Thursday, May 28, 2015

How I became a monk...

"The mind cries out, explains, demonstrates, protests; but inside me a voice rises and shouts, “Be quiet mind; let us hear the heart!”
                     --Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

    For those who really are interested to know why anyone would do this, I thought it best just to show you.  The following are short excerpts from my diary, starting in high school and ending in the monastery.

March 20
    What will I do with my life?  I want to BE something!  I have all this energy and don’t know what to do with it.  I hope I find my place sooner or later...I’ve prayed for it, I’ve searched for it, but I can't find what I’m looking for.  I have this feeling and I don’t know what to do with it.  Sometimes I try to channel it into my studies, but as soon as I sit down with a book, I loose it.

April 28
    Today I met some Benedictine monks.  I was impressed.  I remember this girl stared at them as they walked down the street.  The motorcycle policemen looked silly beside them.
    I sometimes feel that I would like to do something like that.  I would love to belong to the Church in that way.  I would love to wear those robes!  They say Vespers at 7:15.  Perhaps I’ll go.

May 19
    I just got a job in a monastery!  I can’t believe it.
    It’s such a quiet place.  I must remember to be quiet.  That will be difficult for me—a good thing, though...I think.  I wonder if I’ll like it.  This is such a foreign experience for me.  I’m not used to it, but I’m sure I’ll be able to cope.

May 20
    The monks keep asking me what brought me here.  I just don’t know.  Perhaps it was God...
    These guys are cool, but I could never be a monk.  And yet, living and praying and talking with them makes me so happy...if I were this happy all the time, who knows how my life might turn out?

May 21
    The monks wear a long black tunic with a hood and a piece of black cloth hanging down the front and back.  I still can’t figure out how they go to the bathroom...

May 23
    Dude, I could dig being a monk.  It’s just that I like girls way too much.  I mean it.

June 14
    You know, I’ve changed a lot over the last few years, but something has happened to me here in this monastery that has changed me.  Right now I’m not too sure what it is, but I feel as if a seed has been planted somewhere in my soul.  It grows every day like something living.  It’s not just confidence that I have gained; it is something greater.  I think I am beginning to feel what some people call “inner peace.”  The funny thing is that it hasn’t exactly made me happy.
Whatever the case, I think I am beginning to learn who I really am.  It disturbs me though because as I learn about myself, I am more aware of what I don’t know...the more peace I find within myself, the more I am aware of the parts of me that are not peaceful.  I am learning not just about myself, but about God and what he meant by creating me.  I have more confidence and peace than ever before in my life—but at the same time, I am more confused and unsettled than ever.

April 11
    Is the monastic life really for me?  I have a girlfriend!    Things get so complicated.  I was at peace no more than three weeks ago.  Now what?  Why, if I am to be a monk, would God send me a woman I could care about?
    A Benedictine!  To spend my life in search of God!  To wear the black habit!  To vow my life into bonds that free my soul!  To live each day in prayer, close to the heart of our Savior, close to His holy presence!
    Am I to be a monk?  Please, God, be more specific.  This is a crucial moment here.  Make your move, God.

April 16
    I am still in love with my girlfriend...but more confident that the monastery is my calling.  As much as I care for her, I still see this as the answer to my question of what to do with the rest of my life.

April 27
    I have such an awesome decision before me.  I have come extremely close to entering this monastery...but I just can’t make that final leap.  If I knew it was what God wanted, I would certainly trust Him to work things out.  But I’m just not sure...

June 15
    I’m sitting in my room wondering what I just did with my life.  I walked into the monastery this morning, found the abbot, and asked him if I could join his community.  I’m tired of messing around.  Very well.  I’m leaving for the monastery. I’m taking a risk.  I’m going for it—all out!  Look, I want to do the right thing.  Christ will not abandon me if I seek him honestly.  I will not be a Macbeth.  I’ll do it—for better or for worse.
    On second thought, I like my life the way it is.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  I am really happy—or at least I have been.  But all of a sudden, I feel so sad.
    No, I have chosen to begin.  I have chosen to stop making circles of my life and begin the search.  There comes a point when you have to move from fun to joy.  That’s what I’m doing now.  I’ll miss my girlfriend.  I will miss dance clubs and parties and flirty, wide-eyed girls, but there is a chance that something infinitely bigger and more beautiful is waiting for me.  Now I have to empty my heart.  Now I have to put my trust—all my trust in Jesus Christ.  If I seek him, he will not abandon me.  Am I strong enough for this?  No.  Is He?  Yes.  He will not give me a burden I cannot carry.  I can’t say I know where my future lies, but I know it’s time to grow up.
    The celibacy part is going to be tough.  Really tough.  And obedience ain’t gonna be no piece of cake either.

