I continue to swim in the waters of monastic spirituality, revisiting some old texts from my past.
The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiographical account of how Thomas Merton wound up at a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, has been the centerpiece of my reading. It’s my fourth go at this work which led many people to consider the monastic path. It was written in the fresh winds of his conversion to Roman Catholicism and his quick journey into a cloistered path of spiritual development. Each time I read it, I find a different angle on what was going on inside of Merton’s head, heart, and soul.
My first reading was that of a seeker who was fascinated by the passion of a young man’s quest to find God. The romanticized journey caught my imagination of a world of which I was completely ignorant. Merton’s travels and questions pressed me to my own wrestling as to how I might make sense of my religious tradition as well as opening me up to fresh possibilities.
My second reading was from an academic perspective. I was trying to do a faith development analysis of his life, how he was moving through his life within the monastery to solidify his identity as a Roman Catholic, then as a Trappist monk, and then transcending the boundaries of a tight system of thinking to become inclusive and valuing of other traditions. I used his journals, beginning with Seven Storey, to get a first-hand account of what was going on in his thinking, what doubts were arising, questions that troubled him, and breakthrough moments of revelatory insights. Fortunately, there are now seven volumes of his personal journals available to review, mostly written during his time in the monastery, and largely unedited.
The third go was almost casual as I was returning from my ten-year sojourn in Texas back to Georgia, reconnecting with the monks and monastery that I had been away from for a decade. It seemed like a good place to start, though this reading had a more casual feel to it, light, almost as entertainment.
And now the fourth, following my extended retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit retreat house in Conyers, Georgia prior to, during, and after Holy Week. My personal reconnection with Merton and several of his spiritual classics prompted my purchase of a new copy, a 50th Anniversary Edition, to revisit his circuitous journey into the monastic community where he encountered prayer and work (Ora et Labora, the Benedictine way), silence, stability in community with other monks. This formed the crucible for what Merton called “monastic therapy, a process that would transform him.
As Merton describes it, there is the basic motivating factor for the monk is to connect with God. The person commits to being in a cloistered setting, set apart from the world in order to be freed from distraction. This is so that one can center on God, becoming more focused on an awareness of God’s presence. The word that emerged for me and many others who have experimented with various modalities of prayer is “centering”. One literally practices the intentional act of centering in God’s presence. One monk commented that the impulse is to give God “more room” in one’s life. That image appeals to me, especially in the face of my busyness. More room for God, indeed. From my experience, easier said than done.
This centering accentuates your solitude, your deep connection with God. Becoming a monk sets the stage for contemplation, which is deepening awareness of God’s presence. A monk is sacrificing all the obvious things that satisfy one’s senses. The smallest sacrifice builds willpower to make God the priority in your life, as opposed to things that are transitory, passing. As one old monk told me, “It’s about discipline, learning, training yourself to say ‘no’, to turn away from self-centeredness, to embrace the larger reality which is God”.
The monk leaves the world that he knows in order to enter the process of sanctification, But the world is still there, now in the form of a community of faith. The reality of “the other” remains. It is redefined in terms of stability as you take a vow to stay in that particular group of monks. One is walking away from the values of the culture: “me first”, get all you can get, as much as you can, a drive for worth via success, to compete, to win, to acquire. Instead, the value championed in this intentional community is love: love of God, love of neighbor.
It’s the dynamic of the spiritual polarity that drives the process: solitude and solidarity. The commitment to be alone with God in a contemplative attitude tends to the solitude side of the equation. Being honest with oneself, looking squarely at one’s brokenness and self-centered tendencies, while simultaneously being embraced by the love of God that loves you in spite of yourself…that is the trick. That is the experience of grace, which miraculously frees you up. Having experienced this grace at several moments in my life, I know of its transforming power. And also, to quote again from St. Ringo of Starr, “it don’t come easy.”.
Solitude asks that the monk set aside significant time in the day for prayer, being alone with God. This can be during the appointed hours during the schedule of the monastery, dedicated to private prayer. This happens in common areas where monks are in the posture of prayer, and silence pervades. It can happen in the cloister garden, or on walks in the forests or fields. Solitude is the center around which the monastery revolves.
