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Contemplative life still stands a chance

If we examine our lives at all, it is likely to be at Christmas. The transcendent message of a God come among us combines with the year-end reminder that time is fleeting and our days numbered. Life is so hectic, however, that it’s hard to slow it down for closer inspection. The whole world is running like crazy to grab existence by the tail, which is no way to get a proper perspective.

This week’s story on the Trappists (page 16) is timely for that reason. Michael Mauney’s splendid pictures in Trappists: Living in the Land of Desire are reminders of a life that puts the brakes on calendar and clock and dares to reckon with eternity and infinity. A new related video, “Trappist,” a coproduction of WTVI-Charlotte and Paulist Media Works, will air on more than a hundred public television stations nationwide in December and January (check locally). It brings to life the monastery and monks depicted in the book.

There is a lake. A river dances in sunlight. A bird glides amid trees like a holy spirit under a full silver moon. It looks a lot like harmony, how the world was meant to be if only no one had sinned. Cut to the monastery chapel where Mepkin’s 30 monks are singing Gregorian chant with commendable harmony of their own.

This monastery -- like just about every other -- is not giving up, not waiting to put out the lights. There are a few younger faces and straighter bodies, though the abbot avers that stooped, 87-year-old Fr. Boniface is one of the most youthful and prophetic souls in the cloister. For the rest, there is an abundance of graying or departed hair, of lined faces, arthritis and other relics of the passing years.

Young and old, they raise the question of where monks fit in. Does contemplation still stand a chance in today’s world? (The questions are here raised in a male context: For historical reasons men were first to go apart to practice this life. In time, however, women were allowed by church and society to practice a similar exalted vocation.)

Contemplation has been practiced since the world began whenever self-reflecting humans idly threw pebbles in a pond or squinted at a sunset and wondered. From very early in our history, however, there has been a hankering for something more daring: to chuck daily life as we’ve known it, climb another rung or more on the ladder we sometimes think reaches upward to more enlightenment or grace or mystery or joy or holiness -- if we knew exactly how to name it, we could all pounce on it at once.

Those who wanted to risk this search to the utmost went into the desert or up the mountain -- apart. Theirs was by definition unexplored territory in more than the geographical sense. They prayed, meditated, fasted, worked. These are old, well-worn words but they took on a different life when lived as relentlessly as the monks lived them. When “ordinary” life was stripped away, especially its comforts and distractions, and only meditation and fasting awaited the monk each morning, he would soon either become an incipient saint or go crazy, and in our particular civilization there might, in any case, be only a subtle difference between the two.

So, 17 centuries or so ago, the individual hermits grouped together for support to better achieve this objective of living for God alone. Ever since, monasticism is one of the constantly amazing and paradoxical feats of our ongoing history. The Mepkin video is punctuated with mythical names: Subiaco, Cluny, Citeaux, La Trappe, Mellery, Gethsemani. Add to the Trappists the Benedictines, Carthusians, Premonstratentians, Augustinians and many more.

Being human, the monks zigzagged on the road to holiness. Their vows -- usually poverty, chastity and obedience -- worked only so long as the spirit was willing. But the urge to heroic holiness would not die. The orders reorganized and reformed themselves time and again. From being wealthy and lax they would veer back to severity. Sometimes the suffering they inflicted on themselves was supplemented from the outside, most notably in the form of torture and execution in the wake of the Reformation.

The old debate continues about how strict monastic observance should be: Keep more or less silent, get up earlier or later, work longer or less, eat more or less. And all the while the unique demands of community life, of obedience and celibacy, rub raw against the spirit of our individualistic and self-indulgent times.

This litany of hardship, most monks would protest at once, is only one side of the monastic story. They would point to the quite satisfying simple pleasures of community life, but beyond that to the joy and fulfillment and occasionally even ecstasy that is the reward for single-mindedly seeking sanctity -- this is a tough sell to the world at large but there is abundant testimony to it.

One Mepkin monk speaks of how hard the first three weeks were -- all those years ago. Another tells how his father “wrote me off.” Another tells how hard it was on his mother. Yet they all persevered. They had, they say, a vocation. “I knew who I was to be for the rest of my life,” one said.

It’s hard to be more countercultural than this. They quote Jesus’ version of the ideal life to bolster their case: a life in which the greatest would be the least, and so on. Their life is, they say, as it always was, an implicit or explicit protest against materialism and consumerism. It is, they say, a lifelong challenge to be still: “to slow down so we can catch up with ourselves.” Asceticism, one explains, is from the Greek: “It’s not to make you feel bad but to open up possibilities.”

Says another, “Life without such poignancy is not worth living.” A whole other version of the commonplace cutting edge.

All those elegant words and monastic lives are wasted if the world continues to see this lifestyle merely as a curiosity or not notice it at all. From a distance it seems romantic. We root for them to live an even tougher life and be even more romantic. From afar, of course. Yet somehow it is about us too. It asks a question, poses a challenge. About what to do with one’s one and only life. What values are worth living for? Where is the hurly-burly going, and how much money does one need, and what is success, and does God call, or is that only imagination, and in any case if God were calling wouldn’t it be through the imagination?

Monks and other religious, women and men, continue to set before humanity the most elementary options about being human, or for that matter divine, and how best to spend one’s years on earth. The late 20th century’s conferences and weekend retreats are no substitute for this heroic testimony.

If this particular urge for total giving up of the world’s way is over, as many fear and predict, then we are all in some way different humans than we used to be.

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 1997