June 19
    My first night in the monastery.  Will this be my home for the rest of my life?
    Oh my God.  I’m scared again.  I’m depressed.  Can I be bound into this monotonous cycle of living?  PRAY-EAT-WORK-PRAY-EAT-WORK-PRAY-EAT-WORK...  I’m scared.  I’m depressed.  I’m tired, too.  And I want a girlfriend.

June 28
    I hope I have the strength to do this.  Lord, give me the strength.

June 29
    Last night I had a dream.  I don’t remember the details of it, but I know that in it, I met, or spoke with or discussed Saint Augustine and decided to name myself after him.  When I woke up, I pulled out his autobiography and read the following passage:  “So my two wills, one old, the other new, one carnal, the other spiritual, were in conflict with one another, and their discord robbed my soul of all concentration...I was split between them.”  This is exactly what I’ve been going through.  But Saint Augustine gave up everything in the end.  Will I?

August 28
    My first day in the habit.  People call me “Brother.”  The title feels strange.  Like I don’t deserve it.  The habit feels strange.  Like I don’t fit it.  I don’t know whether or not I’ll stay here more than a year, but I’ll try.  I am not so happy as I am at peace.  Does that make sense?

January  7
    Tomorrow I begin my novitiate.  Does it scare me?  It does.  But no matter what path I choose it will have pain.  Deep, agonizing pain.  If I have a girlfriend, it might be jealousy, if I have a wife, it might be boredom or fear for my children.  If I am celibate, it may be loneliness.  Whichever path I choose, pain is an inevitable consequence.  Because I am human.  I can’t spend my life running away from suffering.  But even God felt pain.  Jesus felt pain and loneliness and rejection.  Just like me.  “He who wishes to follow me must drink from the same cup as I.”
    I asked for it, didn’t I?  “Yep,” says Jesus, “Yep, you did.”  The cup of bitterness.  The cup of loneliness.  The cup of emptiness.

January 11
    I’ve made it through the first three days of novitiate.  So far so good.  Only 363 more days to go (It’s Leap Year!).  For once in my life, I have no say in what happens to me.  I am no longer in control.  For one year, I will shut up, keep my head down, and listen...
May 29
    I dreamt about surfing last night.  Surfing and having a girlfriend.  I can’t figure out which I miss more.  Still, I suspect I’ll stick around when my novitiate is up.  I am beginning to really love the silence.

June 12
    What has happened over the last month?  Nothing.  Everything.  I have never been so busy and so bored all at once.  Nor have I ever felt so jumbled up and at peace.  I’m sure that I am hard to live with.

July 4
    Sometimes I pray that I am not called to be a monk.  At moments like this I ask, “Why me?  Did I not have enough pain in my life that I had to go and add celibacy to my list of struggles?"  I’ll tell you what: nothing short of God Himself will keep me in this monastery.
    Fortunately, I think God Himself is keeping me in this monastery.  You can consider my presence here proof of His existence.

July 13
    Perhaps I will become a monk after all...

August 6
    Perhaps I should be more open to following the Holy Spirit instead of trying to squeeze my feet into the sandals of a saint.  Take it easy, Augustine.  Do what you're told and follow the will of God as you feel it in your heart.  You’re no saint, so just work with what you’ve got.  Amen.

August 8
    Lately, my doubts have grown more serious.  I told Mom and Dad I wasn’t going to stay.  There are other things I would like to do.  Go off to L.A.  Be a real writer.

August 15
    Who would have thought I would wind up in a monastery!  Where will I be a year from now?  Is ambition really such a bad thing?  Even after 14 months in a cloister, I still want so many worldly things.  My thoughts are all questions these days.

August 21
    How many days have I wasted away in sin?  This monastery seems to have brought out the worst in me.  But then, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?  To flush out the demons so I can meet them head-on.
    My most recent demons:
    Demon #1: Whining:“Why are they picking on me?”
    Demon #2: Shifting the Blame: ”He shouldn’t have said it that way...”
    Demon #3: Tepidity: “I just do what I’m told.”
    Demon #4: Self-Deception: “But this is prayer for me...”

August 24
    I have been here over a year and I am still not used to waking up at five a.m.  I need something to end this torturous indecision.  Faith, perhaps.  But since I obviously don’t have enough of that, I’ll ask for a miracle instead.

August 26
    Still no miracle.

