Spiritual Childhood from the Liturgy, Part VI: Childhood in Monastic Spirituality
Nov 29, 2023

Spiritual Childhood from the Liturgy, Part VI: Childhood in Monastic Spirituality

This month, after discussing how the liturgy forms us in spiritual childhood metaphysically and psychologically, we turn to some practical insights. As we established near the beginning of this series, monastic spirituality is simply a more concentrated form of Christian spirituality in general. Its basic tenets and practices are attainable by all in due proportion to their state. Therefore, before we turn to practical suggestions for laity to fully exhaust the formation of the liturgy (next month’s and the final installment in this series), here we look at how the monastic tradition has striven to attain the same goal.

At this point, after so many months of exploring the topic, one might reasonably conclude that if the liturgy is such a powerful tool of formation in spiritual childhood, then nothing else needs to be done. Participation in the liturgy is sufficient to develop oneself in the degree expected by God. Theoretically, mere participation in the liturgy (including first and foremost reception of the sacraments) ought to transform the person quickly and completely into a spiritual child. In reality, however, such is not the case. Human weakness, attachment to sin, and relatively infrequent participation in the liturgy1 all frustrate the telos, or end, of liturgical formation. The liturgy is like an extraordinarily concentrated medicine. Most Christians are not in a state of spiritual health sufficient to imbibe the medicine of the liturgy purely, directly, and without complementary medicine. Additional aid is needed, not to dilute the grace found in the liturgy, but to dispose the soul to receive such wonderful medicine. We previously saw that monasticism is the spirituality of the Church. Monastic life is nothing other than Christianity taken to the most extreme practice in this life. Therefore, if ordinary, faithful Catholics wish to know what they can do in their daily lives to dispose themselves to receive the fulness of liturgical formation, examining the disciplines of the monastic life will provide invaluable insight.

The goal of this examination is still the same: to find the most efficacious means of growth in spiritual childhood. Seeking an answer in monasticism is particularly justified in the eyes of St. John Henry Newman when he declares “simplicity is the temper of children, and it is the temper of monks.”

2 The monks have returned to their original, childlike state. Dom Delatte, responding to Newman’s comments, reminds his novices that “there is no need to blush at this, as if this evaluation sanctioned an imperfection or inferiority about us. I see here the attitude of the Lord himself, the effacement of the individual, the priceless fruit of our contemplation, the exterior expression of that innermost fact that a monastery is a system entirely interdependent.”3 The end of monasticism is singular: union with God the Father by accepting the full inheritance of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The tools at the disposal of the monks, however, are manifold.4 Chief among these tools is their pursuit of simplicity through mortification and participation in eternity through routine.

Mortification of Reason

While many Christians are already familiar with certain types of mortification such as fasting, abstinence, kneeling on the floor, etc., there is another, more vital mortification for the spiritual life: the mortification of reason. After Newman describes the onslaught of temptations and pitfalls in secular life which often drive a man to enter the Abbey, he concludes by calling all that is left behind a sort of mortification, including “a mortification of reason.”5 He immediately acknowledges that “the monks were too good Catholics to deny that reason was a divine gift, and had too much common sense to think to do without it.”6 The fact that mortification of a divine gift can be conducive to the spiritual life is a paradox. The necessity of mortifying reason is a consequence of man’s unbalanced, fallen nature. Simplicity is not merely a disposition of children. It is characteristic of divinity.

The liturgy is like an extraordinarily concentrated medicine.

