Thursday, October 27, 2011

On monks and changing the stamp of nature

On Virtuous Pla.net, Sr. Lisa Marie Doty (whose reflections will make any Catholic nostalgic for the days when nuns were an everyday presence in parish life) has a beautiful piece on marriage: the union of man and woman reflecting the union between Christ and his Church, and the three “M’s” that lie behind every vocation (Mass, Maturity and Mission).

One of my friends from the Bright Maidens, Elizabeth Hillgrove, responded, “This is beautiful, Sister. Thank you! I love reading a reflection on marriage from your perspective as one in the religious life.” To which Sr. Lisa replied (with a wink), “Thank you, Elizabeth! It would be interesting too, to read a post from you on the ‘possibility of religious life today’. God bless!”

Elizabeth recorded the exchange on her own blog, Startling the Day. She then admitted, “Other than the occasional pop culture reference, the majority of my childhood exposure to women in religious life was at family events (several non-habit-wearing nuns in my family) and from the 1966 classic, The Trouble with Angels.” From there, she summarized the film (which I’ve not seen, but will as soon as I can) … and evaded Sr. Lisa’s deeper challenge.

If you’ve gone to Elizabeth’s post, you’ll see I called her out on it. And she’s promised to make good on the challenge. But discussing personal vocations can be a bit soul-baring, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to dare her without daring myself.


Yesterday, Fr. Dwight Longenecker posted an interesting confession, titled “Can I Have Another Life Please?” In it, Fr. Longenecker, a former Anglican, admitted that he was very attracted to the radical abandonment of all earthly attachments of monasticism, even though he loves his wife and children.

The article spoke very much to the side of me that doesn’t regret the road not taken so much as the road that was taken. For one thing, the vaguely dissolute irresponsibility of my life up to my thirtieth or thirty-first birthday left me saddled in student-loan debt and working in a series of résumé-staining fast-food jobs. As a result, there’s not an order I can join in clear conscience until I can clear up my debts … assuming I’m not too old by that time.

For another, the most I can say about my spiritual life from twenty to thirty-eight is that I sometimes thought about God, and even roused myself once in a while to go to church. Even now, my spiritual life isn’t particularly deep, my faith a matter of intellectual engagement rather than one of prayer and service. When I look at all those years wasted in fruitless, aimless wandering, I want to cry out with St. Augustine’s voice:

Too late did I love You, O Fairness, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, were not (Confessions, 10:27:38).

It’s easy to get too unrealistically nostalgic about the simplicity of the monastic or conventual life. First, it’s not all prayer and contemplation. Monks and friars are expected to work towards the support of their community; while much of the work is professional (e.g., teaching, parish and chaplaincy staffing, etc.), there are also household and administrative chores, and some monastic orders still maintain truck farms. Furthermore, monastic and conventual life is regulated, which is something that a free-and-easy person given to unstructured living with plenty of goofing off may not take to.

By my own confession, I’m lazy, both physically and spiritually. I’m also more self-centered (verging on narcissistic) than is good for anyone. Also by my own confession, I’m a glutton — the only deadly sin you can’t hide — and have not led a life of sexual virtue. From one angle, these marvelous character traits should disqualify me forever from the monastic life. From another angle, they’re exactly why I should become a monk.

HANH? Come again, Mr. Logic?

It’s not really that difficult to understand. Simply put, a life that permits my self-centered, lazy, gluttonous ways is not a life that will build up my spiritual well-being. I’m lazy, therefore I need a life of regular work and prayer. I’m self-centered, therefore, I need a life of service to others. I’m a glutton and materialistic, therefore I need a life of frugality. I’m a bit of a loner, so I need a life of community.

In Act 3 Scene 4 of Hamlet, the prince tells Queen Gertrude:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. …
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [tame?] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

The point of becoming a monk is not, and never was, to flee one’s problems. If anything, it has given many men throughout Church history the opportunity to confront them head-on. As Fr. Longenecker puts it in his follow-up post on monks, “The desert fathers of Egypt … set an example of renunciation.” We say that the Church is a hospital for spiritual ills; radical diseases sometimes need radical cures.

I’m now almost forty-eight. Even if my debt load vanished tomorrow, not many orders or communities would accept me. So I must find another means to cure my spiritual defects.

But there are young men out there, young men in their twenties, on the verge of wasting their youths while stumbling about in their search for meaning in their lives. Is it too crazy to suggest that they’re waiting for their St. Bernard to call them to Cîteaux?