There is no formula

In a discussion the other day about “real” monastic life versus, one assumes, my less-than-real one, I was struck by the near voodoo level of superstitious nonsense surrounding the word “monk”. Alas, to many Religious enjoy too much from that word and its magical effects to spend much time debunking, or at least downsizing it.

I have mentioned before that I think, at its best, a healthy monastery is one where the harmony of all its members imitates the harmony of the Holy Family, or perhaps even the harmony of Eden pre-Fall. If anyone has ever visited a harmonious monastery the charity pervades its courtyards and rooms like incense. it is truly uplifting.

But, much more common, is that monasteries are lodgings for wayfaring men who are busy plugging holes in many parishes due to priestly shortages. Others are continuing their educational studies in various places, most notably in Rome. Not much more about stability, even while there may be obedience there.

So we come to new versions. Lay communities which do attempt to fulfil the spirit of monastic life, with greater or lesser success. often referred to with some condescension as “experiments” it is also seen by others in the Religious world as the next wave.

the way I have come to see it is that all baptized Christians have a “rule” (the baptismal covenant) and they do so within the context of a worshiping community – first their family, then the congregation which they attend. But being a Christian means, or should mean, also living to the full all evangelical counsels, not just the ones we can or want, including St. Paul’s admonition to ‘pray without ceasing.’

So, if Christians are called live a life under the rule of baptism, in a community of believers, which includes regular daily prayer, study of Scripture, prayer and meditation, then what is the special calling of traditional monasticism?

This is where I am unclear. There is little that impedes your average person from living a monastic life of regular prayer, meditation and service. Actually, there is nothing that impedes it.

The last bastion of exclusivity for monasticism seems to me to be the learning of the various inner disciplines. This is still tricky, but in an age of internet and mass communication, mass transportation and even space stations, such information from valid teachers is available. In fact there is an abundance of such things. While in olden days a seeker would have to travel (and travel was dangerous, expensive and inconvenient) great distances to sit at the foot of a master, it seems that these days all that is needed is a good internet connection.

We can argue until we are blue in the face whether online learning is real learning. All traditional universities (themselves modelled after monasteries!) are having to do some serious soul-searching before the onslaught on information freely available on the internet. the ones who are resisting, and are on retreat, keep repeating a mantra about “experience”: the experience of college life is what you go to college for. I have heard similar things about monasteries: it is the living together and working together that is formative.

But, but, but…is that not the case with any family life? I would say it is, and even more so.

The bottom line is that there is no formula for bottling the Holy Spirit. There are some types of living and there are other types of living. None is better/holier/deeper/more faithful than the other. In fact, staying put (ah! we are back to stability again) is more transformational than its opposite arrangements. Deep connections to a place can only be gained over time – there are no shortcuts. But if the place you choose is disconnected from life, if you are not interfering with the world in your work of purifying it like a tree cleaning up the air (as Merton put it), then God bless you but you ain’t doing me no favors.

I too dream of sitting in the caboose in a lovely monastery with beautiful views, quiet organized housework, and a stipend. I too would feel very holy there, I am sure. But, poor wretch that I am, I am asked to be all of that while commuting to work and going to watch my kid play soccer and help the other with his math. To be husband and father (as well as son, of course, and brother). Do not tell me that this God-given option is the lesser….


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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