court others within the order and most definitely should practice chaste courtship rituals, not the common worldly dating rituals that are so commonplace today. The Monk should remain faithful to that spouse not committing adultery for the obvious reasons that are associated with it.

So, now that we have that out of the way, let's move on to more about what a monk does. A monk, has chosen to lead a more strict or more disciplined Christian Existance. Before I take this further let me say that this is NOT a bragging point for people looking for political clout within their respective churches or a way to poke out your chest and adopt a "holier than thou" attitude. A monk must always be humble remembering that it is dust we come from and will return to, and that man makes himself great in his own eyes, through his own means. Through Jesus Christ our Savior, man is given the Grace of God and this is the ONLY true greatness available to mankind. A monks life (even in this modern age - if not especially in this modern age) is deliberately difficult.

Monks begin by finding an order to join. Shopping for this order can take weeks, months or years and should be done with lots of prayer. Most orders have a specific purpose or function or devotion. A Celtic Christian will no doubt seek a Celtic Christian Order where a Roman Catholic would look to an order within the Roman Catholic Church. Once you have found an order that interests you, you learn about it's rule. A rule is the particular restrictions, guidelines and rules governing the order. Usually, the rule is not negotiable. The order lays out precisely what can and cannot be done by monks and the rule exists above and beyond a normal christian existance. So, you are a Christian First, then on top of all that, you are a monk following the order's rule.

When you have found a rule that only scares you a little bit (some rules are VERY strict and require an amazing amount of discipline which may not be your cup of tea) you join the order. As a newcomer, you will have a period of time where you are mentored, forgiven often as you learn the monastic lifestyle, and get into the spirit of being a monk. The traditional period of time for this is 1 year and a day. What you are called during this time varies from order to order, but trationally you are considered an Initiate or Novice. Some orders with a very strict rule will often have a period of Initiate followed by a period of Novitiate giving you a doubly long chance to learn the rule and adopt the lifestyle. Once you have completed your required times as Novice/Initiate and your spiritual mentor has agreed with the Abbot that you are ready, you will take your vows and become a full monk. It is at this point you are considered a Full Brother (or Sister) in the order.

So, this doesn't really clear things up for you, what precisely does a Monk do? you probably ask yourself. Well, again this is very hard to generalize since most Monastic Orders are VERY specialized. On average though, you can count on some basic similarities:

Monks Pray a very structured and disciplined schedule of prayers.

Monks Follow a set of rules that make them stand out from the average Christian.

Monks take vows that deprive them of worldly priveledges or benefits.

Monks have a dedicated ministry or function within Christianity.

Monks study and dedicate thier lives to a stronger more outward relationship with Christ.

Monks focus on humility and servitude. A modern monk will rarely hold a position of authority or power instead working in a service related field and rarely for much of an income.

Monks take and keep vows like Obedience, Chastity, Celebacy, Poverty, Temperance, or usually a combination of multiple vows.

But what about the funny haircut? Well, that is called a tonsure. Tonsures are used as a sign of dedication, humility and often were taken when the monk has graduated from the novitiate and become a full "brother". Tonsures are rarely seen today in this age of Terrorism and Hate crimes, although many of the Eastern Orthodox Monks still take a tonsure but thiers is a temporary tonsure that involves having locks of hair cut off in the sign of a cross at varying points on the head - the hair is allowed to grow back.

The tonsure that you are likely used to seeing is known as the "Crown of St. Peter". This is one of three Medieval Roman Catholic tonsures that were very prevelent in the early centuries of the church (7th century and up) . In actuality, no one can say for certain exactly when the tonsures started. The Roman Catholic Church did however suppress requirement of a tonsure in 1972.

The 3 tonsures are as follows: The Oriental, the Celtic (two types) and the Roman. First, is the Oriental tonsure. This is credited to St. John and it is basically the whole entire head shaved (thus resembling many cultures associated or believed to be byzantine oriental at the time of the early monastic orders). Next comes the oh so controversial Celtic Tonsure. There are actually two types, one is simply having the head shaved across the forehead from ear to ear, leaving the remaining hair in the back hanging down (often long). This actually very closely resembles the receding hairline found in so many of us aging males. The second Celtic Style is the Insular tonsure which has a Triangle shape left on top of the head, and the rest of the head shaved around it. This ends up resembling a Mohawk of sorts and has been confused for many decades with a mohawk or modern military haircut. This type of tonsure is depicted in the book of Kells which is a later document, but reliable in it's depiction of dress and tonsure. The last tonsure is the Roman. This is also known as the "crown of St. Peter", or the "friar Tuck". The top of the head is shaved in a circular pattern making a sort of crown shape with the remaining hair. When Hollywood wants to show you a monk, this is the tonsure they have. As I mentioned above, most orders do not tonsure (at least not permanently) any longer. Many American Celtic Christian Orders are reprising the tonsure though, as an outward sign of disdain for the modern world of political correctness we are all trapped in.

So, while this is in no way a complete and total explanation of what a monk is, it should help you get an idea of what sort of life a monk (at least a modern day monk) lives. If you are interested in learning more about becoming a Celtic Christian Monk, e-mail Br. Kenneth or you can find one of the many volumes of books on Monasticism available virtually anywhere.