There are many aspects of monastic life which are very important: prayer, silence, obedience, sharing in community, work. But one of the important aspects which is seldom spoken about is trusting in the mercy of God. If monastic life is truly the seeking of God by listening and turning from self-centeredness to God-centeredness, then trusting in God's loving mercy is central. Monastics trust in God's loving mercy because they admit that they are dependent upon God not only for biological life but also for help to grow in life even in the midst of failures.
In The Lives of the Desert Fathers, John of Lycopolis tells the story of the monk who lived in a cave and had given proof of the strongest ascetic discipline. One day he was visited by a beautiful woman who was a demon in disguise. The woman tempted him but then disappeared when he tried to have sexual relations with her. After spending the next morning in lamentation, he despaired of his salvation and went back to the world. John states that the monk's asceticism was false because he had not aimed at the fundamental goal of monastic life: "the loss of self-assurance and the gaining of reliance upon the mercy of God."
Monastic life is not a static life of perfection, as the monk in the cave thought, but a journey of coming to recognize human weaknesses and then depending upon God's mercy and help to grow into a tender, understanding and gentle person. Thus, monastic commitment is not a commitment to be instantly perfect, but a commitment to seek God and grow into perfection. This is why a monastic makes monastic profession rather than takes vows. Vows are a state of existence in which a person promises to live now: poverty, chastity, and obedience. If the person does not keep one of the vows, the person transgresses the vow and fails. But with monastic profession, a person promises to be on a constant journey of seeking God (conversatio morum). The journey is not complete on the day of profession, but on the day of death. A monastic fails in monastic life when the person stops seeking, when the person stops growing, when the person stops depending upon God for loving kindness and merciful forgiveness.
In cenobitic monasticism this growth happens both in the quiet of one's cell and in the interdependence with the other monastics. The dependency upon God's mercy becomes real, not only in the reliance upon the community for support and financial assistance, but also in the dependency on others in illness and in the need for their support and understanding during times of trial and crisis. The realization of the mercy of God through others led Cassian, in his conferences, to tell the story of the old monk who berated a young monk for his temptations against chastity. The young monk left in despair. On the way home, he met Abba Apollo who sensed the young monk's despair and showed him the mercy of God. Apollo prayed that the temptations leave the young monk and enter the old monk. Apollo prayed: "Do this so that in his old age he may learn to reach down in kindness to the weaknesses of those in toil and may sympathize with the frailty of the young." The temptations beset the old monk and the old monk despaired that the deep secrets of his heart had been revealed. Apollo berated him, saying: "The Lord has allowed you to be hurt so that in your old age you may learn to have sympathy for the weaknesses of others. . . ."
Oftentimes as monastics grow older, they think that the "vows" become easier to keep, so now they must be good monastics. But the life commitment is to seek God continually, to grow more and more into the feeling and the knowledge of God. It is not easier in old age; it may simply be different because the older monastic must show to the younger more understanding and less judgment, while continuing to realize dependency upon God rather than on one's own arrival at perfection.
Monastic life is nothing more or less than coming to trust and depend upon God's loving kindness (chased), and God's loving pity (rachum): the two aspects of mercy in the Old Testament. Those are two things of which a monastic is never without need because of the humanness of the monastic.
Monastics, however, often forget about the loving mercy of God in times of either public or private failures. Some monastics respond with depression when they feel that they have transgressed their commitment. Others respond with casualness as if nothing is wrong unless it becomes public. Still others respond with guilt and the need to seek forgiveness, but then continue on the same path. Some even respond with non-commitment their failure because they do not believe it is a failure or a wrongful act. But the monastic way of responding is positively to depend upon God, knowing that God is a "God of pardons, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in mercy." Thus, a monastic can arise from the situation with the words of Jeremiah on the lips and in the heart:
The favors of God are not exhausted;
God's mercies are not spent.
They are renewed each morning,
so great is God's faithfulness.
My portion is God, says my soul;
therefore will I hope in God.
The monastery and the people within it need to be accepting and encouraging of one another because it is in the monastery where the concrete loving kindness and mercy of God are to be felt in the human condition. Monastics live together to support one another and to encourage one another and to forgive one another. They are on a journey, not just an individual journey but a communal journey, because it is, as Benedict writes, "to bring us all together to everlasting life."