One monk expressed an adage that I once heard from my beloved grandfather. The monk used Latin, “Nemo dat quod non haber”, while my granddad drawled it in a South of God wizened accent, “Dave, old man, you can’t give what you ain’t got!”. Taking care of your own spiritual needs is at the heart of the demand and necessity of solitude. It’s a piece of spirituality that seems to be difficult for many clergy to grasp, due to their desire to not be selfish, to take care of others. But tending to one’s own soul fuels one’s spirit so that you can give back to others. This dynamic captures the essence of paradox.
While this paradox of solitude is in play, the context for this Trappist/Benedictine life is in community, a specific group of people with whom you are STUCK. Each one brings a particular and peculiar way of being to the dance. Some will endear themselves to you, while some will disturb you, get under your skin, drive you crazy. You are sharing long hours in the choir chanting Psalms, singing hymns, listening to prayers. Their habits and personalities that they brought with them from their previous life, they are dragging them behind as they enter this new environment. Their odd mannerisms, their off-key singing, their manners are all too evident and in play. That is the context for this spiritual ripening.
Here the task is to see one’s connection to your brother, to learn to love each one as an expression of God’s Creation, a fellow member of the Body of Christ. The love that is demanded is one that is freed of agenda, of need for the other to be like we would want him to be. Rather, we allow the other to be their own person, rather than made in the image of how we wished to God they were. That’s a qualitatively different kind of love than most of us were raised on and experienced in the world. It is a rare breed of love.
This creative tension between solitude and solidarity is what produces the juice that ferments in the soul of the monk. Taking time to be alone with God while doing so in the crucible of community is a seeming paradox but actually accentuates two equal truths of human life. We are solitary souls, each responsible for our life choices AND we are essentially connected to others, both in our smaller circles as well as the whole of humanity. Living in this seeming contradiction with a commitment to both sides of the equation, the monk trusts God in the process to bring about good things for our souls and God’s realm.
In my life outside of the monastery, I have been imagining how this tension might be fostered and nurtured. The solitude seems easy enough in terms of committing to the alone time in centering prayer. Over the past month or so, I have been able to carve out and dedicate more time for my silence, being in the presence of God. Finding additional ways of connecting in solitude will be the challenge as well as maintaining my commitment when I get busy in the Fall.
The solidarity piece seems more difficult as my community is not as clearly defined and limited as it is in the monastery.. There are constant changes in terms of who I am in community with. Sometimes, it’s a group of priests/ministers who are struggling to figure out how to be faithful, how to lead a parish in a certain situation. Sometimes I am with a group of scholars who are wanting to find ways to influence the common life in our community. Sometimes I am with community leaders who are seeking to respond to a current crisis, such as homelessness. And sometimes, it’s just regular friends and acquaintances wondering how we can live together in the middle of such a polarized time. The lack of stability seems to hamper this personal initiative to improve this non-agenda love, but the need and press are great.
In addition, I am aware that I have unconsciously “cocooned” in groups of like-minded people who share my values and tastess. Rarely am I in the uncomfortable situation of interacting with folks that hold a position that is diametrically opposed to my worldview. They may hold radically different political views but those remain submerged as we move through polite,”comfortable” conversation.
Where are the places where actual interaction can occur? I am intentionally seeking that in both of my communities of Glynn County and Atlanta where the divisions of which I speak are alive and well. Race, economics, culture, and politics provide a rich platform on which to play. This is long, hard work that requires intentional commitment and a patient heart to listen appreciatively to what the “other” has to say. I must overcome my tendency to avoid difficult conversations and guard against my defensiveness.But this is my task, my challenge if I am to embrace the monastic spirit of solitude and solidarity. While I might wish to live this out in the defined monastic community, that seems to not be my lot.
Solitude and solidarity is the dialectical tension that seems to be my challenge in my next chapter of life. With the resources of Merton and other pilgrims, with the support of friends, and the press of the world’s needs, I enter this path with hope and faith, praying that my love will increase, deepen, and widen, adding an expanded dimensionality to my soul. Blessings.