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…








The Christian in Solitude

The Last Anchorite, a documentary by Remigiusz Sowa,  focuses on Father Lazarus, a Coptic monk living at St. Anthony of the Desert Monastery in Egypt.  An Australian, former university professor, atheist, and Marxist, F. Lazarus left his comfortable life in his homeland to seek God in the Desert.

I have come across more than a few commentaries on the need for community in the church, and what that entails, for good or bad.  Rarer still is the commentary on being alone with God, and riches possible in a solitary life.  Not all are called to live as monks, but for those who are, we as the body of Christ should be more than willing to hear of their experiences and insight.  We use the term “monk” or “nun,” to describe these men and women, but above all they are Christian, and followers, to the fullest extent, of the Way.

Christianity and Time: Or “Yeah, I’m Late for the Presentation”

The Feast of the Presentation, or The Presentation of Christ at the Temple, also known as Candlemas, comes 40 days after Christmas, and celebrates the presentation of the baby Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph according to the Law of Moses, as described in Luke 2: 22-38.

At the temple, the child Jesus is honored by Simeon and Anna, the former “righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel,” the latter a prophetess, “of great age.”  Each is able to see the Messiah before they die.  Simeon was “inspired by the Spirit” to go to the Temple to meet up with Mary and Joseph; Anna was apparently already there, as it is written “she did not depart from the temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day.”

Good timing.

I mean, to be there just at the moment Mary and Joseph enter the Temple, after, presumably, an 8 mile walk from Bethlehem- that’s a wonderful piece of directed serendipity.  Especially for Simeon, “directed by the Spirit.”  What must it have been like to feel pulled toward the Temple on that particular day?

Ever since I renewed my faith in Christ, and explored it in terms of the liturgy and monasticism, the issue of time has occupied much of my thoughts.

What exactly should be the Christian concept of time?

There are many facets to this question, including the warning of Christ that “it is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority,” the idea that God is “beyond time,”- that He is past, present, and future, and Christ’s admonishment “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”

In my studies of Christian monasticism, time is a prime feature, with the day divided into the Divine Hours: Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.  This is meant to be a vigorous schedule with the primary goal of bringing the observant closer to God.  It is a rhythm, or pace of life contrary to our fast-paced American culture, with its emphasis on instant gratification and the self-centered now.

I know there is a contrast in emphasis in the Christian calendar vs. the secular.

But how to live in both?

How do I live with the notion of an Infinite (never ending) Love, and when it is time to take the trash out?

I want desperately to integrate myself into a more Christ-like outlook on life, and this includes how I deal with time, of which I never seem to have enough.  If I inserted myself into the feast of the Presentation, it would be a day later, after Mary and Joseph have left Jerusalem, and I would be wandering around the city with a half empty cup of cold coffee, looking at my watch, and wondering by how many hours I probably missed the Holy Child.  Dejected at having missed them, I would proceed to get drunk at some Irish bar (do they have Irish bars in Jerusalem?).

An old Carthusian monk, in an interview featured in Into Great Silence, said “The past, present, future are only human terms.  In God, there is solely the present.”

I long to live in that present.

“The Monks are back. School must have started…”

…this is what I wrote recently in my journal, totaling the entries to two (2), because it’s a beautiful leather bound journal I received as a gift for Christmas years ago and I don’t want to mess it up with my scribbling.

So what I wrote must have, in hindsight, been pretty important.  And now, upon reflection, seems to me an indicator of a new season in my life.

The “monks” in question are actually two books about monks: An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Maguire and Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today by Frank Bianco. Infinity profiles five young men who chose to become novitiates of the strict Carthusian order started by St. Bruno in the 11th Century.  Voices explores the structure of life among the Trappists, from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to Notre Dame de Melleray in France.

The books are quite gripping, and help sustain an interest in monasticism I’ve had for years, but the real question remains: “Why did I choose to pick up those particular books?”

