Well, sorry for dropping off the face of the earth for about a week. I was busy wooing, and to spectacular effect I might add. It’s always good, by my way of thinking at least, to find a woman who shares your foundational interests and is otherwise very different from you. As is true with life, variety is the spice of relationships as well. I’m a rambler, she is thoughtful. I strive with the world, she is a peaceful soul. I fidget, she sits still. Etc, etc. But we are of one accord on matters of the divine which is super clutch. Don’t get me wrong I strive to love all people, but when it comes to romance, you better love Jesus more than me or you’re shit out of luck. That issue has been confirmed to my satisfaction. In the midst of our initial exploration into our mutual spiritual interests it came about that we attended a Taize service on Capitol Hill, after which she gave me an illegal copy of a Taize album. She’s also super gangster, by the way. And listening to this album reminded me that I want to be a monk.
In this fact lies the balancing act, or as nomenclature has it, ‘the rub.’ I have made quite the study of monasticism and mendicant orders over the years and am profoundly attracted to the life of a monk. I am also attracted to women, especially beautiful ones, the chiefest of whom is obviously my GF. The difficult thing is that I can’t have it all. I’m not going to lie, I’d like to have my cake and eat it too. It would be great to don my habit and go to morning prayer, chant for an hour or so, then frolic in a field of daisies with my similarly attired girlfriend. The problem is I’m a Presbyterian and as a denomination we don’t take monastic life seriously, in fact most reformed theologians denigrate it. I could always compromise my theology heavily and go catholic, but then the GF would have to take a hike. That is not a sacrifice I am willing to make, and so we have a conundrum.
A few months ago, in the throws of an existential crisis, I thought very seriously, and not for the first time, about going off to Taize in France and becoming a monk. Taize is cool because they’ll take anyone whose orthodox, catholic or not. I have to give some props here to my friend Katelyn, who knowing me well, simply said, “Mark, don’t become a monk.” I knew she was right of course, but I REALLY wanted to be a monk. But I really like Seattle, and women; damn I was in a crux. And so I returned over the last few months, wherein I recanted swearing off women, to the meditative state of trying to evaluate the monastic life and the common life to find the stuff that makes me whole.
The truth is, that barring serious accident or self mutilation, I’m just not cut out for celibacy. I’m also committed in a very real way to Seattle, which I often refer to as Zion, the land of my ethnos, or the best city ever. (Jerusalem step aside). So unless Taize packs up shop and relocates to the North West there is scant chance of me actually carrying through with any plans to become a brother there. Additionally there are sacrifices that I respect but don’t consider to be central to loving Jesus. I like watching Buffy, a lot, and I’ll give props to anyone who ditches their TV for the Lord, but I don’t feel him calling me to do the same. So what is it about being a monk I find so appealing?
First, monastic life is structured in a way that creates balance and eliminates chaos. The daily schedule of prayers and meals and work is not designed to restrict but simply to bring order. There is no stress about what comes next or how to manage your time, or whether or not you’ll be able to fit it all in. Today will be the same as this day was last week, as will it be next week and the one after.
Second, the elements of the day are things which God made humanity to enjoy. Monks do a lot of hard work in every field imaginable except advanced weapons tech. They have all the satisfaction of accomplishment and contribution to something larger than themselves. But their ordered life keeps work from consuming them and all their time. Monks also get to spend a significant portion of the day in prayer and meditation which calms and cultivates the mind in harmony with God. For all you atheist readers, God is a real person and building a relationship with him through prayer is even more important than eating, and it feels great! Monks also spend a good part of their day in fellowship with each other over food and have some of the tightest communities and friendships out there. In fact many monks argue that the level of friendship and love they experience exceeds the level of satisfaction available in marriage. You don’t have to agree with this, but it says something that so many of them fervently believe this.
Third, by putting off a lot of the things of this world some monks can actually dive way deeper into it. When you don’t have a mortgage to worry about, a ton of belongings to distract you, and a boggling social calender, you can get deep into service to the world and regular people. A random guy on the street, or a homeless person at a shelter can become the center of your complete attention for as long as necessary to have a meaningful connection. You can take the work that needs to be done the most and pays the least because you don’t have any money anyhow. The truth is that all the monks I’ve known or read about get far more back than they sacrifice. Just as Jesus says, anyone who gives up land or family, or riches for his sake will get a ten times as much and inherit eternal life. You have to admit, that’s a good deal.
Now monasticism isn’t the only way to give things up for the sake of Christ, but it’s one that has been refined over eighteen hundred years and they have it pretty well down. But as Paul says, not everyone is called to have a life like his, that is a life of singleness and high mobility. Some of us are meant to throw down some roots and populate the world. Family after all is one of the most sacred and important ministries. Even relationships themselves, regardless of how far they go, are means of building other Christians up in their faith. All this is to say, that, not for the first time as I have had this loop of existential crisis several times, there must be a way to extract what I can from the monastic life and use it to enrich my life as a pretty regular dude who has no intention whatsoever swearing off ladies. Especially now, which would be an outstandingly poor choice of timing.
Many Christians throughout the years have tried to strike this balance and many have done very well. The great Catholic example are the Benedictine Oblates, which are basically regular folks in the community who share prayers and meals with the brothers and then go about their secular jobs as anyone else would. But as a presby it takes a little more legwork to get these elements together. At least until we pull our heads out of our asses as a denomination and realize that the monastic life is a damn spiritual gold mine. Volunteering a is a great way to sacrifice part of a busy schedule to get down and dirty with a world that needs better love than just monetary donations. Going to, and even initiating, prayer services each week and reserving a portion of each day for scripture and meditation is hard work and a hell of a discipline to keep, but the rewards are profound. Hospitality can become a major part of your life and all the comforts and blessings of your home can become blessings to the community. As far as the ordering of the day, this is the hardest part. In my experience, mostly as someone who fails at achieving this, it simply means saying no to a lot of things. The ability to learn to fill your day with only as much as it can healthily hold has been very hard for me to attain. I certainly don’t have it down yet but I’m getting better. Setting priorities and then maintaining them can keep chaos out of your life and make the time you spend with people more meaningful. Some of my friends only see me rarely, but when they do we don’t dick around. And the people I see every day know for sure that they matter most.
So here’s to trying to get the best of both worlds. If you know how to do it please let me know. I’ve got a good start but this is the kind of challenge that never gets a complete answer, and I’m kind of glad about that. Growing this balance is like maturing, you never want it to end.
As an aside, I actually never had this conversation with the GF as it occurred to me yesterday. Perhaps I should get on that.
Peace to you all.