“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…


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.