Hi daniel p and welcome to Dhamma Wheel!
I'm not sure what your monastic friend was getting at. Perhaps he was expressing his own frustration or perhaps it was a form of 'skilful means' to get his friends to focus on the here-and-now and great task of the eradication of dukkha. Or perhaps he really does feel that enlightenment, for him, is a myth. In which case its just his personal opinion and it doesn't make it right.
One way to answer your question is to say that until one has directly experienced enlightenment, it is still a notion that is taken with some belief, some confidence in the teachings, reason, and as one matures - one's own direct experience. Long standing practitioners will tell you that their experience infers the truth of enlightenment as they slowly but surely walk the path from gross dukkha to nanna (knowledge) and panna (wisdom).
I think its a mistake, as some people do, to conclude that since people within the Theravada generally do not openly discuss their attainment that it is something that is held to be unattainable. Apart from the Vinaya rules which forbid a monk to disclose his attainment to a layperson, it is held to be a significant faux pas in Asiatic Buddhist cultures and claims of attainment are treated with grave skepticism. And rightly so. Personal declarations of attainment indicate evidence of the disease of conceit. The Pali Canon tells us that we will know an enlightened person through the way they behave. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, "An arahant is what an arahant does".
You will find that many Theravadins have enlightenment as their goal. Others will cite the complete cessation of dukkha, while others it is just the path they walk. I don't think it matters what one cites as their goal so long as they are putting one foot in front of the other.
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725
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