Why I Am Not Becoming A Monk

Carthusian Monks at La Grande Chartreuse, in the French Alps, courtesy of the NYT.

So I had lunch with an old friend a few weeks back—-one of the handful of people I’d like to see before I leave to teach.  Now curiously enough, one of the first questions she asked was, So are you still planning on becoming a monk?

I nearly choked on my pesto sandwich, for she was quite serious.  And now that I think of it, she had reason to be, I guess.

For a while there, I was volunteering at a monastery.  In my blogtasmagorical blatherings, I often reference monastic spirituality (like here and here and here).  Friends are always posting medieval this-and-that on my Facebook wall for all to see, monk-related items especially.

And yes, the last blog post I wrote was about East vs. West monastic spirituality.

But I just want to take the time here to make it clear to all friends, readers, and potential life-partner candidates: I don’t think I’ll be entering a monastery at any time in the future.  Not even if they let us ride bikes.

Cistercian nun on a bike, courtesy of Valley of Our Lady Monastery in Prairie du Sac, WI.

 I’ll tell you why.  It’s not the silence that scares me.  I love the quiet, and I love the idea of hearing more subtle things after succumbing to it for a long, long while.  The lifestyle sounds, frankly, idyllic.  A life spent moving between intellectual work, spiritual work, and honest work with one’s hands in a tight-knit community somewhere quiet in the country?  Sounds right up my alley.

Which leads to number two.  It’s not that I fear I would be lonely.  Monasticism is all about community.  It’s not that I fear I would be bored, either.  Monks are actually quite busy.  I love the thought of waking up before dawn and going to sleep when the sun sets, calm and peaceful yet not a minute wasted.

I would be a little nervous about the “once you’re in, you stay in” aspect of it, however.  But then again, making a vow to stay put might finally put an end to that urge I have to wander aimlessly.

This plan of the ‘ideal monastery’ made for St. Gall in the 10th century clearly makes space for me to have a garden (courtesy of gardenvisit.com).

You know, there are a lot of different forms of monastic spirituality out there to choose from.  You may think of monks as old dudes wearing heavy robes and chanting Latin all the livelong day in old stone churches, but in fact there are all sorts of monks and nuns living in any number of ways today, doing everything from kickin’ it old school to running various agritourist facilities.

Take, for example, the monastery I briefly volunteered at this winter, Holy Wisdom.  They’re a sustainability-minded, LEED-certified, prairie restoring community, composed of a few ‘sisters’ who take vows of, I believe, obedience, hospitality, and stability.  Beyond the avowed three then, there is also a novice, or a sister in training, and another pseudo-sister who participates in monastic life but rooms off-campus.

Then there is the oblate community: a group of women who make a promise to participate in the monastic prayers and worship while also committing themselves to a year of study of The Rule of St. Benedict, the original Idiot’s Guide to Western Monasticism.  They are married women primarily, but also singles and as well widows (‘all you single ladies put your hands up..’).

Unlike most monasteries, however, Holy Wisdom is no longer affiliated with the Catholic Church.  There are Christians of all sorts in the ecumenical community, and in fact one of the sisters is a former Presbyterian minister!  Which brings me to the greatest difference of all: the doors of Holy Wisdom are open to the community.  The state-of -the-art facility is maintained by a congregation of volunteers (both men and women) who not only pray and worship with the community but also help to enrich it.  It makes their stake in the congregation all the more powerful, and in return the sisters pass on some of that healing monastic spirituality.  And you don’t even have to be a monk to attain it!

The beautiful grounds at Holy Wisdom Monastery

 The backyard at Holy Wisdom Monastery.

Which leads me to my conclusion.

You see, if I were to join a monastery, I would want to kick it old school—-like seriously old school.  Like, pre-thirteenth century mendicant reforms old school—-or as close as I can possibly get to it.  I would join the Cistercians, an enclosed order born in the spirit of reform in the eleventh century.  Or the Trappists, the common name of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a seventeenth-century reform of the Cistercians.  Or the Carmelites (twelfth centurey) or, maybe my favorite, the discalced (shoeless) Carmelites, a reform from the sixteenth century.

You see, I’ve put a lot of thought into this.

As much as I love, love, love the community aspect of Holy Wisdom Monastery, and as much as I loved being a volunteer there, that kind of sisterhood is not for me.  Most of the draw of monasticism is the traditional contemplative, enclosed spirituality.

