Monastery Reflections: Tunnel Vision

IMG_4151As I continue to reflect on my personal retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, I was thinking the other day about a short passage I read in a booklet at the retreat house. The Cistercian Life is a short book written by Thomas Merton (PS, If you are ever curious about how deep the spiritual life can actually go, I’d encourage you to read some Merton. A great place to start is New Seeds of Contemplation.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;)).

Anyway, there was a free copy in my room at the retreat house, and so I picked it up to
read during my stay. It was a really great, concise examination of the monastic life, but one statement in particular has remained with me.

The truly silent monk is not totally unconcerned with others, for that, too, would be a kind of illness. But he is not worried about being left out of things. He knows what is necessary will be communicated to him. If there is news in the world that he ought to know, God and his superiors will make sure that he knows it. He does not have to go seeking information and communicating his own ideas to others except in so far as this may be demanded by necessity (Emphasis mine).

My tensions with the pervasiveness of social media are fairly well-documented, and I am continually trying to grow in the way I use media (in particular, I try to make sure that there’s a balance between how use social media and how media uses me). Personally, my governing word is “thoughtfulness”: I try to take a moment or two before I mindlessly engage in any technology and ask myself, “Is this the tool I need for what I’m trying to accomplish?”

I love good design, and in particular I like objects that are well-designed for specific uses. However, it seems as if sometimes our culture seems pre-occupied with turning one tool (most often our cell phones) into a “one-size-fits-all” device for consuming media, connecting with friends and family, staying engaged with the world around us…

… and occasionally making a phone call.

Instead of this approach, I am trying to learn to consider what will help me most in accomplishing my goal at the time:

  • is it reading? (“turn off cell phone and computer notifications)
  • is it a serious work project? (same as above)
  • is it songwriting? (notebook, pen and guitar, no notifications)
  • is it writing exercises? (computer, no notifications)
  • is it prayer and meditation? (no lights, no electronics)

… You get the picture. I love my (always Apple) computers. But they are not a Leatherman multi-tool. I look at them as specialized devices for doing specific activities that they happen to be really good at (recording ideas, typing, finding out obscure information quickly, etc.)

But obviously this quote gets an even deeper strand of thinking, namely, what do I truly need to know about the world? 

As a good friend has told me recently, “FOMO” (“Fear-Of-Missing-Out”) is a thing, and in our hyper-connected (and decidedly UN monastic) existence, FOMO becomes an almost 24-hour-a-day possibility, whether it’s being aware of a party 800 miles away, or a news event 8,000 miles away.

But Merton’s statement is a challenge to FOMO. For me, I sat with that quote for a while, asking, “Why is it so important for me to know, well, everything? What is it inside me that demands that I’m up-to-date on issues that debatedly have absolutely no relevance to my day-to-day existence?”

When I think about it, most of the information I take in has much more potential to cause anxiety than to produce anything positive or spiritual in my life.

In fact, the issue can go much, much deeper. Theology Professor Marva J. Dawn’s book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time had a profound impact on my approach to worship and the church (though I ardently disagreed with a few of her statements). In it, she examines the influence of Neil Postman’s concept of “Impact-Action-Ratio” in the worship of the church. “Impact-Action-Ratio” is a ratio of how much the impact of an image or images affects our ability to act. 

Essentially, Dawn suggests that as the church relies more and more on (often de-contextualized) images in worship, whether through pictures of poverty or evocative images over lyrics in songs, we are actually training ourselves to a mode of inaction.

No matter how powerfully or emotionally an image may strike us, most of the time we are unable to actively address or remedy that situation. Over time, we get “used to” the idea of not responding. 

And so we get inoculated against tragedy and suffering, even as we are exposed to it now more than ever. 

All of this goes to say that I try to think twice about how “plugged in” I am to the pervasive, 24-hour news cycle. I don’t want to be inoculated against suffering, and more than that where I encounter suffering, I want to be able to do something about it.

I am not a monk. I do not have a “superior” who will tell me the things I need to know about the world. But I do have trusted friends, and people who are more engaged than I am. More and more, I seek to trust them with what I need to know, and concentrate more diligently on my life of prayer, meditation, teaching and trying to reduce the suffering of the world around me.

 

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Monastery Reflections: Molehills Out of Mountains

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Two-and-a-half days in a monastery. No media. No work. Silence. About as simple and stripped-down of a life as you could get. That’s what I went to embrace. I went to hear the voice of God, my Father, and to just rest. On the one hand, I had no expectations: just to go and “be.” On the other hand, let’s be honest: silence? solitude? hours of prayer? MONKS, for crying out loud?

Surely, this is the place where God is going to speak, to say something profound.

Either way, I was ready.IMG_4094

When I came back home, a few people were prompting me about the experience. By and large, however, my experience was pretty subtle. God surely spoke, and I wrote some things down; things that will have (hopefully) long-term positive effects in my soul and my life…

But this was no “mountaintop.”

This was stretching, but it wasn’t a shock to my system. These days were an extension of practices I’ve already tried to put in place in my “every day” life.

So there was no great upheaval.

… And I loved it.

I think that somehow we’re predisposed to seek the mountaintop. We expect to soar high and then drift back to earth.

But that makes for a pretty up-and-down, almost schizophrenic spirituality. We binge and purge, so to speak, rather than dine regularly on healthy spiritual disciplines.

IMG_4113For the past few years, I have tried to cultivate an attitude of peace in my daily life. I build practices in order to help me maintain that peace, clarity and centeredness. On a retreat, those practices are enhanced and extended (hopefully), but not necessarily, introduced.

