Abba Macarius said to Abba Zacharias: “Tell me, what makes a monk?” He said: “Is it not wrong that you should be asking me?” And Abba Macarius said to him: “I am sure I ought to ask of you, my son, Zacharias. I have one who urges me on to ask you.” Zacharias said to him: “As far as I can tell, Father, I think that whoever controls and forces himself to be content with necessities and nothing more, that man is a monk.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 1.6

The word monk (Gk. monachos) means solitary. One might think that the answer to Abba Macarius’s question would be quite simple then: a monk is anyone who willingly lives alone, presumably for spiritual discipline. Furthermore, one would presume that Abba Macarius, whose name is Greek (meaning “blessed” or “happy”) and who presumably spoke Greek, knew precisely what this Greek word meant. But it was not and is not a simple question. As happens in all languages, the semantic range of words broadens, narrows, and shifts. The same was true for the word “monk” at the time. What can we learn from this saying, and how is it relevant for those who live in the world and are by no means monks, in the traditional sense, today?

Abba Macarius and Abba Zacharias were both monks, yet clearly they lived together in some capacity, the former being the spiritual father of the latter. The narrow definition of a “solitary,” then, is clearly not accurate.

Something remarkable happened in the late third century in the Egyptian desert (and the desert of Palestine, and perhaps earlier in Syria). Despite living in the Roman Empire, one of the great world centers of education, culture, and technology, droves of Christian men and women were abandoning all that they had to go live in the wilderness with only the “necessities and nothing more.” When Christianity was legalized in 313, ending centuries of intermittent persecution, one would think that there would be less reason to flee civilization. But, instead, the opposite occurred. More and more Christians flooded into the desert and even started monasteries in Northern Africa and Western Europe and elsewhere. As the level of comfort increased, the number of Christians who willingly abandoned all comforts increased as well.

What a bizarre historical event! Even more bizarre: it was an event that changed the world. Monks acted as spiritual guides to common folk, preserved ancient texts (both Christian and otherwise), studied philosophy and art and science, helped the poor and the sick, etc. Their abandonment of society resulted in one of the greatest societal improvements in history.

But now we’ve drifted from the question: what, again, makes a monk?

“[W]hoever controls and forces himself to be content with necessities and nothing more, that man [or woman] is a monk.” So says Abba Zacharius. What he focuses on, I think, is not so much a literal interpretation of monachos but a teleological one, i.e. he defines a monk not by what a monk is but by what a monk aims to become. It is a goal-oriented definition, one that aims at the beatitude: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24). It is a life lived by the prayer (from the “Our Father”): “Give us this day our daily bread.”

The comfort of riches, though not innately evil or unjust, can be deceptive. When one has enough to provide for their “daily bread” for many days, months, or years ahead—as is often the case—it becomes easy to forget that “[e]very good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). By comparison to virtue and godliness, the heavenly treasure of the kingdom of God, the comforts of this life are as ephemeral as a shifting shadow.

When, on the other hand, we learn to be truly content with enough in each day, “with necessities and nothing more,” then we can better focus, like St. Mary Magdalene, on the “one thing needed” (cf. Luke 10:38-42). We cannot all be monks even in the broader sense of the word, but we can embrace a monastic spirit even in our worldly lives, be content with enough, give out of our abundance (however little or large), and receive true, eternal life from “every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), while sitting at the feet of Jesus.