I want to be a monk.
I feel bad about it sometimes. It’s a selfish desire for a married man. Stupid, too: Victoria is my soulmate and beautiful, nine years younger than I, and the work we’ve put in over almost seventeen years of married life has been paying off, we both think.
My therapist, Dr. Kennedy, told me ten years ago that couples with exactly opposing temperaments – she’s an ESTJ (a guardian) on Myers Briggs’s indicator, and I’m an INFP (an idealist) – often have a hard go of it for the first twenty years, but if they work through their differences, they may have a great relationship thereafter. (Dr. Kennedy’s marriage exemplifies his assertion, by the way.)
But Dr. Kennedy also inadvertently started me on this monk idea. While helping me through an identity crisis, Dr. Kennedy clued in on my charismatic and rather evangelical form of Christianity. He suggested that I read some devotional classics – a genre that had never appealed to me before – to reinforce what I had been learning during my crisis.
I read Augustine, St. John of the Cross, and others, and I was hooked right away. The writers spoke to me about a side of spirituality that was at the edges or entirely outside of my Protestant experience, a spirituality that insisted on a deeper knowledge of self. No heights without depths, the concept goes. The road to self-knowledge is a paradox: it’s humbling and hard, but effort alone isn’t enough; it also requires God’s grace. For the first time in my life, I was learning what Benedictine monk Anslem Gruen calls “spirituality from below”:
By descending into our earth-boundedness (humility is derived from humus, or soil), we come into contact with heaven, with God. When we find the courage to climb down into our own passions, they lead us up to God. [Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You, p. 21]
I had been living in an Evangelical world that couldn’t even agree on whether it was appropriate to call Christians sinners in any sense. Those who feel the word “sinner” is exclusively a label for unbelievers argue that we Christians need to identify ourselves as children of God so as not to void his work on the cross. I’ll leave my rebuttal for another occasion; my point is that I now believe we can’t know God’s love to the extent we were created to experience it unless we go with God to the bottom of our false nature and discover more than we’d care to about our depravity. When I read in these classics and in related books about spiritual leaders and explorers who openly acknowledge their status as sinners and who are frank about their sins and faults, I got courage to do the same, and I found a new place of fellowship and consolation with God.
I was almost forty years old when Dr. Kennedy made these reading recommendations, and I had just extended my first real invitation to God to peel away my false self. I was motivated to do so by a deep-rooted, existential fear that I had avoided for years by constructing my own identity. A career change and Victoria’s own personal growth conspired to finally expose it as a fraud. I was about to discover that my approach to God and the Bible had been limited by the contradictory and patchwork manner in which I had built my identity (“I’m a fearful person.” “I’m better than most people.” “I’ll never measure up to my father.”)
Most of the devotional writers I read at Dr. Kennedy’s instance are monks, hermits, or spiritual fathers of nuns or monks. You probably know the names: Thomas a Kempis, Ignatius, John of the Cross, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Thomas Merton, others. Something in their writing speaks of the fire that they permitted to burn away a good deal of their false selves.
During my crisis, I shared some of the rudimentary experiences some of them speak of. I found the grace to admit more of my depravity to myself. I know that, over twenty years into my Christian vocation, I would have consented to Jesus’ death had he been living then. I discovered God in the people around me – Christian and non-Christian alike – and I found a new place inside me that seemed to respond to God in a more lissome way. God was beginning to answer my prayer for intimacy with him.
In the years after my identity crisis waned, my spiritual progress waned, too. In a way, I have been living out the Song of Moses: my rescue and my ride on God’s wings, followed by my complacency and distraction. (A lot of great stuff having to do with my spiritual life has occurred in the past ten years, but I am speaking here about an elemental area of my prayer life.)
About seven years ago, I flushed when I read this passage from Merton’s The Ascent to Truth, part of a larger passage parsing John of the Cross’s stages of spiritual development:
. . . the Night of Sense and the period of consoling quietude are only a preparation for the mysticism of the Spiritual Night, Betrothal, and Transforming Union. In the Night of Sense and the Prayer of Quiet, the contemplative is still in his infancy, and the tragedy is that in most cases mystical prayer does not get beyond this cradle stage. The cause of this arrested development is to be found in subtle forms of attachment to which the spirit clings perhaps without ever realizing its own imperfections. [pp. 288-89]
It is probably presumptuous for me to claim to be even at the “cradle stage” – stages of spiritual development lose their allure and are no end in and of themselves, anyway – but somehow I recognized myself as suffering from something like this “arrested development” Merton describes.
Part of this stagnation was natural. Over the last ten years, I’ve had a new career and a growing family. I couldn’t focus on my spiritual life to the extent I did when my self-identity seemed at stake.
But before my identity crisis, struggles, blessings, jobs, relationships, and coincidences – everything usually seemed to feed into spiritual challenge and growth. I haven’t felt that way over the past ten years, generally. The job, the relationships, and the responsibilities – as important as they are – usually feel like more of a distraction than a teacher. I’ve often been bitter about the great amount of time my job takes. I often wince or curse when the phone rings. I pray and meditate, but it seems to take me an hour – and an hour of prayer and meditation is a very rare event, given my schedule and spiritual torpor – just to clear my mind.
I pray and do Christian stuff. But at some fundamental level, I miss God.
And I keep reading works by or about these monks and hermits, past and present – at least twenty-five books by now. I’ve read enough to know that monasticism isn’t glamorous (or even necessarily spiritual or healthy, depending on the monk). That doesn’t seem to lessen my ardor for the vocation, however.