When I see my head photo-shoped onto a monk’s shoulders, I am usually somewhere dark and chanty, removed from the world, where I dedicate myself entirely to that inward journey, the one you can taste watching the videos of the monks of Mt. Athos in the previous entry.  If you want an even bigger taste of that world, I recommend you see Into Great Silence, a German documentary about the ermetical Carthusian order, living in a sturdy monastery in the French Alps.    The same one their order has been living in since the eleventh century.

A Carthusian at Prayer, from the film Into Great Silence, lifted from ferdyonfilms.com.  Carthusians are too hardcore, even for me.

Although I believe that we need men and women who go into the so-called ‘wilderness’ in order to keep some part of this world sane, I do not think I could do it and not feel guilty.  If the world were in better shape, then maybe I could retreat to a monastery guiltlessly.  Although if the world were in better shape, I suppose I would not feel drawn to escape from it in the first place.

You see, monasticism is, in my idealizing eye, an escape from the world’s problems.  If I were a monk, I could focus all my attention on the internal struggle and on God and on living peacefully, without having to worry about the chaos all around me.

But this is not monasticism really.  Monasticism truly is a life of combat, within oneself and against the injustices of this world all at once.  In fact monks of all varieties, from Eastern Orthodox to Buddhist to Jain, are neck-deep in some of the world’s stickiest situations.  Consider the stories that came out of Vietnam, about Buddhist monks who saved scores of prisoners, walking right through war-zones to get them to safety.

Tens of thousands of Burmese Buddhist monks and their supporters marched yesterday in antigovernment protests in Rangoon. Concerns are rising over possible violence.

For all you Madisonian protesters out there, here are thousands of Buddhist monks at the antigovernment protests in Burma in 2007. 

The reason I’m not becoming a monk is that to me, monasticism is an idyllic, peaceful retreat from life’s insanity, where I can pretend I’m in the eleventh century.  Some days that sounds pretty cool to me.  But when I really think about it, I’m much more dedicated to living a messy, chaotic life “within the world”, and maybe doing a little good from within it while I’m here.

It’s the sort of life monks have, in truth, really always been living.   Even the first Christian monks, like St. Anthony, who were going out into the desert to escape from the corrupt cities, were doing their fair share of social services.  And as the great Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps the world’s leader on socially engaged Buddhism, says, “When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time.”

And I don’t intend to.  But if I’m going to live neck-deep in the world’s messes, and if I’m never going to make that retreat to the medieval monastery, I think I’d like the consolation of having a little bit of land of my own and also a family.  I’ll just keep the monastic ideal present, as a sort of happy place.  Hopefully that’s not too much to ask, is it?

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~ by Rachael on April 27, 2011.

One Response to “Why I Am Not Becoming A Monk”

  1. Rachel i really appreciate your posts and writing your thoughts on the matter of monasticism. it is funny because i found this post from googling “feeling guilty not becomming a monk” i googled that because i personally came to the conclusion that i feel guilty being in the world and enjoying its material fruits. i feel this way because of what the Holy Gospels and scriptures tell us. Christ Jesus came into this world and suffered and died for us, so that he could show us the way to salvation. He did this solely out of love for our human race. It is said in the Gospels to “sell your stuff and follow me” “deny yourself” and so on. so, if Jesus sacrificed his life and put himself directly on the path of suffering and eventually being crucified, then how can you feel guilty about devoting your entire life to worship, internal prayer, and repentance?
    For me personally, as someone considering a monastic life, I feel guilty not becomming a monk due to the fact that that’s the least I can do in honor our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
    I see where you are comming from in terms of abandoning the world and running away from its problems and chaos, but the world is full of sin, and that is why you should not feel quilty. If anything deciding to deny yourself and leaving the world could prove to make a bigger positive impact on it than you might think.
    One part of me wants to remain in the world to help heal it. Maybe to add some positive value or perhaps help others discover their own path of repentance and salvation, but then i start doubting how big of a difference I can make because many people have distorted views on Christianity. There are also lots of people out there trying to spread the word of Christ. The Bible is probably the most accessible book in the world today, if people want to read it and want to believe in it they can freely do so. I came to the conclusion that the biggest impact i could make would be accepting the humbling life of monk. By leading by example. My parents were telling me “we dont necessarily agree with the corruption and greed of politicians and big business. or destroying the earth’s resources, etc.. but what can we do about it?” I had one answer and it was a quote from Ghandi “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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