I’ve quipped a few times to my friends that the practices of monasticism are really a form of Ritalin for those of us suffering from spiritual ADHD.  For those, like me, who suffer from the actual physical disorder, you may know what I’m talking about here.  Our attention span is a like hummingbird drinking espresso- it’s all over the place.  Spiritually, I think this makes it harder for us to focus on God, especially in silence and reflection.  If there are a million things going through our mind every second, what do we do to help us put all of that aside and focus on God and His guidance and assurance?

Along with increasingly over-perscribed medication, psychiatrists emphasize the establishment of routine and pattern of those with ADD.  This emphasis on organization helps reduce the stress and anxiety that usually occurs when “too many things seem to be happening at once.” Similary, monks have established spiritual practices (prayer, work, contemplation, lectio divina) which allows them to further focus on God.  This is not to reduce these practices as some sort of “prescription for finding God,” but I think the analogy works to a point.  Monks remind themselves daily- hourly- of the pattern, rhythm and presence of God in their lives and in the world.

Which brings up the question of liturgy.

It’s a question already posed, and answered substantially, over at Julie Clawson’s onehandclapping blog.  Liturgy is the rhythm and pattern many Christians follow and embrace every Sunday as part of their worship service.  This is the “smells and bells” approach to worship, with repeated prayers, times for standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, contemplation, and the partaking of the Eucharist.  For many of us, it is a reminder of God’s role in the world and the steps it took to bring about the miracle and mystery of Christ.  For me, it’s a reminder to breathe, not simply just to relax, but to breathe in the realization, as Rob Bell stated in a recent sermon, that “A whole new world is bursting forth, right in the midst of this one, and everybody everywhere can be a part of it” and that “A Christian is constantly learning how to see this creation with their very own eyes.”

There are many other thoughts on this, and I encourage those who would like further perspectives to the conversation put forth in Clawson’s blog.

This sense of structure and organization is imperative to me as a high school teacher.  yep.. That’s what I do.  And let me tell you, if you are disorganized as a teacher, life quickly becomes a living hell.  Because it’s not just me…the organization of my 150 students is a necessity as well.  It’s organizing lesson plans, homework, essays, vocabulary work, grades, progress reports, permission slips, notes, etc.

But it’s all meant to create a space so we can open up.  We can explore.  We can immerse ourselves.

The monks are back.  To remind me of what higher purpose that structure is for…

A Sense of Unity

One might say that the mantra of the election campaign was “Change,” and it well might still be that as President-elect Obama transitions into the White House. However, I am getting a strong sense of the word “Unity” as well, and not just in American politics. Lately my thoughts have been on the ecumenical role of Christians around the world- our need as followers of Christ to reach out to the world to bring it together, to unify it. More and more I am realizing that what the world faces today is the steady dismantling of meaning in their lives. I first sensed this in my studies of Literary Theory- the tantalizing concepts of early 20th Century Modernism, which in turn led to deconstruction and other post-modern theories that essentially eradicated all sense of purpose and meaning through its vigorous analysis of language. These theories had enormous impact on philosophy and, unfortunately, as they left the Ivory Tower of Theory and drifted into the breeze of the mainstream, capitalized on a growing sense of disassociation and division in the general culture.

This disassociation from meaning cannot be answered by disparate and divisive language from those that profess the reality of God in our lives, in whatever form He/She takes. A more inclusive look at the reality of the Divine in all our lives, from those who profess the reality and truth of Christianity to those who seek the reality and truth of Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Wiccan, etc. must be made. While this understanding still gestates and grows in my own mind and soul, with the perplexing questions that surround it (i.e. “How can I be true to my faith when any other is equally of value?”), I take hope (which is a supreme measure of faith), in some expressions of unity that I have come across in my own spiritual journey over the past couple of years. Most of these stem from my exploration of Christian monasticism, which on the surface to those not familiar with its precepts might be seen as structured, dogmatic, and therefore the most close-minded to thoughts of ecumenical outreach. I have found, on the contrary, that Christian monasticism has offered, even over the centuries, an intentional meditation and analysis on the figure of the “Other” in our lives, and indeed has figured prominently as the catalyst for such outreach. Consider a couple (for this post anyway):

Taize: from its website, Taize describes itself as “made up of over a hundred brothers, Catholics and from various Protestant backgrounds, coming from around thirty nations. By its very existence, the community is a ‘parable of community’ that wants its life to be a sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and between separated peoples.”