Listening to fantasy
My ardor reached a fever pitch over the past month as I read two books my friend Bill gave me about the Orthodox monks and hermits on Mount Athos and some of their spiritual descendents: Kyriacos C. Markides’s The Mountain of Silence and Gifts of the Desert. These books demonstrate to me that the tradition and spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers are alive. Men and women are living out Anthony’s pattern of withdrawing from the world in order to rid themselves of every vestige of their false selves and in order to love the Lord without distraction. Many of them have become spiritual parents and counselors, and many of them have been sent outside of their monasteries to help others. Like Anthony, many men and women are leaving the world in order to return to it as better conduits of God’s love.
These two books confronted me with my lukewarm spiritual condition, and they encouraged me with what is possible in God. They also fed my monastic fantasy, of course.
There are several reasons why I fixate on the monastic life, I think. First of all, writings by and about monks have helped me. Second, I am an introvert with a job that quickly drains my limited extroverted energy. My favorite monastic daydreams therefore involve orders that severely limit talking. Third, I feel more and more trapped by the ascendant values of Western civilization – time management, consumerism, and logic, for instance – and so my favorite daydreams drift also to more Eastern monastic traditions.
My monastic fantasy is somewhat like sexual fantasy, I think. I have learned that it’s wise to neither repress sexual fantasies nor give in to them. Instead, I try to listen to them as friends (old friends!). What should I pay attention to about them? Probably not the precise detail that they may involve, but a particular need they may be trying to let me know I’ve ignored. Similarly, I should neither ignore my monastic fantasy nor leave my wife and family to establish a hermitage. (I assume no sound monastery would accept me.)
I laid out my monastic fantasy to Michael last week as plainly as I have to anyone. (Michael is my best friend and spiritual father.) He thought a long time before he said anything.
We ended up comparing our fantasies of the future, analyzing and laughing at their specifics and considering what they might mean. Michael pointed out that many people either ignore their higher callings expressed in such fantasies or set out to fulfill them in the half-baked form they usually arrive in. Our talk was a huge help.
I think I’m itching for the next season in my life, whatever it is. My fantasy may provide some hints about it, and I think it’s asking me to take some steps in preparation. For one thing, I need to allow the inward part of me to be developed. It may not be smart for me to take my ball and go home because God won’t play by my fantasy’s rules.
Two elements of Orthodox mysticism
I hope also to continue examining Orthodox mysticism. I’m already about through with Timothy Ware’s excellent book, The Orthodox Church and Vladimir Lossky’s classic book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. I also hope to blog about some of the stuff I discover.
And I mustn’t forget the twofold purpose of much of Orthodox monasticism expressed well by Theodorus the Ascetic, a seventh century monk who lived near Bethlehem:
When you are in love, surely your constant concern is to be near the beloved at any and every opportunity, and you avoid anything that would hinder you from being in the company and the society of your loved one. So it is when someone loves God. One constantly desires to be with him and to speak with him. This can only be achieved though pure prayer. So let us apply ourselves to prayer with all our strength, for it makes us become like the Lord. This is the meaning of the Scripture that says, “Oh God, my God, I cry to you at dawn, my soul has thirsted after you.” This person who, in the Psalms, cries to God at dawn signifies the spiritual intellect that has withdrawn from every evil, and that has been wounded to the heart by the love of God.
As John McGuckin, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, points out in a podcast I listened to today, Theodorus’s coupling of active purification and an inward turning in prayer to God as to a lover is common in Orthodox theology.
McGuckin’s podcast and Theodorus’s words reminded me of how these two elements were coupled for me just a few years before my identity crisis. Here’s how I wrote about it to myself in my journal during my identity crisis:
The morning of your wedding, you sensed the Holy Spirit’s grief. You knew your fellowship with God would suffer from the marriage. That does not mean it was a mistake to marry. It means you were fixed on substituting Victoria for God. God is using this struggle to restore Jesus’ place as your beloved and to put your marriage in its proper place.
Three years ago, God showed you a powerful image of Jesus looking at you with the eyes of a lover. His expression was engaging and jealous, like a lover’s. You felt both broken and happy because you thought your marriage had ended a close relationship with Jesus.
A moment later, God allowed you to see yourself as a furnace. As the fire burned, light from the furnace flashed different colors. These colors represented impurities God wanted to burn out of your life.
Both of these images are beginning to be fulfilled. The purpose of this struggle is to remove impurities, but the greater purpose is to prepare you for your beloved, Jesus. Victoria has beautiful eyes, but you have never seen eyes like Jesus’ eyes, and you never will in this life. Let the longing come.
I know my religious ideation, now as well as then, involves these two elements: purification from the false self (a process involving self-knowledge) and relationship with God. Orthodox monasticism is not the only way God can fulfill these to my heart’s satisfaction. (God, I know from my limited experience, is more willing than I am when push comes to shove.)
Two things you should know, since you’ve read this far. Victoria is quite good-natured about this. She is too experienced with my idealistic tendencies to be alarmed by them. Second: I do know myself well enough now at least to know that, even if every impediment to a monastic or hermitic life were to dissolve today, I’d chicken out.
I tried to keep July relatively free of obligations so I could get in touch with myself a little bit again. Schoolwork resumes the second week of August. I’m glad I got to bring my fantasy to the surface of my mind, even if that is all I accomplish this month, and I’m grateful, more than ever, for good friends like Victoria and Michael.
Posted July 19, 2008.