The Monks Are Back…to stay? Pondering Monasticism and Oblation


A personal goal I made at Oxford centered on not allowing myself to get sucked into the demands of school and be spit out like so much exhausted gristle at the end of the year, panting and gasping for breath.

Part of this goal involved a re-appraisal of my interest and connection to monasticism, particularly of Benedictine Monasticism.  I am now aspiring to be an oblate at St. Leo Abbey.  After a couple of monthly meetings, I will be able to announce my intention to be a novice oblate, and then after a year of spiritual formation, formerly dedicate myself to the Abbey.

Yes, the monks are back, as I stated in a blog post over a year ago.  And now I look at the month-plus absence of words on this blog as a bit of a blessing, especially given the vitriol of mid-term election politics.  At least I can say I haven’t added to the din.  But, before this quickly turns into a self-righteous pat on the back, I have to admit, during my lunch hour at school, I’ve been addicted to reading nasty remarks people leave each other when commenting on news stories or op-eds.

I don’t know what specific article initially triggered this, but I was reading some political article from either NPR or CNN, and after I had finished scrolling down to the bottom of the article I noticed a virtual bar fight commencing between others who had read the article and who wanted to throw their two cents in.  Republicans were referred “repukelicans,” and Democrats were called “demorats” or “democraps.”  Liberals were cited for their weakness and a claimed socialistic takeover of America.  Conservatives were derided for close-mindedness and a desire to return to days of slavery where white men ruled over all.  I never commented, but joined in anyway, scrolling down to find the most vicious and outrageous comments and fervently hoping they would have to deal with an equally vicious comeback.

Such was my front row seat to what was the shock and awe-no-he-DIDNT of the midterm elections.

“Really?” I could hear the Holy Spirit and Communion of Saints saying.  “Really?  THIS is what you are enjoying and contemplating?  After having read all of THAT?” (pointing accusingly at my wall of books on monasticism, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, Benedictine spirituality, the Divine Hours, etc. to which I walked sheepishly past every morning).

I was immersed in the cacophony of divisiveness, punditry, and political nastiness and forgot that God more often than not is found in the silence of our being, in the structured ordering of ourselves focused on God, to the banishment of all else.

So in the midst of this political free for all, I took up once again my books on St. Benedict, St. Bruno, and the Desert Fathers, read over my Merton, pondered the hazelnut with Julian of Norwich, structured my prayers to the Daily Office, and visited St. Leo Abbey in Florida to experience prayer and Mass with the brothers.

We look, in our own lives and in our society, for stability.  We look for depth and meaning as well.  We shake our heads at the television or radio every night, wondering how things got so messed up.  How can we get it right?  And when?  What do we look to?

I firmly believe that the examples of today’s monasteries all over the world, be they Benedictine, Carthusian, Trappist, or Buddhist, or any other variant of monastic community focused on living together in peace and harmony in a life of prayer and hospitality, can offer to the world a model to live by which would alleviate half the suffering in the world.  They are not bastions of perfection by any means, but the striving toward this perfection to tantamount to their life together.  They are not utopias, but in a better sense they shatter the illusion of utopias by recognizing the realities of human existence and suffering.

“The monastery is a school,” wrote Thomas Merton, “A school in which we learn from God how to be happy.  Our happiness consists in sharing the happiness of God, the perfection of His unlimited freedom, the perfection of His love.  What has to be healed in us is our true nature, made in the likeness of God.  What we have to learn is love.”

I keep going back and forth, interest waning and waxing in my studies and practices in Christian monasticism.  I think it is time for this to stop.  If the lives of monks and nuns throughout the Church’s history has truly open doors and created paths in my journey toward God, then so be it.  It is useless to ask or wish for more.  I have never come across a more wondrous and varied group of saints and would-be-saints for spiritual guides, who urge, above all things, to “listen with the ear of [the] heart.”

Therefore, I will continue to focus on monastic formation through oblation, a novice once again stumbling through the gates to hear the holy silence of God.

Hopefully lunch hour will be a bit different from now on…








New Melleray Pt.2

Continued excerpts from my journal reflecting on my retreat at New Melleray Abbey:

Later…Pine trees, snow, and a fat cat.

Meowing outside my window at the moment, as he was during Mass, breakfast, and generally the entire time from 6:30 am, is an enormous fat tiger cat. I think he used to getting fed, by either the monks or retreatants. He’s quite friendly, and I nicknamed him Elliot just as monk informed me that her name was Anna.