Michael Casey, in his article “Thoughts on Monasticism’s Possible Futures,” describes Taize as “transcend[ing] denominational boundaries…Believers find there a resonance to their unformulated spiritual yearnings. Yet Taize is not wishy-washy or without principles; it does not blur ecclesiastical distinctions. The magic of the community consists in the fact that it tries simply to be faithful to its own charism and call, and then invite others to share in what it has.”

The Monastic Interreligious Dialogue: Meeting of Muslim and Christian scholars at the Vatican:

Recently, 29 scholars, with either Catholic or Muslim backgrounds, met for the first Catholic-Muslim Forum, entitled “Love of God, Love of Neighbor. Their mutual declaration provides a hopeful sense of unity for interreligious dialogues to come in the future.

As we move into a new era of American politics, Diana Eck’s words from The Life of Meaning, from a article in the late 90s, resonate with me:

“We have this challenge in the United States to do something that has really never been done before, which is to create a multireligious and democratic state. In fact, the multireligious America is an extension of our commitment to a constitutional democracy. We have an opportunity to create such a state in a world that has very few models for this kind of religious pluralism…The obligation of a Christian is not only to witness to people of another religious tradition, but to listen to whatever witness they may have. And once you are speaking and listening you are already in the context of dialogue.”

Beyond the Mist

I have this picture on the desktop of my computer:

Beautiful, right? It’s not a picture I took myself- this is simply included with the “sample pictures” folder that came with Vista. Ever since my school has upgraded their technology (overhead projectors, plugins, etc.), I have been using Powerpoint to present notes from my own computer, and this is the picture my students most often see before we commence with the lesson of the day. It’s inspired some conversation, most notably “What’s down the path?” I find it a great source for teaching imaginative/descriptive writing.

Opening up my laptop this morning, with the familiar photo of dirt path, tall trees, and mist before me, I began contemplating, “Am I really walking down the Path set before me? Or am I simply content talking about walking down the Path?” The image is so beautiful from where I stand, at the start of my journey- why bother going into the mist? Into the unknown? Into the unfamiliar? What if it not so beautiful later on? What is out there? Or, if I am walking, are my eyes closed? Focused on the ground?

I think I’ve been lingering too long at the head of the pass, or else not really seeing what is on the path, but instead trudging along blindly, and every once in a while determining where I am by a smudged map written by others.

I am a Christian, and by the tenets of my faith I am charged with “taking up my cross and following Christ,” but lately doubts, distractions, laziness, and confusion have taken hold of me. I came back to the faith three years ago (has it been that long already?), no longer doubting God’s presence in the world, or doubting the sanctifying blood of Christ, but still wary of how Christ was presented to others, and deeply embarrassed and put off by the particular vitriol of the American Christian evangelistic tradition, an approach to “presenting the love of Christ” that seemed arrogant, demeaning, demanding, and hurtful.

But I had a “God moment” as some might title it, (and others deride as naive and delusional- fine- I’m not really concerned in this post about “proving” or “disproving,” everything simply slams up against the wall of Faith anyway), and found this incredible need to explore my new found faith, which effectively dismantled all previous assertions made when I was “born again” in my teens, and assumptions and expectations of the happily “born against” person I had become in my twenties. I discovered the strong tradition and path of monasticism.