In only the third question of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas asks (article 7) “whether God is altogether simple?”7 He answers in the affirmative and declares that it can be shown in many ways. Although he provides five demonstrations of the simplicity of God, each demonstration depends on one fact: God is not composite. God is not composed of anything else: “It is clear that God is nowise composite but is altogether simple.”8 Man, on the other hand, is a composite of body and soul. Furthermore, man thinks discursively, i.e., his intellect moves from one thought to another, successively. Discursive reasoning is referred to as reason: “When the reason is cultivated, it at once begins to combine, to centralize, to look forward, to look back, to view things as a whole, whether for speculation or for action; it practices synthesis and analysis, it discovers, it invents.”9 The complication arises, therefore, when one seeks to imitate God. Aquinas affirms that “it is according to his intelligence and reason, which are incorporeal, that man is said to be according to the image of God.”10 In this life, the image of God (imago naturae) is a discursive sort of reasoning. In the beatific vision, however, the image of God will be transformed (imago gloriae):

“The supreme and perfect happiness of the intellectual nature consists in seeing God, as proved above. Now happiness results not from a habit but from act, since it is the ultimate perfection and last end. Consequently, whatever we see in the beatific vision of the divine substance is all seen by us actually, and therefore not one thing after another. Besides, whenever a thing arrives at its last end, it is at rest, since all movement is to the attainment of an end. Now the last end of the intellect is the vision of the divine substance, as shown above. Therefore, the intellect that sees the divine substance does not pass from one intelligible thing to another. Therefore, whatsoever it knows in this vision, it considers it all actually.”11

It should now be clear that discursive reasoning is a gift from God, but a gift for this life. In eternity, the intellect of man will be transformed to more perfectly image the Divinity by persisting in perpetual act and singular comprehension. Such a singular comprehension is characteristic of the simplicity of God, which is prefigured by the simplicity of children. Monks, therefore, taking the lessons of simplicity from the liturgy, apply the principles even further to their daily lives: “As it is possible to be content with the bare necessities of animal life, so it is possible to confine ourselves to the bare ordinary use of reason, without caring to improve it or make the most of it…. [S]o did the monks give up reason, as well as sense, that they might consecrate themselves to divine meditation.”12

Simplicity vs. Insanity

Without explicitly mentioning monasticism, G.K. Chesterton agrees in many respects with Newman. Chesterton had a healthy admiration for the spirit of children as an image of God. Additionally, the entire second chapter of Orthodoxy identifies the relationship between reason, poetry, and psychological/spiritual health. The thesis of that chapter posits that reason presents a unique danger to the human mind: insanity. He cautions that “I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger [insanity] does lie in logic, not in imagination.”13 The danger is obvious because “imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.”14 Madmen are often described as having lost the use of reason, but for Chesterton, “the madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”15 The danger lies in becoming captivated by one, rational thought which utterly dominates the life of a man. The dominating thought comes to control him and every interaction with others. The thought explains everything but leaves everything out. “Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner…. It can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.”16 In Chesterton’s mind, one reality has stayed off insanity for the majority of people:

“Mysticism keeps men sane…. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic…. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency. If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them. His spiritual sight is stereoscopic, like his physical sight: he sees two different pictures at once and yet sees all the better for that…. [T]he whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid…. The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.17

Mysticism, for Chesterton, is synonymous with what Newman calls the poetic life. “Poetry…is always the antagonist to science. As science makes progress in any subject-matter, poetry recedes from it…. Science results in system, which is complex unity; poetry delights in the indefinite and various as contrasted with unity, and in the simple as contrasted with system.”18

The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.
–G.K. Chesterton

Once again, after a brief detour, we return to monastic paradigm of formation in spiritual childhood. We have seen that G.K. Chesterton identifies excessive and disordered reason as a great threat to the psychological and spiritual health of a person. Historically, he believes that mysticism is the key disposition that protects man from such corruption. In substantial agreement with Chesterton is St. John Henry Newman, although Newman refers to the same disposition as poetic (which Chesterton briefly acknowledges). Newman then connects these trains of thought with two declarations. First, he makes a comparison between three stages of the Church: “the ancient, the medieval, and the modern; and there are three Religious Orders in those periods.”19 He identifies these three Orders as the Benedictines, Dominicans, and the Jesuits.