It seemed logical to walk around the Abbey to get my bearings. Outside the Guesthouse, which is connected directly to the chapel, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in a small green common, surrounded by twelve what looks like miniature coffins or unfinished birdhouses mounted on poles. Virgin Mary Upon closer inspection, I see these represent the Stations of the Cross, as each portray a scene from Christ’s Passion. Patches of snow crunched under my feet as I tramped across the green, bundled up in sweater and parka. I felt my cheeks go red with cold.

I walked down a dirt road that ran alongside the monk’s farming business. Small flakes of snow whirled around me as a gust of wind made me pull the parka’s hood tighter around my head. Abbey Road Traveling back, I walked past the Guesthouse to an area marked “Private Personnel Only.” Skirting around this area, I hiked through pine trees in a shaded woodland until turning back, not before startling a red hawk perched on a low lying branch.

Back in my cell, as monks typically call their room, the view is rather limited. The room is only 8 x 6, with a private shower attached. Two high windows overlook the green where the Virgin stands. A radiator keeps the room warm, though a draft lets in a chilly 40 degree breeze. The walls are a dull beige-painted cinderblock. My bed is a single-what else would fit?- creating just enough room for a desk and a small oak lounge chair.

As I sit in this chair and look out the window, hearing only the sound of the wind, I realize the need to slow my mind down. God has given me this opportunity not to rush past Him, so therefore let me take time with words, take time with images, sentences, phrases, and small things in my path. My jumbled thoughts have room to be laid on a long, plain, flat surface.

New Melleray

The following are excerpts from my journal reflecting on a recent retreat at New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Peosta, IA:

New Melleray Morning

Monday, March 31st, 2008

12:37 pm

It’s a bit of a lie to title this “New Melleray” when technically I’m still in Chicago, about 100 miles (perhaps less, perhaps more) away from the Abbey; and yet, as they say, the journey has begun. The Midwest is in the midst of experiencing an early spring bath, and the faucet’s running fast cold water. According to American Airlines, this means a slew of cancelled flights, including Chicago to Dubuque, my puddle jumper to the monastery. Somehow, I managed to secure a flight at 4:30, which unfortunately is not even remotely registering on the computerized screens detailing all the flights. This should give me pause, but a chance for a normal cup of coffee and a peanut butter cookie holds sway over an excess of concern or worry. God will provide, right? Or am I simply too tired to care? I’ll chalk it up to faith. Anyway, as the mystics say, you are where you are, and since I thankfully have no papers to grade! I’m just going to relax.

5:45 pm

So it turns out Flight 9333 is really Bus 9333, and it is only now that I am pulling out of Chicago O’Hare for a three hour bus ride to Dubuque. Bonus: I have all my luggage. I absolutely should be listening to Sufjan Stevens. Extra bonus: rush hour traffic.

Tuesday, April 1st

New Melleray Abbey

I’m in my cell, at last. Last night our bus driver hurtled us through the dark and fog to Dubuque (through the Clouds of Unknowing, perhaps? Because I sure as heck didn’t know where we were), depositing us all in one piece at Dubuque Regional Airport around 8:45 pm. The sign for the airport was as impressive as a sign for an overnight parking lot- blunt and too the point.

The Guestmaster, a small monk with white hair has greeted me in what I’m finding to be a characteristically monkish soft-spoken voice. After thanking the bus driver and stowing my suitcase in the backseat of a sedan, the monk and I- Father Tom, I believe, drove through more fog to New Melleray.

Iowa doesn’t seem to mind darkness. On the bus ride from Chicago, as we drove through endless miles of farmland, and then, emerging through the night, tiny little villages- the word “hamlet” came to mind as we drove through Elizabeth- I could sense the state asleep. Beautiful pseudo-Victorian houses had only one lamp burning in a windowsill. Some houses and farms remained in shadows until only the light from the bus headlights illuminated a broke down silo, torn screen door, or shingled roof. By the same token, New Melleray itself remained shrouded, Father Tom even commenting “Hmm. Usually there’s beacon lit.”

My view of New Melleray, therefore, remained shadowy until this morning, when I was able to view its grey stone arches and wooden doors against a slate-grey cloudy sky.

Due to such an exhaustive travel day, I did not make it to Vigils this morning. My first prayer service was Lauds at 6:30 am, followed by Mass at 7. The chapel has a high ceiling, buttressed by oak beams, and Gothic windows let in a sunless dawn. The monks pray a fair distance away from us lay folk. I remembered to cross my arms to receive a blessing in lieu of the Eucharist , in deference to canon law. As I sat back down, a lady bug crawled past my seat on the railing in front of me.

I felt the blessing “begin” my retreat here. I prayed for an open heart, to allow myself to be with God, not to plan the entire retreat out, but let it happen.