Monastic spirituality removed all the hype and pretense of the evangelic tradition of which a majority of my Christian knowledge consisted. Many Protestants may be able to attest to this. Anything that happened before the Reformation and after “Scripture” (re: Christ) is deemed null and void theologically. Christianity went wrong, the Reformation put it right, and all truth comes from the Bible, and that’s it. So I was never really exposed to the early church’s history, even from the intellectually vigorous pulpit of Park Street Church in Boston where I was raised. Or, to be more honest, I never chose to investigate the early history of my faith. When I did, however, in my early thirties, I came across a whole new spectrum and expression of the Christian faith, one that started with St. Antony in the year 300 and went all the way up to Thomas Merton in the 20th Century. Who were these people- what do you call them? Monks?– that gave up everything they had for God? Who were these people that seemed to have a much more, for lack of a better word, calmer and contemplative approach to the Faith, one that wasn’t about a scorecard with “this many converted,” but a truly humble and grateful sense of the Living God?

my father, as a monk, Weston Priory 1960

my father, as a monk, Weston Priory 1960

Well, my father, for one.

Okay, this is where it gets a little odd. “Greg, your father was a monk?” “Uh…yep.” “Then all this ranting and raving about not knowing about Church history is kind of…”

Ignorant. Sure, you can say it. I never said I didn’t have a head full of rocks when I was a teenager, or was able to put two and two together (math was never my strong suit). My father was a Benedictine novice monk from 1959-1963 at Weston Priory, in Vermont. My family and I used to take trips up to the monastery when I was a kid- around 6 years old. It remained in my memory as just a long car ride ( 3 hours), old people (the brothers), and two pigs named Bilbo and Frodo who never woke up, or stopped snoring, no matter how much grass I threw on them.

The Lord, I am convinced, jump started this hazy memory of the monastery soon after my “God Moment,” and I googled up the monastery to see if these monks still existed. They did. And wouldn’t you know it, they had something called a Monastic Retreat for Young Men in June of that year (2006), and openings were still available (which is great considering only five men are allowed at a time). I experienced in that short week, at taste at least, of monastic spirituality and culture. The structure and routine of the monastic life: Lectio divina, the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist, ora et labora (work and prayer), allowed me to see a rhythm and pattern to the Christian life, centered on Christ’s love, peace, and goodwill and brotherhood towards others.

After my retreat, and back “into the world,” recapturing that feeling of love and peace, as Brother Michael warned, did not come easily. I partially shot myself in the foot on this one, choosing to fret and frown and worry about the paradoxes in Christianity I saw. Why aren’t you people- you Christians- getting this? Why do you have to be so aggressive, so enraged, so un-Christ-like?” My anger turned towards the monastic communities- “Why aren’t you more vocal? Why don’t you speak up against what people are doing in God’s name?” And I began to read, and read, and read, trying to find the arguments that fit, the rebuttals I could use. I tried to find the denomination that didn’t have blood on its hands (literal or figurative). I tried to put on rose-colored glasses. I tried not to look at all. I tried to put it in human terms.

I never turned that anger and frustration against myself, of course. Didn’t Christ once speak of the oak plank and the speck? (Matt 7:4) What exactly was I doing to show the love of Christ to others? Why was I making things complicated and angaging in conflict? What I failed to do, and what I’ve failed to do since, is take myself back to a conversation I had with my wife over coffee at Starbucks, when I finally came back to the faith I had left so many years ago. I remember it clearly: she was worried about the direction I was taking, worried that I may become a religious “fanatic.” I tried to assuage her worry. I quoted from I John: “God is Love.” And that, I continued, is all I know right now, but it is enough, and I am just exploring and discovering what that means. What that means to me, to us, to the world. I did not delve into anything else, but took her hand as she sat, semi-convinced that I wasn’t off my rocker.

So I gaze at the photo on my desktop, and Christ, the good Rabbi, leans in and whispers “Why are you so afraid of the mist? Come, and follow me.” And I think I finally realize the ridiculous answer I so often give to God: “Okay, I’m almost finished with this chapter.” Because who knows what’s out there, right?

But ultimately I should remember who is with me.