Alan Watts says that the only zen you find on a mountaintop is the zen you carry up with you.

For those who may be uncomfortable with that language, you could just as easily say it this way: “They only spiritual peace you find on a mountaintop (or in a monastery) is the spiritual peace you carry up (in) with you.”

love retreats: I’m planning on going back in a few months for an even longer stay.

But I’m planning on carrying in a lot of peace with me then as well, if for no other reason than I can’t stay in a monastery forever.

My life is not lived on the mountain. It’s lived in the swamp (almost literally?). It involves cranky kids and bad jokes; taking out the trash and washing the dishes; waking up early and sometimes staying up too late.

All of that can be just as beautiful as a mountaintop (or just as hellish, depending on how I’m doing on a given day).

My hope is that more of us stop running after mountains, and start cultivating that interior, detached peace that is offered to all of us, regardless of our geography.

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Room With a View

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Some of you know that, for my graduation, I was given a retreat to a monastery by some friends and family. I went up to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve been there once before, but only stayed one night; this trip would be two days and two nights of silence and solitude (for me, this is a good thing).

When I checked into my modest room, I quickly went to the window and looked out. This IMG_4093was the scene that greeted me: the graves of the monks who have died in the monastery since its founding in the 1940s.

A room with a view, indeed.

I don’t know how this strikes you. Morbid? Disturbing?

For me, it was amazingly clarifying.

In Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr suggests that one of the key facts that a man must come to terms with is the fact that he (I) will die.

Two days of looking out a window at gravestones helps with this perspective.

Rohr does not suggest this to threaten us with judgment, or to insinuate that we all “get busy.” Rather, it’s meant to plant the seed that everything has the same end, and that part of my journey as a man (or human?) is to learn to release: my stuff, my agenda, my dreams, my family, my control, my ego.

I do believe in the resurrection, but I also know that the mortality rate is still right about 100%, and that, as best I can tell, you still can’t take it with you. It seems to me that we try as hard as we can to convince ourselves otherwise, but I wonder what it costs us. We think that we can maintain control and accumulate more and more and more and that we will never need to release.

And yet those gravestones point to a different reality.

In fact, so much of our spirituality has evolved to keep death as separate from us as possible. Last Christmas I was visiting my parent’s (psuedo) country church up in Virginia, and I was struck by the fact that there was a graveyard beside it.

Graveyards are no longer in the design plans of our safe suburban churches.

But what have we lost?

Have churches bought into the cultural message that promises eternal life, if not youth, and encourage us to attach, attach, attach to everything around us?

I am coming to believe that at some point much of life needs to be about surrender. Knowing that someday I will need to make the ultimate surrender helps just a little bit with that.

I’ll take the room with graveyard view, please.

 

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Into the Silence

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In just a few days, due to the amazing generosity of people in my life, I am driving up to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, outside of Atlanta, Georgia, for a few days of solitude and silence.

This particularly monastery is a Trappist (or Cistercian) monastery. Now, there are different monastic orders: Franciscans, Benedictines, etc. From what little I’ve learned, the different orders have different emphases: study, poverty, service, etc. Broadly speaking, the Cistercians are focused on prayer and silence. They are not the “most silent” monastic order—my understanding is that the Carthusian monks get that distinction—but silence is a major theme of their life. When you are at the monastery, visitors are generally expected to eat in silence and to talk very quietly, and then only when necessary.

In other words, this is not a place that  is interested in reinforcing my life “as it is.”

If you know me at all, you’d think that my introverted self would be chomping at the bit for this: silence and solitude! No people! Woo hoo!

Well, you’d be wrong.

In a way, I am absolutely eager and ready to go. I am hungry for this, and have been trying to get something like this to happen for months now.

But in other ways, more than ever I know that (a) wherever you go, you bring yourself (or your SELF), and (b) when you really get alone and quiet, you can easily encounter some of the uglier parts of your soul.

As I’ve written before, the “solitary chair”” can be terrifying, because most of us subtly surround ourselves with enough noise to keep us distracted from the real issues in our lives: our brokenness, our deep emotional/spiritual struggles. There are simply things we do not want to see, confront, or deal with.

Silence exposes those things.

On one hand, going away to someplace like a monastery or a campsite or wherever seems like an easy exercise in getting away from the noise of life. But for me, I need to be honest with myself and admit that I can easily carry other “noise” with me: books, music, and my “monkey mind.”

Noise doesn’t always look like Netflix and McDonald’s.

So next week, I am traveling with the absolute bare minimum: no computer, a journal (handwritten!), only the Bible and 1 other text.

My choice is to let God speak and to not distract myself. To try and go deeper, to the next level of foundation in my spiritual life. I want to see more clearly: both God, Christ, other people, as well as my own brokenness and shortcomings.

This is not necessarily something to look forward to.

But I do know that I need it.

(You do too.)

I’m hoping for a deeper revelation of love; a deeper experience of healing and peace; and more centeredness, loving detachment, and clarity in my life.

But I also realize that what I carry into the monastery (including expectations) is not what might be waiting for me. So I hold all of those things loosely, and say (as Mary did), “LET IT BE DONE TO ME.”

If you’ve never gotten quiet and taken the time to really let God speak to you, I’d say (1) I understand; it’s probably pretty scary, and (2) what are you waiting for? 

As C.S. Lewis said of Christ, “No, he’s not tame: he’s dangerous… but he’s good.” 

 

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