Tuesday, June 24, 2003

The myth of escape

I think that one common misconception many of us (including some potential monks) have about monastic life is that it is some kind of escape from the real world. There is this romantic notion that monks spend a carefree life in just worship and contemplation, not at all bothered by the trials of life that we mere mortals must face. In fact, I think many of us would long for that kind of escape in a non-monastic way, if we could find it.

The reality is that monastic life includes lots of work and lots of messy individual relationships in a communal environment. Like any committed relationship, there are ups and downs for the monks. Every one of the older monks I've talked to has said that there are times when he has just wanted to walk away. Imagine 38 guys living together every day for the rest of their lives. Do you think they don't ever get on each other's nerves? Do you think that their little quirks don't end up driving some other brother totally crazy? I lived in a fraternity house with 20+ guys for one year and I know there were a few that I didn't get along with all that much after just one year. This is not a carefree, solitary existence. It has humans involved; it's messy.

And the rule of all monastic orders places a heavy emphasis on work. Of course the monastic way of life centers on prayer and worship, but work is treated with almost equal importance. Believe it or not, there's really not that much time for just plain old contemplation. Today my instructor asked me if I'd had time to let it all sink in and contemplate it. I replied that the structure of Benedictine life doesn't really allow all that much time for contemplation.

But, you might ask, what's the point of monasticism then? I think the idea is not to spend time just contemplating, but rather to contemplate what you are doing at all times. The key is to find the sacred in every activity, every moment. The Benedictine goal is to experience the presence of God in every moment and everything that we experience. The structure of Benedictine life fosters an environment that constantly brings the monk back to the centrality of God's presence -- constant reminders throughout the day.

The key, for me and other Christians who are not called to a monastic life, is to find ways to foster that sense of sacred moments in the things that we do. Which brings me back to monastic work. The monks treat their work as if it is something that God wants them to do. I know that for me, I have cut my work off from any spiritual meaning -- but my task is to find God in what I do and to let my work be a way of worshipping him. A Benedictine would probably tell me that if it is to be done, God would want me to do it well.

So, there is no escape from the world in monastic life. Rather, it is a way of living that confronts the reality of life in every moment.

1 comment:

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