August 28  The Feast of St. Augustine
    I had a dream this morning while I was meditating.  I dreamt that I was standing in the middle of a small room.  I was surrounded by vicious, snarling monsters--anthropomorphic and grotesque.  They approached me on every side, poised to devour me.  But instead of defending myself, I lifted my hands to heaven.  And the monsters were whisked away.

October 1,  The Feast of St. Therese of Liseux
    I have made my decision.  I will join the monastery.

October 8
    Today, the novices had a talk with Patrick Barry, the abbot of Ampleforth.   He warned us against constantly “looking over the wall.”  “The modern world is such a world of options,” he said, “that we find it almost impossible to commit to anything.  But doesn’t it all boil down to trust?  Isn’t that the most fundamental thing expected of us?  Some day, you will think of changing your mind, but will trust Him instead.
    Stick to the facts.  Forget your imaginings about the future.  Picture yourself the blind man before the Pharisees: ‘All I know is that I was blind, and now I see.’  Stop arguing with God and trust him.”

October 21
    A beautiful day.  The air is so cool and clean.  Our trees are starting to blush.  It will be winter, then Christmas, and then I will vow my life to God.  The die is cast.  I trust Him.  I will live for Him.
    I feel good.  It’s not the kind of good you feel when you tell a funny joke.  It’s not the kind of good you feel on a first date.  It’s not the kind of good you feel when you hit a home run, or catch a clean wave, or ace a test.  It’s the kind of good that sort of wells up slowly from within so that you hardly realize how good you’re feeling.  Like how Jeremiah found God not in a thunderstorm or earthquake, but in a gentle breeze.

October 29
    We had a “motivational speaker” in our church two nights ago.  He asked, “Is there anyone here who is truly happy?  Is there anyone here who just cannot imagine being any happier?  Of course not.”  I was a little embarrassed because I had almost raised my hand.  I am truly happy.  I can’t imagine being any happier.  As far as I can tell, I am doing God’s will.  What more could I want?

November 15
    What have I learned from my novitiate?  That suffering is the key to real joy.  Strange as it may seem, I could not find peace of mind or heart until I learned (as Saint Benedict had commanded in the Rule) to "accept humiliations joyfully."  Through them, I have participated in Christ's passion.
    This story is over.  The end of my novitiate.  The end of my beginning.  As my Latin professor used to say, “Now there’s a story with a happy middle.”


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon to the Priory School Eighth Grade Graduating Class

     Congratulations.  As of today, you are freshmen.  In a year or two, you will be driving.  In four years, you will be heading off to college.
    But first, you will have high school to negotiate.  And you will find that it is not as hard as you feared.  You will also find that it is hard in ways you never expected.  So this morning, by way of preparing you for the high school, I will leave you with three pieces of advice.  (I had twelve, by the way.  I plagiarized them all from Saint Benedict’s “Ladder of Humility.”  But twelve pieces of advice would make for a very long homily.  Besides that, I have some advice for your parents, too.  So I’ll stick to three: Three for you and three for your parents.

    So first, to your parents, I say, if you want your kid to thrive in the high school 
1. Keep the computer and cell phone in a public place.
2. Limit video games to 1 hour/day or four hours on weekends (sorry, guys.  I call ‘em like I see ‘em)
3. Take your kid to church every Sunday
(I realize that last suggestion doesn’t fit in so neatly with the first two, but believe me, Sunday morning is when you show your kid what your priorities are.  All the rest of your house rules and your very integrity will balance on that singular obligation.)

     Now...gentlemen…having just ruined your social lives, summer vacations, weeknights, and most of your weekends for the next four years, allow me to regale you with three further instructions.  Here are my three rules for success in high school.  And again, I stole them directly from the Rule of Saint Benedict.

     1. Don’t be true to yourself.  In the words of Saint Benedict: “Do not be in love with your own will, but put into practice that word of the Lord which says: "I came not to do My own will but the will of  Him that sent Me” (John 6:38).
You see, what feels best for you may not be the best for the people around you.  For that matter, it may not even be good for you.  A man of  real integrity understands that self-fulfillment is not about self-satisfaction.  Thus he is willing to deny his own desires for the sake of the future, for the sake of his soul, and for the sake of the people around him.  So don’t be true to yourself.  Anyone can do that.  If you want to do something really courageous and admirable, try being true to someone better than you—like, say, Jesus.

