14 – Monastic Interlude

MY BEING today is filled with a strange elixir: joy, co-mingled with sorrow.

Sorrow, because I have just been told one of the most important people to influence my life when I was in my twenties, a true father-figure, has incurable cancer, been given a few months to live.

He lives in the far west, near the great mountains which spine this continent and, given my, by choice, reduced circumstances on this sabbatical, getting out to see him will take not only quick and careful planning, but also the permission of my Spiritual Father, who, providentially, will be arriving in this city at The Community’s house tomorrow evening!

Joy because today is the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

She is our mother too, given to us by Jesus as He hung dying on the Cross.

It was also just under two decades ago on this very day I first began my studies as a seminarian.

My dying friend, mentor, was the first to encourage me as a writer, the first to commission articles and poems from my heart. He also taught me how to be a real man, servant and respecter of women, to use tools with care and efficiency, to love the land, the Holy Gospel, to respect and trust priests; especially, to care for and serve the poor.

Frankly I don’t much feel like praying today, though I did with peace celebrate the Divine Office and early this morning celebrated the Mass of the feast for the women in The Community’s house and enjoyed breakfast with them.

I don’t much feel like writing today, though I am here at this computer, because the duty of the moment is always the place to be with Christ and grief is part of the elixir of life, but not reason enough to abandon obedience and my obedience is to be faithful to the preciousness of each moment of this sabbatical.

Strange mystery the juxtaposition of today’s experience and the actual text of the original notes to open this chapter:

TODAY my heart is far away from this room, this hill, and this day of fierce cold, relentless wind, and darkening sky.My heart is with Our Lady, watching over the bed of a small child, my niece.A routine eye examination led to the discovery of a tumour.Surgery is to be in two days.It is St. Paul, granted referring to the Baptized, who most eloquently takes the words of Jesus about vine and branches {Jn.15:1-10] into the foundational teaching about being members of the Body of Christ and how the mystery both of suffering and honour in the life of one person becomes part of the life of every baptized person {1 Cor. 12:12,13; 26,27 } hence my profound awareness of my niece and what she is enduring.Of course, baptized or not every human being is a member of the one body of humanity and would that we truly embraced this then no one of us would ever tolerate the rejection, abuse, of another, let alone any form of slavery, war, famine, homelessness and indeed we would finally, as one, rise up and defend each sacred living brother and sister from the womb to the tomb.As the train climbed through the railroad yards, the city of my childhood, streams of smoke from the ancient steam engine billowed past the window, against which I had my face hard pressed, to hide my tears.I did not want anyone to see my tears and so internalized the determination never to cry again, never to be weak, rather to survive, that now, forty years later, I have not yet learned to weep.My emotions were in a confused turmoil.True I was finally making my escape, or at least an escape, from the terror of my life in the city which was now left far behind the train as it was cutting a swath through the falling twilight.It was a solitary escape into an unknown country, not to the celluloid dream factory fantasy with my companion.Yet, strangely, there was ebbing up from some unfamiliar depth within me a rivulet of anticipation, even of joy.If you’ve ever bit into something bitter you know the confused rush for the taste buds and the brain at the conflicting sensation of excitement and bitterness. My emotions were like that as the train rattled its way across rivers, through valleys, up foothills, twilight surrendered to night’s shroud and I slept little in my seat. The shroud was suddenly ripped open by the morning sun and in its brilliant light the day’s trip through towns, villages, forests, took me ever further, it seemed, from chaos into the unknown country of sweet release, and I became ever more enamoured of the beauty of this land.As late afternoon came, the train began to slow as we entered the edge of the village nearest the monastery and at that moment I was given a unique grace. Suddenly there sprang into my heart a word from Sacred Scripture, as if spoken on my behalf, perhaps by my Guardian Angel or Patron Saint or Our Blessed Mother or, through the mystery of Baptism, by Jesus Himself, all I know is it was spoken like another boy millennia ago [ 1 Sm. 3: 11].I anxiously peered out the window and there in the evening light stood the Abbot near a modest car.In that soft light he had about him even more of the radiance of a man of the desert than when I had first met him.He greeted me with genuine joy, put my little suitcase in the back, and we drove the several miles from the village to the monastery.The great gate, electrically controlled, rolled open, we drove through, and it closed upon me.For seven years!

SUDDENLY my heart is moved to radically change this chapter from the original and detailed notes. The original notes cover the full seven years in a manner and detail which reads now, frankly, as a sort of tiresome seventies style rant, the kind we have all been subjected to ad nauseam by countless ex-priests and nuns.

