Why do monks wear black?

“Why do you wear all black?”

This is one of the most common questions I get asked (the question about the beard probably being the most common).  It’s closely related to the question about wearing a habit at all but is slightly different.  People all seem to have their own answers to the question about why wear a habit, but few people come up and ask that.  They do almost always ask about the color.    It makes sense that the most common questions involve the visual.  Wearing a habit, and a black one at that, along with having a huge beard does set one apart visually.  At some point, I’ll explain the reason for the habit and the reason for the beard, but that’s not this post.

So, why black?

The main reason that we wear black, Eastern Catholic monks like myself, and Orthodox monastics is because it reminds us of our death.  A common theme in monastic literature and the monastic life is the remembrance of death. Everyone is aware that at funerals most wear black.  We have phrases like ‘fade to black’ which refer to leaving.  So, even in contemporary culture, black is a color associated with death and mourning.  It calls to mind a soberness of spirit.

Wearing black is helpful!

Being decked out in all black is helpful to me and hopefully to others as well.

How do I find it helpful?

It constantly calls me to the remembrance of my mortality.   This reminds me who is in charge, namely God, and who is not in charge, myself.  No matter what I do, I cannot add days to my life.  I may think that I can, and I certainly should live responsibly, but in the end, everything, including my life, is dependant upon God.

Another reason for enjoying wearing black is that, with its remembrance of death, reminds me that I should be dying to myself every day.  St. Paul says “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20).  In 1 Corinthians 15:31 St. Paul tells us that he dies daily.  There is a great quote on Mount Athos that says “If you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.”  Wearing black reminds me of this.  Black calls my attention to the fact that I am to die to the world.

St. Paul always hits me hard when I read Colossians.  He says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5) Just a bit later he continues, “But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.” (Colossians 3:8)  This is a great reminder of what I need to do to die to myself.  It also reminds me of what I have not done.  Since I am not dying to myself, I am instead walking towards the eternal death of eternal separation from God.  The list of things St. Paul tells me not to do to die to myself, is only a short bit longer than the list of sins I commit on a seemingly daily basis.

The black that reminds me of these sins calls me to repentance, to a turning away from sin, and a movement towards virtue.  This is where I experience that sorrowful joy that you might have read about before.  It keeps me close to the sacrament of confession.  It causes me to constantly (constantly here is an understatement, ironically as understatement is also an understatement) for His help.

Life is death and death is life.

In the paradoxical world of Christianity, where death is life and life is death, black reminds me that to die to myself is to live in Christ.  This causes me to see myself honestly, which is beyond frightening.  In this frightening view of myself, and in seeing my sinfulness, I cry out to the Lord, the Lord who hears us whenever we call upon Him.  I feel sorrow in my cry to God, and, paradoxically, God then fills me with joy and hope.

Whenever you see a monastic dressed in black, it is an opportunity for you to reflect on the same issues that monastics like myself reflect on when we look down and see the black cloth covering us.

Pray for me.

I’ll pray for you.

Father Isaac

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