Sunday, October 01, 2006

My Half-Life

This year marks a curious phenomenon in my life. I entered the monastery 24 years ago. Now I am 48 years old. So I have spent fully one half of my entire life in this monastery. Henceforth, I will have lived the majority of my life in the monastery.

It’s not as common as it used to be, that someone would spend the better portion of his life in a monastery. Some people might even think it rather strange that I would have “left the world” at the (relatively) tender age of 24 and lived the monastic ever since and, God willing, will do so until death doth me and this world part. It’s not like I’ve retired to some inaccessible mildewed cave, however, wearing skins and eating bugs, growing several feet of hair and beard, while communing with nature and battling demons. The very fact that you’re reading this means that I do have some contact with the world, and have fairly modern means to do so.

I haven’t exactly “stayed home” the whole time, either. I went to school in San Francisco, and in Connecticut and Oregon, made a few visits to my family in New York, went on a couple pilgrimages to eastern Europe and Mexico, did a brief tour with the missionary image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Virginia, went to my grandmother’s funeral in Pennsylvania, spent a few months in southern California, made a couple trips to Washington State, was ordained a deacon in Chicago (but a priest here at Mt Tabor), saw Mt Rushmore on a return trip from Chicago, co-piloted (once!) a single-engine airplane with a friend who just got her license, walked through a glitzy Nevada casino in my monastic habit (didn’t have my “Repent!” sign with me, though), visited the dying son of some family friends at an alternative health clinic in Tijuana, attended conferences in Anaheim, Omaha, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, and Chicago, preached a few retreats here and there in New York and California—and every now and then I go to the coast and contemplate the ocean! I’ve slowed down some over the years and am not much inclined to travel anymore (though you’ll be seeing an announcement very soon that I’m going to NY for a little while). Sometimes we would say: “Enter a monastery, see the world!” Yet it is primarily the interior world, the world of the indwelling Trinity, that we enter a monastery to experience. The monastic environment is one in which the “ultimate questions” of life can be pondered—not as an academic exercise, but as an immersion in Truth and Love, an opening of the eye of the heart, an insertion into the rhythms of visible and invisible creation.

I have learned a lot here at Mt Tabor, from many sources: the Scriptures and the Fathers, our founder Archimandrite Boniface and others who have offered spiritual guidance and, perhaps most fully, from simply living the monastic life as it is, with all its challenges, lessons, and illuminations. Sometimes I think that everyone should spend a few years in a monastery before they attempt to get married or even to make their way in the world. The monastery not only instills a profoundly Christian vision of life, its very set-up enables one to stand back a little from the hurly-burly of life, to reflect on one’s inner and outer experiences, and so to live not merely by impulse, fashion, or emotion, but by the serene inner light of grace and truth, which is necessary for living any life in a manner worthy of our God-given dignity and destiny. It’s rather ironic that not having gotten married (almost did though, when I was about 20—would have been a disaster), I at times have reflected that the monastic life has taught me much of what is essential in love and relationships, so that by time I was mature enough for marriage, I was in monastic vows! But the Lord has placed me on a more solitary path and, all told, I’m quite grateful for that. Certain external restrictions or limitations seem actually to foster my creative freedom. Even though no vocation on earth is the ultimate fulfillment (every choice in one direction requires a renunciation in the opposite), I think God knows us well enough—our capacities and incapacities, potentials and dead ends, what will “work” and what won’t, given the raw material of our personalities and other factors—to call us to the life most suited to inner peace and the bearing of good fruit for the Kingdom of God. We have to follow that call, however, for stubborn self-will can only produce a life of turmoil and emptiness.

I can’t say that I have any regrets about the monastic vocation, though I confess there have been a few times when I wished I were doing something else. But those were passing fancies or “greener-grass” daydreams—nothing that really could have materialized into a life, especially a life in accord with God’s will, for if He has called me to be here, then He quite obviously has not called me to be elsewhere. It seems that many people are rather restless inside (I’ve known married people who wanted to be monks, and monks who wanted to be married), but I think that restlessness is really an inarticulate longing for the All—not for an impersonal, metaphysical Absolute, but the living God, who is Himself the fullness of life and love and joy everlasting. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, there’s a subtle, haunting feeling that this is “not it.” That is basically true, while we are still on this side of Glory, but we still can have peace and a growing sense of fullness if we are on the path that leads to “it.” We haven’t “arrived” until we’re actually checking in at the Front Desk of the Heavenly Jerusalem. While in this mortal flesh we are in transit, straining forward, growing toward the fullness of the stature of Christ. The monastic life, while externally seeming a bastion of stability, is actually a perpetual pilgrimage, constant movement toward the Kingdom of Heaven. It is largely an interior movement, and hence something of an obstacle course, yet we are motivated, as was St Ignatius of Antioch, by that murmuring inner stream that ceaselessly whispers, “Come to the Father.”

Am I satisfied with my half-life as a monk? God forbid I should ever be. To be satisfied is to be dead in the water. (Many years ago a novice told me he was satisfied with his prayer life. I shuddered and thought to myself that he would not persevere. He didn’t.) One can only be satisfied as a thirsty man, while he drinks, not after he is finished, for to live in God is to have a thirst that is ever gratified yet never quenched, for God is the ever-greater Reality, and with Him there is always more. And if we desire it, He will always increase our capacity for more. So I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of me.