An Ordinary Monk
"The true monk is the one who is perfectly free. Free for what? Free to love God." -Thomas Merton
Sometimes I want to be a monk.
But it's not what you may think.
I do fantasize about fleeing my COVID-era kid-chaos for a stint of silence and Psalm-chanting at a monastery. Yet donning an alb or habit is not what I have in mind. The specific life circumstances of the monk are not what I envy. What I'm after is what the monk represents: the single-minded devotion to God through prayer, silence, and stillness. I want to be a monk not in actual fact, but in archetype.
This moment in Spirit's evolution is thrilling because the monk today does not have to be cloistered from the world. There will always be, I pray, traditional monastic communities to ground and inspire retreat and spiritual formation, such as St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, birthplace of Centering Prayer, the Spencer Brewery and Trappist Preserves. But the wisdom of the Christian contemplative tradition, passed down historically through monks, nuns, and texts on sheep-skin parchments, is now accessible to all who seek it. Alongside the gifts of traditional monks and monasticism, it is also a time for new monks and new monasticism.
The new monk is, philosopher Raimon Panikkar says in this book, not a role but a universal archetype. The monk is a "constitutive dimension of human life." New monastic theologian Beverly Lanzetta picks up Panikkar's inspiration and affirms what she calls a monastic personality: "a particular type of temperament and personality trait especially evident in people whose contemplative nature has been awakened."
There is a divine depth in me, and in you, that is only available when we are still and quiet enough to listen. There's an element of discipline in it, too: we also need to be surrendered enough in our being so that our minds and hearts can listen. Our small ego-stories need to give way to a Larger Story. For me, this is not possible without daily practices of intentional silence and embodiment such as yoga or, these days with my boys, hiking. A monastic personality is one in whom the single-minded pursuit of this divine depth takes substantive root. It is not optional for us, a spiritual "add-on" to the rest of life. It is life. We need it to survive.
If I'm honest, this might be the deeper reason why I left local church ministry. (And a dynamic church with tremendous people, at that!) The external reason is that I found a job with an organization I love, in a role I cherish. In my experience, though, there's usually an inner pulse to outer changes. The inner reason, which I am only now uncovering, is that I needed to be alone more. After ten years of ministry, the constant relational demands of church meetings, administration, community leadership, and pastoral care, mixed with the ever-present needs of my kids and family life left my soul worn out and thirsty for God. The divine presence has beckoned me, in the translated words of Jesus: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest" (Matthew 11:28, The Message).
It's ironic how service to God can itself exhaust us and keep us from the real thing, which is personal experience and intimate communion with the Divine.
For a while, I thought it was an introvert/extrovert issue: as much as I value people and communities, as social as I can be at times, I need solitude to rejuvenate. But it's more than that. Now that I no longer carry in my body the spiritual weight of a congregation's health, I feel my soul's spaciousness expanding, my prayer life settling, and myself being far more playful and present with my family. I am writing this from the unthinkable, utterly tiring, state of simultaneous work and childcare during a global pandemic, and it's still true.
Perhaps you have a budding or flourishing monastic personality. I would love to hear from you: how are you nurturing the monastic archetype, especially amidst the many commitments of modern professional and family life? How is the pandemic opening up opportunities or challenges for you?