catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 6 :: 2008.03.21 — 2008.04.04


Doing monasticism

Each winter during the month of January, my college offers non-traditional courses on a variety of topics.  This year, a course called “Contemplation in Action: Monastic Spirituality for Ordinary Christians” caught my attention.  The course promised a look into the unique and aesthetically austere Carthusian order from the movie Into Great Silence and a two day stay at New Melleray’s monastery guest house near Dubuque, Iowa.  I eagerly signed up.

After the stark depiction of monastic life that Into Great Silence provided me, I readily prepared myself to face the uncomfortable realities of the cloistered life during my stay at New Melleray: the cold, the early hours, the modest food, the “mandatory” silence, the inescapable solitude.  I had taken the few brief glimpses of monastic life that I’d been given, and created a formula of renunciation that I hoped would—if I stuck to it closely enough during our visit—make me a more complete person, who understood more and hurt less. 

But that Wednesday morning I hurried to leave on time, nervous about delving into something I really knew very little about, and was short and rude to my friend before I left.  The reality of monastic “renunciation” became an uncomfortable intrusion to my suddenly complicated and busy life.  I barely had time to apologize to my friend before I had to leave, so I was still kicking myself for my insensitivity when I showed up late to the van.  What I felt I needed was my cell phone to make a quick call home to my friend that would communicate my regret and settle my mind before I got busy thinking about God. Unfortunately cell phones aren’t allowed at New Melleray and monastic life doesn’t wait for a bruised ego to heal.

I think I expected something special to happen to me once I arrived at the monastery.  Since high school I’d been cultivating this mystical image of monastic spirituality where God finally decides to show himself.  If you were disciplined enough to say goodbye to your family, friends, the prospect of marriage, good food, conversation and even sex, then God would be there at the entrance of your chosen cloistered community, waiting to greet you and give you some answers.  I knew monastic life was hard and lonely, but I figured people did it because God rewarded those brave enough to stick with it by fulfilling them in a way I could never imagine.  My two days in the comfortable monastery guesthouse didn’t really give me full proof of what monastic existence is like, but as I sat in my cell—alone—without any answers, direction or comfort, I realized either I was doing monastic life wrong, or rather that I was wrong about monastic life.

It took me about half an hour to decide that I had brought the wrong books with me; none of them were offering the clarity or answers I was looking for. I sat in my cell feeling badly about myself for what happened with my friend before I left and feeling lonely, uninspired and bored.  I was in the-middle-of-nowhere Iowa, in a silent monastery, sitting alone with myself.  I hated how ordinary I felt.  I feel guilty admitting that I spent the majority of our visit to New Melleray certain that I was doing it wrong, but the restlessness and self-awareness were not something I expected to confront me.  If anything, I saw our visit as an opportunity to rest and regain some sense of self.

But what that restlessness brought was an encounter that I needed; in looking back on my trip, it feels as if I was being given a chance to not only be examined, but to see and feel myself residing in the ordinary rhythms of spiritual life. I thought that I was doing something wrong at New Melleray because I was not being comforted or affirmed in my seeking. But it seems like I was given the space to face myself, to face that boredom and restlessness not as things to be cured, but as facets of my growing identity in Christ, which longs and looks forward to a promised restoration. Henri Nouwen, in his book The Inner Voice of Love, described this lack of comfort and affirmation as essential:

The spiritual task is not to escape your loneliness, not to let yourself drown in it, but to find its source…. This is an important search because it leads you to discern something good about yourself.  The pain of your loneliness may be rooted in your deepest vocation.  You might find that your loneliness is linked to your call to live completely for God.  Thus your loneliness may be revealed to you as the other side of your unique gift.  Once you can experience in your innermost being the truth of this, you may find your loneliness not only tolerable but even fruitful.  What seemed primarily painful may then become a feeling that, though painful, opens for you the way to an even deeper knowledge of God’s love.

In monastic life, you are forced to live face to face with your false self. Every day, monks willfully take away the unnecessary, or that which disguises who they really are, in order to live truthfully. They feel desire for what they are denying, and they cry out in naked exposure. To many, they are choosing to suffer, but they understand that they are merely facing who we really are: lonely, longing and unsatisfied people, waiting to be made whole. What the monks of New Melleray showed me, along with those who cultivate monastic practice in contemporary life, was a new way to see that kind of encounter; the monks seek God in order to anticipate him, laying aside the need for answers in order to live in that anticipation. 

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