That is not the point of this work, nor would such writing be, frankly, honest.

No, rather my heart is moved to approach those years from the heart of true monastic desert experience itself!

 SO, YES I could spend pages writing minutely about those seven years, the details of monastic life, the impact of the unfolding Second Vatican Council and its aftermath, the loosening, the abandoning of critical aspects of monastic life, tradition, culture, the rapid deterioration of Roman Catholic religious life in general and the flood of departures.But that is not what is in my heart.There is no better text with which to begin the reflections upon the essence of those seven years than this from Paul Evdokimov:

POETS sing of the marvel of a glance that is always unique. The destiny of each one also seems unique. There exists, however, a certain correspondence between the phases of each spiritual life as in the rhythm of different ages. An element remains constant, around which the destiny of each human life is formed. The circumstances change, but the spiritual theme, personal for each one, remains identical through all disguises. Its call and the unavoidable exigency of an answer, this combination of what is given and what is desired, constitute what the Gospel calls, the personal cross of each man. It is inscribed within us at birth; no power can change it. ‘ Which of you being anxious about it can add to his stature a single cubit? ‘ [Mt.6:27]

Whether in the heart of a great city or in the midst of a desert, we cannot flee from this personal theme of our life. It accompanies us and speaks to us at every turning in our road. We can answer differently each time and change our course in one direction or another. We can marry or become monks; we can, like Spinoza, polish lenses or repair shoes like Jacob Boehme. The question, our question, remains identical and fixed in us as a constituent element of our being; it is no longer a question, it is ourselves who are involved.

To understand our ‘cross’ is to foresee the facts of our destiny, to decipher its meaning; it is to understand ourselves. The spiritual life does this; it introduces order, reveals the rhythm of its own growth, and requires a progressive advance. [ag]

 Read too quickly or with a modern western mind that quotation may appear to some as akin to a ‘karma’ or ‘fatalist’ or ‘predestination’ notion of the human person and appear to limit the possibility of any soul ever being freed from some inevitable destiny not of its own choosing.False!Here it is first of all important to hear the voice of Holy Mother the Church Herself:

GOD PREDESTINES NO ONE TO GO TO HELL; for this, a wilful turning away from God ( a mortal sin ) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implored the mercy of God, who does not want “ any to perish, but all to come to repentance. “ {2Pt.3:9}

Father, accept this offering from Your whole family. Grant us Your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those You have chosen. [ah]

 So what then can be drawn from the teaching of Evdokimov and my monastic interlude?What first comes to my heart is that we are deeply affected by the specifics of our ancestral, national, cultural, religious, and family-specific heritage and upbringing.  More and more, both in spirituality and basic psychology, we understand the profound effects of how we develop in early life as a child.This affects both our emotional and spiritual development and the way, therefore, that we make choices, relate to others, self and, of course, to God and the things of God.This is a fundamental dimension of what Evdokimov refers to as the personal cross of each one of us.For example: unresolved childhood fears deeply affect the adult and perhaps there is nothing the adult tries…not therapy…not drugs…seemingly not even prayer or sacraments…which heal this particular fear.Now the adult can fall into the cycle of anger and depression and the ‘why me’ OR embrace the cross, like Jesus in the Garden, faithfully asking always for healing but surrendering to the mysterious yet always tenderly loving will of the Father which permits this suffering.A dear friend of mine suffered terrible panic attacks most of his entire adult life which nothing seemed to avail and then a couple of years before his death in an instant they were gone.For most of my monastic life the things about my personality which had been such a source of confusion and fear were mute and I was able, surrounded by very holy, chaste, wise, hard-working fellow monks, to lead that life with inner peace and joy. However, as Evdokimov notes: we can’t flee from this personal theme in our lives.The essence of all human destinies is unity with the Blessed Trinity in and through unity with Christ.That is the common theme in the life of every created human being…we have come from the heart of the Trinity and a return to the heart of the Trinity is our true destiny.All else is, ultimately, and without repentance, eternally, an aberration.Steeped in the ebb and flow of the certainty of the daily monastic routine, bathed in the melodies and import of the chanting, [in Latin-Gregorian-chant], of the Divine Office, disciplined by the manual labour and spiritual reading, nourished through the sacraments, especially daily Holy Mass and Holy Communion, unbeknownst to the Abbot and my confessor, I was, however, in an albeit gentle, but prolonged, flight from self.Hence, flight from the cross.The purpose of the cross is not in our lives, per se, punitive, for Jesus took ultimate punishment upon Himself for us, but rather purifying, through the death of the false self, the sinful, deviant, self. Our true destiny is to become more and more converted, transfigured in the depths of our being to Christ until Christ is our all and we are all in Him.This means extreme humility, which itself is a grace of illumination of conscience wherein we see ourselves as truly in need of redemption.Only when we truly cry out: LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF THE LIVING GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME A SINNER, will we begin to become true Disciples of Christ, and truly the person we have been created to be.Monastic life in particular, the consecrated/ordained life, sacramental marriage, whatever the will of the Father is for the unique soul, these are the roads which lead to union with Him on the Cross, in the tomb, in Resurrection.But it is NOT the road itself which leads to liberation and transfiguration, rather it is Christ, and unless we walk the road of our lives in union with Him then the road may become a fast-track to no-where and we are lost.Monastic life, being, at least as it was in those days, a way and place of living totally cut-off from the concerns of the world, though at the same time a living powerhouse of intercessory prayer for those living in the world, is a place where the struggle with self and with God, spiritual warfare, the striving to open wide all the doors of one’s being to Christ, is the fundamental purpose of each living moment.This should be true for every human being, especially for every Christian, no matter the ‘ place ‘ or condition of our living.

