Lessons from a monastery: Part III… life of integrity

Posted on September 15, 2013

The monastic way showed me that a life of integrity flows from a consistency of character. Our “doing” proceeds from our “being.”

Our world values achievement. It values a person’s doing. And I want to be valued. So I usually try to do a lot. But if I think about it, the people who ‘do’ best – the ones that I want to emulate – are people who are good at ‘being.’ And I think that is probably the case because you do things differently based on who you are, inwardly. For example, one of the days at the monastery our group was given the task of clearing a field. Midway through the day, I noticed some of the guys carrying heavy branches from a pile far away to be placed in the bed of the truck. It was commendable that they were taking on such hard work. However, they were so caught up in the doing of the work that they failed to take the necessary pause to reflect on who they were – smart people – who had the ability to drive the truck closer to the branch pile. While this “work smarter, not harder” example is not perfect, I think it relates. In many of life’s activities we can get so caught up in the doing that we fail to pause and evaluate if what we are doing is important in the first place. Is it true to who I am? Does it reflect my priorities in life? Does it reveal the gifts and purposes God has given me? Unfortunately, I often forget to ask myself these questions. I hope that by slowing down I will focus more on ‘being’ with God. With more pauses – especially seven pauses a day like the monks practice – I may get less done. But I think that at the very least I can expect more joy and gratitude for my work. That seems like a better plan: do less, but be happier.

The monks do not accomplish much by the world’s standards. But they spend a lot of time focusing on their character and their spiritual sense of self and God. Henri Nouwen says this is the important thing, especially for ministers. When we are filled with God’s merciful presence, “we can do nothing other than minister. Our whole being witnesses to the light that has come into the darkness.”

Living in this world, I find it hard not to be distracted … by billboard advertisements, gossiping friends, needy congregants, stressed exhaustion, and all those things that vie for attention.  The monks aim to be single-minded. Prayer is the priority. All other activities are arranged around the liturgy. It is called “the work of God”, and nothing is to be preferred above it. One of their mottos is “Ora et Labora” … prayer and work.  Prayer comes first. I wouldn’t recommend to many people that they should leave the cities like these monks did and go to the desert. But I do admire their single-mindedness. They take the priority of God so seriously that they have abandoned a “normal” life and pledged fidelity to a group of men who also are single-minded in the pursuit. They have learned that the things we ruminate on are the things that can poison us and erode our souls. Joan Chittister diagnosed one of the problems in our society when she wrote, “We dull our senses with television and wonder why we cannot see the beauty that is around us. We hold on to things outside of us instead of concentrating on what is within that keeps us noisy and agitated. We run from experience to experience like children in a candy store and wonder how serenity has eluded us. It is walking through life with a relaxed grasp and a focused eye that gets us to where we’re going. Dwelling on inessentials and, worse, filling the minds of others with them distract from the great theme of our lives. We must learn to distinguish between what is real and what is not.”

Intentionality and focus have been sweet words to my ears for several years, but I have yet to achieve them in satisfactory ways. Because of the discipline they place themselves under, I think the monks are getting it right. Operating in the sixth century, Saint Benedict scheduled prayer times during the day to coincide with the times of the changing of the Roman imperial guard, showing the monks’ homage was to God. The point was clear: there is to be no time, no thing, which absorbs us so much that we lose contact with the God of life.

Young people are looking for authenticity. Many desire to see people whose words and actions and thoughts are all consistent with each other. The ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers pursued lives consistent with the gospel commands of humility and love. Whatever they knew from Scripture, they desired to practice it. The monks in the New Mexican mountains also abandoned their old ways to make their lives consistent to their calls and to the gospel as they understand it. Unfortunately, many Christians are known to be people who say one thing but do another. They behave one way on Sundays and another way during the week. Politicians, teachers, parents, ministers … have let us down. We want role models who are authentic. Those of the monastic way can be some of our role models. They integrated their actions and words, and they also were honest about their failures. As I pray and grow, I hope that I move in that direction.

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