Learning about Simplicity from Monks

Last month I participated in a silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery.

Yes, you read that correctly. I voluntarily signed up and went on a retreat at which no one talked for days on end.

And yes, there were other people at this retreat. Twenty-five of us or so went about our days in silence. Meals were silent. Passing someone in the hall meant no talking, and most of the time not even acknowledging they were there.

I’m sure some introverts reading this are thinking that this retreat sounds like heaven. But for an extrovert like me, it was rough.

Honestly, it could have been more difficult. Some silent retreats in other faith traditions require noble silence (in addition to no talking or communication, there is also no reading, writing, or any use of technology). At this retreat I was able to read, journal, and check the weather on my phone.

Being in silence for almost 5 days is not for the faint of heart. It’s a far cry from our normal experience of life. We are often bombarded with sound on a regular basis, and social obligations are very much back now that many (if not most) places in the Unites States have returned to pre-pandemic gatherings and events.

The thing about silence is that the days are simple; you have a lot of time to think and pray. And even though none of the monks at the monastery spoke a word to me the whole time I was there, I learned a lot about simple living from them.

Simplicity with the Monks

Silence is not a strange thing for the monks at Holy Cross. Every day after their evening worship, they participate in what they call the Great Silence– no talking or communication from about 8:30pm until 8:30am the next day. The silence is part of their commitment to prayer and simplicity.

Four times a year, they take part in what they call “Contemplative Days,” or about 5 days of silence. During these silent days, they invite anyone who wants to come and stay in their retreat guest house and participate in this silence with them.

So for me, this silent retreat was a big deal. But for the monks, it’s just something they do four times a year, and on a smaller scale for 12 hours every day.

Silence simplifies things. With no talking or communication, we were all freed from our typical daily and social obligations– and we could think, pray, read, and write however God was directing us to do so. During Contemplative Days, the monks even simplify their regular worship schedule so that more time can be devoted to personal prayer and contemplation.

The regular use of silence falls into these monks’ vision for religious community life. This is how they describe their reason for living in monastic community:

Monastic life is an alternative to society’s emphasis on status, consumerism, and acquisition, as well as the notion that our self-worth is not measured by our success and what we do, produce or own. Instead, monks choose to live communally, holding all in common. Through our way of life, we proclaim that our being and the way we love is what is valuable and precious to God.

Holy Cross Monastery website

In other words, these monks are regularly living as Christian minimalists.

Christian Minimalism at the Monastery

At the monastery, these monks live out the lifestyle and worldview of Christian minimalism every day. The way they live is in direct opposition to consumer culture. They don’t value socioeconomic status, or accumulate material possessions, or strive for worldly “success.” They live in community, sharing everything in common, and valuing that which is most important to God: love.

Loving God and others is what drives them. That’s it. How simple is that?

Their description of monastic living echos this Bible passage that describes an early Jesus follower community:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Acts 4:32-35

These monks are living the same way that is described in the Bible! They are sharing their possessions, and not focusing on what they can accumulate for themselves.

Incorporating Simple Living into our Own Lives

Now, I’m not called to be a monk or live in a monastic community, and you probably aren’t either (and if you are, may God bless your vocation as a monk!). For most of us, living in a monastery full-time is not something we are called to– and we won’t ever be living in an intentional community, sharing all of our possessions together.

Yet– just as I learned from the monks during these days of silence, we can learn from them and incorporate aspects of their lifestyle into our own lives.

We can stop focusing so much on accumulation: of stuff, of worldly accolades, of status symbols.

We can make sure that those in our immediate community have enough to eat, clothe, and support themselves.

We can focus on loving God and loving others.

And we can incorporate some silence into our prayer lives, so that we can focus only on God and hearing God’s guidance for us.

This is what it means to live as a Christian minimalist, with God’s help. Thank you to the monks at Holy Cross for modeling this lifestyle, and for reminding us that God loves us for who we are, not what we have or what we do.

How is God inviting YOU in the new year to incorporate these aspects of simplicity and Christian minimalism into your own life?

Photos from my time on silent retreat at Holy Cross Monastery



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About 
Becca Ehrlich, AKA The Christian Minimalist, is striving to be a Christian minimalist in a consumer society. She currently lives in Upstate New York with her husband Will. You can read more about her story and how her blog came to exist by clicking the website link above.

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