GIVE ME a man who above all loves God with all his heart, himself and his neighbour in that they love God; but his enemy as one who will one day love perhaps; his parents who begot him with a warm natural love, but his spiritual teachers the more because of grace. Let him deal similarly with the other things of God in an orderly, loving way, despising the earth, looking up to heaven, using this world as if not using it {1Cor.7:31}, and discriminating between what is used and what enjoyed, by the experience of his mind. Let him treat transitory things as passing, necessary for the moment; let him cling to eternal things with an enduring desire. Give me such a man, I say, and I will boldly call him wise, because he recognizes things for what they really are, because he can truly and confidently claim, ‘ He has ordained love in me ‘ (Sg.ofSg.2:4). But where is he, and where will he be found? I ask in tears {Phil.3:18}, how long shall we scent and not taste, seeing our homeland far off, not possessing it but sighing for it. O Truth, fatherland of exiles, end of their exile! I see you, imprisoned in flesh, I may not enter. Muddy with sins, I cannot be admitted. O Wisdom, stretching from end to end, establishing and ordering everything (Wis.8:1), and arranging all things sweetly by enhancing feeling and making it orderly, guide what we do as your everlasting truth requires, so that each of us may securely glory in you and say, ‘ He ordained love in me ‘ (Sg. Of Sg.2:4). For You are the strength of God and the Wisdom of God (1Cor.1:24), Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church and our Lord, God blessed forever. Amen. (Rm.1:25).[ai]

 By the end of the Second Vatican Council and the rapid pace of so-called reform, a painful issue not germane to discuss here in general, there came soon radical changes in all of monastic life, change in the daily routine, how we lived, dressed, ate and eventually countless numbers of monks began leaving and our own monastery was not spared.Vocations seemed to dwindle the more the world and cares and ideas of the world were allowed to penetrate and eventually our numbers were so reduced the Abbot had no choice but to employ ever greater numbers of secular workers, since the remaining monks were too few, and in the main too elderly, to carry on.Being young and strong I naturally found myself spending more time working along side these hired men than with my brother monks.Slowly at first, then more rapidly, I began to become more like them and less like the other monks.When I became aware of this and what it was doing to me spiritually and emotionally I asked to be sent to a therapist but was denied. In those days there was still, in religious circles, a great suspicion of psychiatry.Old emotions, old sexual stirring surfaced and while I did not act on them the inner turmoil began to affect the way I lived.I began skipping the Divine Office, then meals, eating with the men rather than the monks, finding more and more reasons to wear secular clothing and find things to do out of sight of the monastery. I began to smoke again and drink and eventually, with no prior warning or discussion, the Abbot summoned me to his office one day and told me I’d be on the train in the morning, I was being expelled.

IN EVERY Christian life there is a sacred domain of nascent growth in which dwells Christ — a domain in which we are more firmly rooted than we are in our own. There He works and grows, takes possession of our being, draws our strength toward Himself, penetrates our thoughts and volition, and sways our emotions and sentiments, so that the word of the Apostle comes true: ‘ it is now no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.’ [aj]

Sometimes in life is it difficult to believe indeed that in the depths of an immediate impact upon us of some traumatic event which has all the appearance and taste of gall, the stench of death, Christ is at work.