Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What the Monks Can Teach Us about Romantic Love

I’ve been going to Mepkin Abbey, a community of Trappist monks, regularly for over a decade now. When I first started going, I expected to learn many things: a different way to do worship, a variation of how to live in community, and the ultimate approach to hospitality.

I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t necessarily expect to learn from the monks, like different approaches to eating meals and new ways of looking at worship space. In hindsight, those aren’t the biggest surprises. No, the biggest surprise is how much I’ve learned about marriage from returning to this community of celibate men.

It sounds almost salacious, doesn’t it? “All I need to know about marriage I learned from a monk!”—it’s a bad movie, just waiting to be made. But in all seriousness, the monks have much to teach us about deep commitment. It’s a similar commitment to love that we see from our creator.

I've assumed that a monk who has taken final vows feels that certain decisions are settled forever: where to live/retire, what to do with one's time, what kind of food to eat, on and on I could go. In a way I've envied that decision. 

Cloistered monastics take a vow to a specific monastery or abbey. In many ways, the vow of stability is also a vow of commitment to a larger sense of religious institution.  It’s only been lately that I’ve been reflecting on marriage as a similar vow of stability. 

Likewise, those of us who have taken vows to a partner have taken a similar vow of stability, a commitment to place, where place is a person. But in many ways, marriage is more than just a pledge between two people. We commit not just to a relationship, but to a larger vision of what a marriage can and should be. By that commitment, we’ve closed the door to other decisions. In a way, life becomes easier.

Through the years, though, I’ve realized that not all monks will stay at the monastery until they die. It’s not a prison, after all. Perhaps my vision of the monastic vow of stability has been shallow? I’ve assumed that once the commitment is made, no other possibilities are ever considered. But of course, that’s not true.

In monasticism, as in married life, we periodically wonder about roads not taken. If the yearning is strong enough, the road not taken may be the road that has the stronger pull.

I know how easy it is to convince ourselves that a better life is possible. But we forget to consider the whole picture. Those of us wishing for more alone time forget how lonely that time could be if our wish was fully granted. We move to different houses and neighborhoods, only to be surprised when the new house has problems too. We forget that every job comes with its headaches. We wish our partners were different, while forgetting to appreciate the properties that attracted us in the first place.

Here, too, the monks model good behavior, and not just for monastics. The monks live in intense community and ideally, the needs of the whole community rise above the needs of one individual monk. 

In an ideal world, married people, too, have this kind of surrounding community, one likely composed of friends and family. In an ideal world, the church community serves as an anchor for these vows of stability.

As our culture celebrates Valentines Day, it’s a good time to consider what our church communities do to help those members who have taken vows. It’s a good time to consider what we can all do to celebrate a deep commitment to love.

Our larger culture sets aside a day to buy chocolates and champagne and cards—but every day should be a day that we celebrate love of all kinds. God who came to dwell with us showed us many examples of how to live a life committed to love.

How can we emulate that kind of love?

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