Lessons from a monastery: Part II… counter-cultural life

Posted on September 14, 2013

The monastic way gave me living examples that it is possible to live counter-culturally through an abandonment of society’s values and a yearning for the spiritual life.

In this world, where scarcity is the rule, jealousies abound, and dog-eat-dog is the common mentality, I have become all too familiar with competition. But life is different at the monastery. I can honestly say that nowhere else have I seen men who do not care about outdoing each other. They work in harmony better than any group I know. Their founder set it out in his Rule that to prevent a stratified society and prideful members among the monks, no gifts were allowed and no member owned private property. Even priests did not get special treatment. Financial matters were never a consideration. Favoritism was avoided. All were ranked by the timing of their entry into the community or else elevated by the leader according to virtue. Perhaps today the monks are allowed to receive gifts, but the attitude of equality has remained. Each monk wears a “habit” of identical robes – for many reasons, one being to show that all monks are on the same level.

Most people in society experience social compulsions – the need for ongoing and increasing affirmations. We care about how the world perceives us. As Henri Nouwen said, Christians often live secular lives, fearing failure, keeping busy daily routines because there are so many “musts” and “oughts” in this world. But at the monastery, I learned that accomplishment and meaning do not go hand-in-hand. The monks are not concerned with achievement. They are seeking a life that the world deems worthless. And yet they do not care what the world thinks.

I realize this counter-cultural mindset does not come naturally. Most monks enter the monastery after living many years in society. Kathleen Norris tells a story about a monk she knew who was in his early thirties and told her that he’d come to the monastery not realizing what a shock it would be to suddenly not have to compete for the things that young men are conditioned to compete for in American society. Those things were, he said, “a good salary, a cool car, and a pretty girlfriend. When all of that was suddenly gone and held of no account, I felt as if my whole life were a lie. It took me years to find out who God wanted me to be.” I see that it is not easy, but it is possible.

I so long for meaning. I want to live a purposeful life. I am also a Type A person who longs for accomplishment. I have always associated those two things together, but as I think about it, I know that great accomplishment does not always lead to great meaning – to feelings of fulfillment. That is a lie I’ve been taught to believe. I am not a more important person when I accomplish more – even if the achievements are in the realm of ministry. Macrina Wiederkehr says, “We find ourselves multitasking just to get through the day with some sense of accomplishment.” And that is me. But is that what God wants?

Society says that winning, owning, having, consuming, and controlling are what make a person important. Those things give meaning. Among Christian ministers, I know there is often a spirit of competition. They desire to prove themselves. I do not see that at the monastery. Realistically, I suppose the monks struggle with similar issues. They are not perfect. Perhaps they want to be thought of as the most “holy” or outdo each other in prayer. But I think what helps them be more successful in getting past their sins is their disciplined community and their vow of stability. If one has strife with another, and he begins to speak badly of that person, it will probably get back around to the abbot eventually, and he will be reprimanded. Or if one is envious of another, he still has to go to prayer seven times a day … and it is hard to pray with sin in the heart! The monks will not leave the community when things get tough. All of this contrasts with the average Christian who has greater opportunity to bad-mouth with no one to stop her, continue in envy and never pray, or find a new church when she is displeased. It makes me wish we, too, made vows of stability and had some form of consistent communal prayer. Discipline and vows keep monastic people on the path to righteousness.

At the monastery, concern for community takes precedence over concern for the individual. Sure, Benedict said that for the weaker members some exceptions should be made. Not all monks are treated exactly the same. But this plays into the high concern of caring for each other. Norris wrote that the ongoing Benedictine experiment demonstrates a remarkable ability to take individual differences into account while establishing the primacy of communal life. In our era of solitary spirituality, Benedict said yes to community. As Joan Chittister put it, Benedict’s belief was that living life alone is nowhere near as searing of our souls as living it with others. Benedict does not call us first to prayer or devotions or asceticism. The first call is to justice through loving God and loving others. It was a communal lifestyle. He knew we needed each other for accountability and preservation.

One way I learned they do this is through detachment. The monks are taught to be detached from things and from others. To “die to one’s neighbor” implied not a cold indifference toward others but a level of detachment from petty concerns. This is what makes real human relationship possible. It means giving up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others. When we stop judging them, we are free to be compassionate. An ancient leader personified this detachment when he told his disciples, “I do no think I have ever told one of you to do something without having first made the decision not to get angry if what I said were not done.”

Society through the ages has expected people to be active and productive. Children, elderly people, handicapped people, minorities … all have been devalued based on their uselessness. But the Desert Christians – past and present – have set an example of the counter-cultural life that Jesus’ gospel calls us to. As John Chryssavgis so eloquently put it, that gospel is one of a different set of values, where change occurs through silence and not war; where inaction may be the most powerful source of action; and where productivity may be measured by obscurity, even invisibility. Though God has not called me to live in the desert far away from non-Christians, I know Jesus has beckoned me to live a counter-cultural life, just like he did. The challenges of living in the world will be different from the challenges monks face at the monastery, but through their example I know challenges can be overcome.

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