A week off to do what? I’m not really sure. Every teacher pleads silently for that extra minute of simple downtime: no papers to grade, no lessons to write. A reprieve from the constant buzzing insistencies of the educational life. But what to do when that time finally comes, and when it comes in abundance? For one week I have the opportunity to enjoy some time off, and while a dozen or so things to do are coming to mind, it’s hard for me to figure where and when. I’m a creature of routine- my scattered mind demands it. For the past three months I’ve been in the routine of “school,” and now it’s time, for a little while anyway, and for the sake of sanity, to remove myself from that routine, and I find it hard to extricate myself.
I believe I made a good start to the week by attending a retreat on Thomas Merton over the weekend at the Canterbury Retreat Center in Oviedo, FL. It was a mad dash from school to home to retreat, but once there, and after a few sessions of meditative prayer, in addition to reveling in the beautiful landscape I felt myself settle a bit. A few scattered bits of poetry came out of my weekend, a good sign of letting go.
I have a documentary to recommend: The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun. Set in Denmark, the movie documents an old Danish man, “Mr. Vig,” and his desire to transform his dilapidated castle and estate into a monastery. Receiving word from the Russian Patriarche that the Orthodox Church would be interested in sending some nuns to establish an Orthodox monastery in the area, Mr Vig sets about trying to repair the place, without success. The building is as frail and jumbled as Mr. Vig, from its rusted boiler that fills the basement with smoke (little actually coming out of the chimney), to rotting floorboards, and a leaking roof. Enter Sister Ambrosija, an efficient, no nonsense nun who sets about organizing the proper repairs, leaving Mr. Vig feeling a bit left out of his own creation. The two spar and scold each other, but a tender understanding relationship develops out of all of this (even after a sneaky contract revision that has Mr. Vig smiling for the first time in the movie, and leaving Sister Ambrosija furious).
Unlike a typical “Odd Couple” movie, The Monastery attends to one of the core needs of humanity- to create something enduring. Mr. Vig tries to meet this need, and although at one point in the movie I thought he was a heartless jerk, he is ultimately a tragic figure the audience grows to love, and eventually, mourn.
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?
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.