The Capacious Cloister
I could have been a monk. I love my wife very dearly and it has nothing to do with her. It’s the singularity of purpose in life, the dedication in common rhythm to a life about one thing. That’s what the word monastic means, not just to be alone, but the singularity of the will to one thing, that is, to God.
But instead I was part of group that sought to form a new monastic community. New monastics are kind of like monks, though not really hardly at all. They are often married. They don’t wear habits. They do pray together, and they normally share a common living space, but what similarities are there really beyond that?
I’ve been reading Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. It’s about her time spent as an oblate amongst a Benedictine monastery. I’m somewhat surprised that it was a NY Times bestseller, not because it isn’t written well–far from it–but because so much of it is about life at a monastery, reflections on problems faced by monks and monastics of old. What does all of this have to do with modern western society? How does it connect at all to modern, working, single-family dwelling Americans?
Norris does her best to make the connections, and there are some. But I don’t believe that’s why the book works. The book connects to people because they have a buried desire to escape from the seemingly endless trappings of modern life. They long for a simpler way to live. The following quote speaks to at least one of those trappings:
“Workaholism being a symptom of the desire to control and to fabricate our lives…I find that Benedictine liturgy counters that desire very well. It speaks poetry every day, and it is not productive.”
This is of course not to say that there is no work. Work is essential as well, not only for provision but also as a fundamental activity in the rhythm of life. This work is not fixated on efficiency and performance though, but is interlaced with levity and is often with the goal of community building. Completion of the task is not the measuring stick for what constitutes a good day of work. This is hard for Americans to grasp.
Another reason I think the book works, is that it touches upon that desire for simplicity, but without the impetus to actually truly pursue it. None of the readers are expected to become monks. And the reflections, interesting and extremely well written, are not intrusive at all. Change the way you think about your life perhaps, in the midst of your busy struggles, but don’t think the monastic life, or anything close to it really, is within your grasp through means of external, logistical change. A monastery is other-worldly enough to not feel any guilt in personal disconnection from that way of life.
New Monasticism is something of a go-between. “Ordinary Radicals” is what we’ve been called. Radical as the monk, but ordinary as the guy next door. Or something like that. We’re meant to be in the world, working to make a difference, not like the retreated monastics of old. We can be surrounded by all those trappings, but turn our eyes away. We don’t need the cave. We don’t need to cast off the world, for that is not what we are called to. We are called to be a part of redeeming the world. So we are monks, we are husbands and wives, we are pastors, we are laypersons, we are missionaries, we are neighbors.
Sound like a tough job description? Maybe it would have been easier to just be a monk.
I struggle with this impetus, with this pressure. Even though it’s probably not far from the truth to say that a degree of it is self-generated. Still though, it’s a lot of stuff to try and get done with just 24 hours in the day.
What is it that people are really longing for? As I read how Norris talks about the simplicity of the monastery, I can’t help but think about my community and how different it is in that way. We have not become about one thing, but rather tried to sanctify the many things–in a way attempting to baptize our workaholism, to sanctify our control, and to bless our pride. Because after all, it’s ok if it’s for the kingdom.
Can our communities still be places dedicated to the one thing? Can we be active in the world without taking on its character and seeing our communities become the very thing we needed rescue from in the first place?
Because that “one thing” of course is God. And “God” is not a subheading for whatever work we seek to do. God is a person whose love for us is our greatest lesson to learn, and for whom giving our love is our chief task. I’m sure any monk would say the same thing.