“We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.”2 Corinthians 4:16
The word monk comes from the Greek word monos. It means “one” and is usually understood more precisely as “alone” or “solitary.” This is because the earliest monks were hermits who lived alone most of the time. But there are many ways to interpret the simple concept of “one.” While solitude is important, the primary way in which the contemplative life is aligned with the number one is through unity.
Jesus prayed to God that we may all be one when he said, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us.” There is both an inner and an outer meaning to the name of monk. The outer meaning refers to a physical state, being alone in the desert. The inner meaning refers to the oneness which we all share in God through Christ. Unity with Christ is the end towards which the monastic life is oriented.
Origen of Alexandria, a third century Egyptian mystic and theologian, interpreted the words of Paul quoted above as a model for a life of prayer. In his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen thought about the deeper meaning of an inner and an outer person and used it to interpret the creation story in Genesis. There are, in fact, two accounts of the creation of human beings in the Genesis story.
In Genesis 1 human beings are created in the image of God. In Genesis 2 we are told that God formed the first person out of the dust of the ground, breathing into his nostrils to give him life. The first creation is our spiritual nature and the second creation is our physical nature. It is our soul which is the image of God and our soul was created first.
Our embodied existence may be the most tangible, and in that sense the most real, but it is contingent upon our spiritual existence. It is precisely in the contingent part of our being that we find disorder most easily arises. It is also in the contingent part of our being where disorder is most easily addressed.
The tangible nature of the outer person makes it an easier in-road to the contemplative life. If we try to start with the inner person, we often feel lost and unable to begin. And so, the Christian tradition has long understood that the spiritual journey begins in our embodiment and from there moves into our spiritual nature. It begins in action and moves into contemplation. It begins with the outer person and moves into the inner person. It begins with what is more easily understood and progresses from there into the more elusive inner landscape.
Of course, there isn’t such a neat and clear line between matters of the inner and outer person as all this makes it sound. They mingle together and at times are inseparable. For instance, liturgy is something we do as the outer person, but its true goal is to touch the inner person and to lift our hearts up towards God.
As we are fully integrated creatures, we cannot truly separate our inner life from our outer life, nor should we try to. This distinction is only meant to help us develop and maintain a way of life which is true to our entire being. People have a tendency to go for one or the other, it’s all about faith or it is all about works. When really to be a monk, to be a person who lives as one whole being, is to unite the inner and outer self into one single intention, which is obedience to the will of God.
By identifying the inner and outer person and differentiating between them, we are better able to ensure that we are not ignoring a vital aspect of ourselves – only worrying about the exteriors or only focusing on what is within.
Cassian’s Institutes beautifully demonstrates his understanding of the outer and inner person. In the opening lines of his book of essentials for the monastic life, Cassian says he will start by describing the outward appearance of a monk and then move, in logical sequence, to the inner worship of the monk.
The first section of the book focuses on external matters such as: what to eat, what to wear, and what time of day to pray. The second focuses on inner concerns – descriptions of each of the eight vices. He calls the section for the inner person “remedies for the wounds of the soul.”
This pattern can be seen woven all throughout the monastic tradition. When Aelred of Rievaulx wrote a rule for his sister he included sections specifically on the “inner man” and the “outer man.” First he described the way she was to live, what kind of clothes she was to wear, and when she was to fast or to partake in the liturgy. Then he described the way she was to conduct her inner life, with a constant longing for God and the kind of meditations which would help to cultivate this desire.
Since to be a monk is to be one who has been made whole (or perhaps more honestly said – one who seeks to be made whole) our final goal is not to separate the inner self from the outer self but rather to unite them in purpose and intention. Both should be given over wholly to the greatest commandment which Jesus gave – to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
When our outer life (those things which we do and enact in the world) and our inner life (those things which we think and feel and which play out in our hearts) are united in intention and carried out from a place of recollection, then we will be a fully alive human being who is not only the image of God but has also grown into the likeness.
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