Saturday, November 13, 2010

What the Monks Can Teach Us About Ways to Lead Our Lives

Monks have so much to teach us. You could argue that most people have much to teach us, but monks, with their obviously different lifestyles, have a clearly different angle.

Here are some of the things I've learned from reading about monasticism and from being a guest in monastic communities:

--Monks understand the value of balance better than anyone else I've ever met. Their lives are highly structured, which many Western minds might balk at--yet it leads to the balance that so many of us crave. Monks worship periodically throughout the day and evening. In between they have times for study and times for work. They break for nutritious meals at specific times that never change (a lesson my grandparents knew well, but I've strayed from--my grandparents even snacked at specific times). They get 7-8 hours of sleep a night.

--They're willing to have some periodic disruptions of the highly structured schedule for special events. For example, Mepkin Abbey has an annual festival where they present creches from around the world. It's a fundraiser for the Abbey, but before the hordes of people come, the monks have a special night for themselves when they get to see the displays before everyone else.

--Meals are simple, except for when they're not. At Mepkin Abbey, the monks eat their big meal in the middle of the day, which makes sense to me. In the evening, supper is a simple sandwich, sometimes served with soup or salad or some kind of fruit. In the morning, we had hardboiled eggs with toast, and cereal was also available. Sunday evenings had a more elaborate evening meal--dessert twice in one day. Sundays are special, which make sense.

--Times of talk are balanced with times of silence. Trappists are more committed to silence than other religious orders. At Mepkin Abbey, silence isn't enforced around the clock. But for twelve and a half hours, monks don't speak. At meals, monks don't speak. At first I thought I'd hate all that silence. But now, as life becomes more filled with noise, I crave that quiet.

--Again and again, I am struck by how the monks are committed to ancient practices. They don't waste time looking for new and better and more efficient ways to accomplish things and live their lives. They're part of a community which figured out the best way of living long ago. It may not work for everyone--they don't waste energy trying to be all things to all people. They're not trying to convince the rest of the world. But the rest of the world can sense something--that's why for most communities, you need to make reservations to come visit months and months before you plan to come.

I understand that many people have problems with the Roman Catholic church, or even Christianity. I understand that many people look at monasticism and point out all the problems. Many non-monastic people are defensive for reasons that I don't often understand--it's not like monks are out there recruiting.

Or maybe that's the source of the anxiety when it comes to monasticism. Because, of course, the monks are recruiting in a sense, in the best sense. They recruit by showing us a better way to live our lives. Like so many ways the Holy Spirit works, the monks point us to a closer union with God--not by talking about it or making legislation--but by living it.

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