     2. Don’t follow your dreams. Or, in the words of Saint Benedict: “For the love of God, be obedient to your elders, imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says: "He was obedient even unto death" (Phil 2:8)
    You see, everyone has dreams, and if we all followed all of them, the world would collapse into chaos and ruination. Some folks have stupid dreams, unhealthy dreams, scary, self-defeating, reckless, or just plane evil dreams. So how do we know which dreams to follow? We seek the advice of someone older and wiser than ourselves. G. K. Chesterton said, “We don't need a church that is right when we are already right. We need a church that is right when we’re wrong.”
    A lot of folks think that growing up means you no longer have to obey anyone.  Once you’re an adult (they say to themselves), you no longer have to do anything that anyone tells you.  Well, that attitude is wrong.  The truth is, maturity demands a higher level of obedience.  An obedience so true that it anticipates the rules, and goes beyond them.  Imagine a school where the students tried to guess what their teachers wanted from them and then did it before being asked.  Imagine a school where each student was determined to outdo the others in love.  St. Benedict envisions such a school in his Rule for monks.  He calls it “A School for the Lord’s Service.”
     And lastly, I will repeat for you something that was said to me by the valedictorian at my high school graduation.  He said: “Nothing is impossible if you just put your mind to it.”  That statement is a lie.  You will find over the course of the next four years—and every year thereafter—that lots of things are impossible, some of the possible things are bad, and others end in failure.  In fact, before you graduate, I predict that you will fail at something: you’ll lose a game, get your heart broken, bomb a test, get made fun of.  And if you’re anything like me, you will fail profoundly, ridiculously, dramatically, publicly, and repeatedly.
    And that is not okay.  But if you are faithful to prayer and never stop returning to God in humility and repentance, you will discover for yourselves the truth in what Mother Theresa used to say: “God does not expect us to be successful.  He expects us to be faithful.”  Unite your failures with Christ’s suffering, and they will transform miraculously into earth-shattering triumphs, because you will be participating in the redemptive suffering of Christ.

    So… it is not the case that you can do anything so long as you just put your mind to it.  In fact, you are destined for failure.  And that is very, very sad.  But it’s also kind of thrilling because your God had his heart broken and was bullied.  Your God was humiliated and scorned and abandoned.  And that means that your dignity is not bound up with your success.  You are sons of God.  You have been divinized.  And in the end, when you lie on your deathbed as we all inevitably do, without trophies or diplomas or accolades or even your bodily health, ALL that will matter is your existence as a son of God, and that will be enough.  That will be more than enough.  That will be everything.

Laus Tibi Domine.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

CHAPTER 73: This Is Only the Beginning

The purpose of this Rule is to help monks achieve at least some moral righteousness, or rather a beginning of the monastic life. If you truly desire to pursue the perfection of the religious life, read the Church Fathers.  Following them will lead you to the height of perfection. And what page or what passage of the divinely inspired books of the Old and the New Testament are not a most exact rule of human life? So, too, the collections of the Fathers, their advice and their lives, and the Rule of our holy Father, Basil…what are they but monuments to the virtues of exemplary and obedient monks? You, therefore, who hasten to your heavenly home, with the help of Christ must do your best to fulfill this little rule for beginners; and then you shall, by the grace of God, attain at last to the heights of knowledge and virtue.

Back when I first decided to join the monastery, my roommate from college decided to go off to LA to become a movie star.  And he did.  Randall was on “The Young and the Restless” and made guest appearances on sit-coms.  He was in movies and hung out with models and rock stars.  One night, I got a call from him on the monastery phone.  He said to me “Guess who was just named Teen Magazine’s ‘Hunk of the Month’!”[1]
I said to him, “Well, I’m in a monastery, so I guess it must be you.”
Not long after that, he came out to the monastery to visit.   I asked him whether he had seen “Passion of the Christ.”  He said, “No.  I don’t like Jim Caviezel.”
I said, “You don’t like his acting?”
He said, “No.  I don’t like him personally.  We had an argument at a party, and I just can’t see him as Jesus.  On the other hand…I might enjoy seeing him flogged and crucified, but I don’t think that would healthy.”
            As you might imagine, Randall’s stories started to become a real temptation to me.  Whenever life in the monastery seemed dull or lonely, I would think of Randall.  He lived upstairs from Heather Graham.  His wife had a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated (not the swimsuit issue).  He would go out to eat with Emilou Harris.  I wanted to live upstairs from Heather Graham.  I wanted to have a fight with Jim Caviezel.  I still want to have dinner with Emmylou Harris, and I don’t even know who she is!
So a few years passed, and after I professed my Solemn Vows, I went to visit Randall in New York.  He had a little party in my honor.  All of his beautiful friends were there: models, producers, musicians…they were all beautiful.  The loft was beautiful.  Randall and his wife were beautiful.  The hors d'oeuvres were beautiful.  Even the little toothpicks were beautiful.  So I was really taken with all this beauty, and having a serious vocation crisis all to myself, when one of Randall’s friends, this chic Jewelry designer from Soho named Claudette…she leans toward me over the coffee table and she said, “Why did you have to become a monk?  Isn’t it enough just to be a good person?”
She couldn’t have picked a worse time to ask me that question.  I was in no condition to give a convincing answer.  But, as is sometimes the case, the Holy Spirit stepped in on my behalf.  I slapped my beautiful hors d'oeuvre down on the coffee table and said “No.  No, it is not enough ‘just to be a good person.’   Being a good person is the minimum.  Think about it.  What’s the alternative?  You’re expected to be a good person.  That’s the least you can do.  We are called to be saints—to live lives of heroic virtue—to give and give and give till it hurts!”  (Then I stabbed myself with a toothpick and had to run to the bathroom.)
My point is that as Christians, we can’t ever be satisfied with mediocrity.  We can’t allow ourselves to be too comfortable with the status quo.  The minimum isn’t enough.  It never was, and it certainly isn’t now.  A lot is expected of us.  Perfection is expected of us.  “Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48).
Does this scare you?  It should.  But it should also thrill you, because perfection is entirely within your grasp. You have a whole army of saints at your back.  You have volumes and volumes of guidance to draw upon. You have the sacraments and the Scriptures at your disposal—all the resources of a two-thousand-year old Church.  And of course, you have the Eucharist, where you may draw upon Jesus’ own divine strength and make it your own.
So get to it.  Time is running out.  There’s a war going on for the soul of the world, and you have been chosen to fight on the front lines.  This is just the beginning.

