I feel a little bit right now like the boy who was told that for one day he must eat only vitamins, only to discover that his vitamins tasted remarkably like candy. I am participating in what our school calls a Soul Sabbath retreat. The principle of the retreat is to spend a day in vocal silence cum community, so we have borrowed facilities from a Catholic monastery and adopted for a day what is essentially a pseudo-monastic lifestyle: We pray and read; we eat a meal together; we write notes in our journals, but for 6 hours, we say nothing.
The irony for me is great. The monastic life, particularly one of a contemplative nature, is something which I seriously considered, and quite finally had to reject. There’s a huge appeal here: one of the main features of contemplative monasticism is the extreme tension between isolation and community. Normally, living in any tight-knit community results in a huge amount of jostling, so rules are imposed to make space for Something Else. That something else fascinates me; it’s my life bread.
My mom tells me that men don’t make friends properly anyway, because they are so object-oriented. Friendship for us consists frequently in finding ways to do work together. But I’m on the extreme end of that spectrum, because the work I find most pleasant is very difficult to do in community. Find me, I ask you, a group of men with whom I can gather in person to engage in systematic theology! Even at a seminary, their numbers are very few.
So I’m prone to making little monasteries around me. Dorm life for me, despite everything everyone else believes about college, was an abortive attempt at living in cloister. I simply could not resist the urge to see my room as a little prayer cell surrounded by other little prayer cells. (That *is* how college dorms originated – the first universities arose from monasteries.) Unfortunately, my co-monastics were the embodiment of early Protestant indictments of monastic living. They did *everything* that profligate monks were not supposed (and yet were wont) to do.
Even now, in our home: we have no internet, no TV, hardly any radio. Valerie constantly (and rightfully) accuses me of engaging in meaningless activities solely for the sake of shutting her out. Part of this you can chalk up to introversion, but partly it’s something else. A friend recently asked me, after listening to me complain about all that I have on my plate, if I was one of those people who do their best work under pressure. No! My complaints are real complaints. I find I’m most productive when on the very cusp of boredom. I am still a man, and a man likes to feel productive, and so I eulogize the joys of boredom.
Ultimately, however, monasticism is a sterile choice. You may find a double meaning there, but I mean that God has called me to the messy work of engaging more intrinsically in community. I am called to marry and raise a family which is then to be a model for other families. I am called to echo this again by being a father to the church. Much as I love to sit and write and think, God has called me first to be a pastor before I might consider being a professor.
In prayer lately, God has been showing me how it is that he desires, more than individuals who will worship him, a community called by his name, a sacred assembly: a church. I begin to feel keenly Jesus’ words to Peter, that if he loved him, he should feed his sheep, as if it were impossible to say to Jesus, “I love you” and yet not concern oneself with the care of his flock. How can you say to God “I love you” and curse those who are made in his image?
So when it comes to devotional contemplation, what for others might b a dietary supplement, for me is a guilty pleasure: rich tidbits of contraband candy, to be eaten in secret. Oh! That I might make my meal of this, day and night! Yet here I am on a retreat, required by a class, in which I must do nothing but subsist on these kinds of pleasures. Worse still, I’m surrounded by people who know exactly what I’ve been doing!
The director of our program likes to say that it’s appropriate to be selfish in the care of our souls. I don’t like the term, because selfishness connotes destructive abuse of those around us, but I appreciate the sentiment.
Sometimes even Mary gets confused.