“Now, St. Benedict has had the training of the ancient intellect, St. Dominic of the medieval; and St. Ignatius of the modern…. To St. Benedict, then…let me assign, for his discriminating badge, the element of Poetry; to St. Dominic, the scientific element; and to St. Ignatius, the practical…, and thus the three several Orders were (so to say), the births of Poetry, of Science, and Practical Sense.”20

Newman goes on to say that the emphasis and perfection of one religious order does not impede the others. Rather, they complement each other, and each serves a distinct purpose. But, in the grand scheme, the poetic life of Benedictine monasticism is the life that has been lived and experienced by most of human history, and this poetical life imitates the life of children because “poetry does not address the reason, but the imagination and affections; it leads to admiration, enthusiasm, devotion, love. The vague, the uncertain, the irregular, the sudden, are among its attributes or sources. Hence it is that a child’s mind is so full of poetry, because he knows so little; and an old man of the world so devoid of poetry because his experience of facts is so wide.”21 The monastic life, therefore, is a life of poetry and, consequentially, the life of childhood. It is a life that mortifies reason in order to live more simply, purely, and mystically.

The Blessings of Routine

In addition to a mortification of reason, the monastic life forms monks in childhood by regular routines. It has already been demonstrated above that the liturgy employs repetition regularly. In addition to other effects, it also initiates Christians into the experience of eternity in this life. Children already experience such a participation by their free, abounding life that rejoices in repetition without tiring. Grown men, on the other hand, fatigue and become bored in a way that is simply inconsonant with eternity. Therefore, children live a life closer to eternity than adults do, and the liturgy works to reawaken such childlike dispositions through repeating prayers, movements, celebrations, etc. The monastic life achieves the same effect but extended throughout the entire lives of those who enter a monastic community. Anyone who has the opportunity to stay at an abbey of monks or nuns for several days will likely experience the same sentiments as John Senior upon his first stay at Fontgombault Abbey in France. Upon recollecting the stay, he wrote:

“I was nervous my first few nights at dinner because everything happens so suddenly, without transition, as it had on my arrival. All the life here is like that. And it seemed to me that everything was speeded up and not slowed down as I had expected in meditative and contemplative retirement, until I discovered that it wasn’t speed, but no time at all; they have transcended time. It is an imitation of the Eternal Now when everything occurs as Boethius said, tota simul.22

The monks spend their time in near-constant routine. These routines consist, first and foremost, of liturgical obligations. Additionally, meal times are fixed, as are daily chores, study periods, recreation, etc. No moment of time escapes the rule of obedience and occupation with the things of God. Yet, pure routine is not enough. There is a greater ratio to their daily routines which further cultivates a childlike spirit. Newman says that the monks deliberately choose employments “the end of which would be in themselves, in which each day, each hour, would have its own completeness.”23 Each activity is simple. Each enterprise is complete. This is the fulfillment of Christ’s admonition: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:33-34). Newman further describes it as “living for the day without solicitude for the morrow, without plans or objects, even holy ones, here below…taking each new day as a whole in itself, an addition, not a complement, to the past; and doing works which cannot be cut short, for they are complete in every portion of them.”24

Thus, the monks move forward, day by day, hour by hour, performing the tasks that are assigned for them without care or concern for what is to follow next. Once again, this aspect of their life imitates that of children. For children move from one activity to the next without thought of what the future holds. When a parent says it is time to pray, they lovingly do so. When a parent says it is time to go to the park, they go with joy. When a parent says it is time to eat, they rush to the table. Each action for the child is utterly complete, just like for the monk. Newman then concludes:

“We are told to be like little children; and where shall we find a more striking instance than is here afforded us of that union of simplicity and reverence, that clear perception of the unseen, yet recognition of the mysterious, which is the characteristic of the first years of human existence? To the monk, heaven was next door; he formed no plans, he had no cares…. He ‘went forth’ in his youth ‘to his work and to his labor’ until the evening of life; if he lived a day longer, he did a day’s work more; whether he lived many days or few, he laboured on to the end of them. He had no wish to see further in advance of his journey than where he was to make his next stage. He ploughed and sowed, he prayed, he meditated, he studied, he wrote, he taught, and then he died and went to heaven.”25