[1] I’m not sure I got the title right here, but you get the point. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

CHAPTER 72: The Good Zeal of the Monk

Just as there is a wicked zeal which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vice and leads to God and everlasting life. The monks, therefore, should practice this good zeal with the most fervent love; in fact, they should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, competing with one another in obedience. They should endure one another’s weaknesses—whether of body or mind—with the utmost patience; and no one should follow what he thinks useful to himself; instead, he should do what he thinks will most benefit the others.
The monks should fear God and love their abbot with sincere and humble affection. Let them prefer nothing to Christ, and may He lead us all together to life everlasting.

    Here in the penultimate chapter, we finally see where all this is leading.  All the rules and mandates and regulations guide us to this one quintessentially monastic virtue: zeal.  The monk must be zealous.  He must want heaven the way a rock star wants to be on stage—the way an actor wants to be in the movies.  He has to be willing to make the same sacrifices that athletes and soldiers and poets make in pursuit of their dreams.  The hunger, the loneliness, the humiliations, failures and sacrifices are all part of realizing that dream.  The monk knows this, and when the struggle begins to wear on him, he bears it with the grim, rugged joy of a mountain climber or a triathlete.  In his treatise On Virginity, Saint Ambrose wrote, “The Word of God moves swiftly.  The lukewarm won’t reach him.  The lazy can’t hold on.  So pay close attention to his word, and be careful to follow the path God shows you, or He will quickly pass you by” (Ch 12, 74).
    It’s all about good zeal.
    If, as we said in Chapter 5, “supernatural docility” is what gives the Benedictine life its authentic character, then “good zeal” is what perfects it.  You can think of these as the beginning and end of the spiritual discipline: the negative way and the positive way.  You start with purification and end with perfection.
    Saint Augustine had a pretty interesting take on this process, which he drew from the beatitudes (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Chs 1-23).  The first three beatitudes, he said, are passive (“Blessed are the poor… mourning…weak”); the last three are active (“Blessed are the merciful…the pure…the peacemakers”).  But the central beatitude—the turning point and crux of the spiritual life, the focus of the entire endeavor—is zeal: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5).  You sometimes hear ambitious athletes or businessmen described as hungry.  They are consumed by a sort of restless, savage, dogged enthusiasm that keeps them sprinting from one dream to the next.  This is zeal, and it’s what separates the diehard from the mere enthusiast.  When others call it a day, the zealous man is just getting started.  Setbacks are “tests” and failures are just practice runs.
    “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” wrote Saint Augustine(Confessions, Book I).  This spiritual restlessness—this hunger—is what keeps the monk on his toes.  It keeps him focused and it keeps him humble, because it is a constant reminder that his work is incomplete. Hubert Van Zeller (what a name!) wrote: “When a monk is possessed of true zeal he thinks neither of reform nor of himself—and still less of how unreformed his companions are—but thinks only of how God may be better served” (The Holy Rule, p. 456).
    Good zeal is what you get when you prefer nothing—nothing whatever—to Christ.