When asked what the defining trait of monasticism is, what is it that the monk seeks most especially, we are tempted to provide a variety of answers. We might say asceticism, that the monk’s first goal is renunciation of worldly goods for the sake of the Kingdom. Or one could say it is obedience, the particular charism of following his superior even against his own desire. Perhaps it is community, the unique bond formed by men who spend their entire lives living together. Another strong answer would be prayer; monks make a special pursuit of prayer, spending much time doing nothing else.
While monks do pursue all these things, they should not be the aim of monasticism (though all too often they have been). Rather, the aim is more simple: love.
This is, in a sense, not particularly radical. The Christian is called fundamentally to love, for God is love. One cannot be Christian unless he loves God and his neighbor; the monastics, of course, do not forget this.
The problem, however, comes with emphasis. (I do not mean here to pick on the monastic way of life, it is simply one example out of many.) When one pursues a vocation, there are certain things which are emphasized. The monastic follows ways of prayer and work, the mendicant of special poverty, the secular priest of celibacy and service, etc. (none of these our exclusive, just examples). The problem is that these things can begin to overshadow the foundation of love.
In his writings St. Vincent de Paul said that “It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible.” He goes on to explicitly state that prayer time is to be subjugated to this service, out of love. This is a particular struggle in much of today’s Christianity. We tend to place ‘prayer’ (the words and time) above other actions, above our service to the poor, above our love, as it were. St. Vincent makes a very important point: this service to the poor is to be our prayer.
Those in the married vocation tend to think this is not a particular issue for them for, after all, a fundamental part of their calling is to love. Yet we can still fail in it because we have a narrow or slightly disjointed view of love. We feel we must love our family and that this love requires an overt attention that detracts from the love our neighbor deserves. Or we can love a spouse with a powerful and good Eros but which we let get out of control, causing us to neglect other, greater loves in favor of this.
The vocation of all Christians is to love. Love is the highest good, thus it is possible and legitimate to sacrifice any other good for the good of love (properly understood. This Love is God himself). We must remember that all the trappings of our vocations are merely that: things there to allow us to move closer to God, to love him and our neighbor most fully and completely, to love above all else.