This state of total detachment should not be confused with irresponsibility. The monk pursues each duty with complete focus and the intention to glorify God through that work.26 Further, he makes reasonable preparations for the next day (if he is blessed with it). He washes, takes care of his tools, cleans his station, starts one project that will take weeks to complete. Newman’s point is not absence of care. Rather, he is emphasizing the complete detachment of heart and abandonment to Providence that is characteristic of the true Christian. Perform each task well and with love, but do not worry about tomorrow. If tomorrow finds you, rejoice: “do it again!” If you breathe forth your last beforehand, rejoice with St. Paul: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Practical Considerations

Next month, we will conclude our series with some practical reflections about ways that the laity can incorporate these liturgical lessons into daily life. I will make some humble suggestions based on my own experience as a father and husband and from what others have found helpful. Still, when it comes to practical incorporation on the family/individual level, there are as many varieties as there are saints. Until then, may this series of reflections help us all enter more fruitfully into Lent and our new liturgical year.

For previous installments of Steven Hill’s Spiritual Childhood from Liturgical Worship series, see:

Stephen Hill is an MTS student in Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to this program, he completed a BS in psychology and an MA in systematic theology. All of his research was inspired by several years of Benedictine formation, and the monastic tradition continues to influence his work. Hill strives to explore the intersection of contemporary psychological research and patristic psychological writings where both fields are most fully manifested: in the sacred liturgy.

Image Source: AB/imgur.com on Pintrest

Stephen Hill

Stephen Hill is an MTS student in Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to this program, he completed a BS in psychology and an MA in systematic theology. All of his research was inspired by several years of Benedictine formation, and the monastic tradition continues to influence his work. Hill strives to explore the intersection of contemporary psychological research and patristic psychological writings where both fields are most fully manifested: in the sacred liturgy.


  1. Canon Law (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2041-2043) requires that Catholics assist in Mass on Sundays, Holy Days of Obligation, confess their sins once a year, follow the marriage laws of the Church, and observe local fasting and abstinence requirements. These are the minimum requirements for a Catholic to remain in good standing with the Church. Full participation in the liturgy, however, includes daily Mass, the Divine Office, exposition, benediction, etc. These are not required of course, but it should be clear by now that if one wishes to learn as much as possible from the formation which the liturgy provides, more participation can significantly increase the fruits.

  2. John Henry Newman, The Benedictine Essays (Acropolis Scholars, 2019), 22.
  3. Gueranger, Prosper, Bruyere, Cecile, Delatte, Paul, and Totah, Mary David. The Spirit of Solesmes, (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1997), 109.
  4. There are, therefore, too many tools to consider in this paper. According to Sister Mary David Torah, “Solesmes’ understanding of spiritual childhood derives both from the tradition of what has been called Benedictine family life and from its understanding of the Church as Mater et Magistra, who has received Christ from the words of eternal life” (Spirit of Solesmes, 109). In this section of the thesis, however, I will restrict myself to continuing the themes already proposed: simplicity and participation in eternity. While the Benedictine family spirit and Church’s maternity certainly affect these, the limitations of space do not permit a thorough treatment.
  5. Newman, 22.
  6. Newman, 22.
  7. Aquinas, ST, I, q. 3, a. 7. Ultrum Deus sit omnino simplex?
  8. Aquinas, ST, I, q. 3, a. 7.
  9. Newman, 22.
  10. Aquinas, ST, I, q. 3, a. 1. Ad. 2.
  11. Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (SCG), III, q. 60.3.
  12. Newman, 22–23.
  13. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2004), 19.
  14. Chesterton, 19.
  15. Chesterton, 19.
  16. Chesterton, 20.
  17. Chesterton, 20.
  18. Newman, 38–39.
  19. Newman, 6.
  20. Newman, 6–8.
  21. Newman, 40.
  22. John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1983) 162.
  23. Newman, 21
  24. Newman, 74.
  25. Newman, 102.
  26. The Rule of St. Benedict, 57: ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus.