21 June 2009

What's so Wrong?

I was talking with a group of friends recently . Upon hearing of my intention to enter a monastery, one of them asked, "What so wrong?" In utter bewilderment I responded, "Nothing!"

At present I live a very comfortable life. Owing to a fair-sized inheritance I was able to resign from a very stressful career, and sort out what I want to do with my life. I have been able to pay my bills and mortgage, buy a car, even do a fair bit of travel. I view all of this as solely God's grace. I do not believe that I earned it, am owed it,or deserve it. But because of my current circumstances, I asked my friend how could he think anything was wrong.

As I reflected on the question posed to me, I asked him, "Do think a monastery is a place where a group of miserable men live out a miserable existence?" I do not think anything could be further from the truth.

The monasteries I have visited have been populated with men dedicated to God, living a peaceful and joyful life. If this were not the case, I would not waste my time looking at the monastery. Not that there are not challenges in the life of a monk, but then there are challenges in every walk of life: married or single, whether you are a parent or not.

I think the challenges we face shape our lives. They give us the opportunity to look at aspects of our life and ask, "Is it worth it?" A lot of people think that I am giving up to much by entering a monastery, but to me it is worth it.

For me sussing out my particular vocation was the tough part. My vocation happens to be that of a monk. If it were not my vocation, I think life in a monastery would be hell. In 19th Century France there was a young man who wanted to be a priest, but his superiors did not think he had a vocation because he knew no Latin. He left and married a woman who had wanted to be a nun but had to leave due to ill health. He was Blessed Louis Martin. His wife was Blessed Marie-Azelie. They had five daughters who became nuns, the best known one being St. Therese of Lisieux. I firmly believe that if we live out our vocation, whatever that vocation may be, we are living on the door-step of Heaven.

16 June 2009

Decisions, Decisions

May 27th -Feast of Augustine of Canterbury

Well today was a bit out of the ordinary; even after what I said yesterday. I think God has a good way of making us laugh at ourselves. We went to a conference of religious (Brothers, Sisters, Nuns, and Priests in religious orders). As the only aspirant in the group I was a bit of an oddball there… yes more of one than usual. While the speaker was not much to write home about (so I won’t); the sisters were quite interesting to talk to. More than a few had Chicago connections too! The Abbot and Novice Master attended with the novice, the two postulants, and myself.File:Mount St Bernards Abbey.JPG

May 28th
I spoke with the abbot today and I told him that I wanted to join the abbey. He wanted to know what formed my decision. The things that shape my decision were:
  • My introduction to the Divine Office was the British translation and that is the translation I prefer.
  • That translation is accessible to the laity, and the laity attend most every one of the offices at Mount St. Bernard (even Vigils, at times).
  • The liturgy in England is much less politicized than in America. To coin a phrase, there is a Spectrum of Orthodoxy in England. The Mass can be celebrated worthily in a variety of ways: maybe more formal at times and maybe more intimate and personal at other times.
  • Mount St. Bernard's has been around for almost 175 years. I do not think it is going anywhere, anytime soon.
  • There is a great range of ages there from age 26 - 95. So there is both youthfulness and wisdom present at the abbey.
  • All of the able body members take their part in manual twice a day. No one is "too good" for it.
  • There is a real since of austerity at the abbey, not that they live in abject poverty.
During my first week of the live in, I did not even want to bring up the questions of a decision in prayer. By the beginning of the second week, I did not even have to ask the question... I knew the answer.

Fairly soon I will have another live-in. After that, I can apply to the abbot for entrance. I ask for your continued prayers as I begin this next leg of my journey. Thank You and Peace.

Silence... broken

I am sorry that I have not posted anything in a while. I just got back for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). This year my friends and I went to Quetico, Ontario, Canada. I have heard of stories of people posting vacation plans, and later coming back to find out that their house had been robbed by someone who read the posting.

The BWCA is an amazingly beautiful region of both the US and Canada. Both sides of the border are national parks. In the BWCA there are no cell phones, TV's or radios. There are no cars or motor boats. The two loudest sources of noise were the frogs and loons. It amazes me that you could hear the murmur of people talking a quarter of a mile away.

The voyageurs with me on this trip were my good friend Matt and his fraternity brother, Daniel. We stayed on a small island in North Bay of Basswood Lake. We nicknamed it Biting Ant Island. Whilst it did have ants that bite, it was not that bad. We just want to make sure it does not get too many visitors -- besides us, of course.

Daniel, who does not seem particularly religious, noted the aescetic nature of the trip. And it seems we took a "Cistercian" approach to our duties during this trip. The major difference instead of working smarter to free up time for the Divine Office, we freed up time for fishing. For example, on a previous trip we had a little hand pump to filter the water. On this trip we used a dish pan to fill a collapsible 5-gallon container. Then the raw water was poured in to a hanging filter. This saved us about two hours a day.

Seeing God's beautiful undisturbed creation made it very easy for my heart being directed back to God. Watching Bald Eagles fly across a beautiful blue sky, I thought of the verse in the Psalms asking God to lift us up with eagle's wings. Most of the time I was just in silent awe.

If I am accepted in religious life, I think it is trips like this that I will miss more than a house, car, or outside career. That being said, God's grace and beauty of His creation is available in abundance through out the world.

08 June 2009

The Joy of the Ordinary

May 25th

Memorial of St. Bede the Venerable. The idea of getting up at 3:15 am used to be ludicrous to me. It seems so natural after just a week. Vigils last around an hour, but it feels like minutes as we chant the psalms and listen to the readings. As Vigils comes to an end the birds begin to chirp. The votive Mass of Our Lady is so simple and beautiful. The exact same readings are used for the community Mass, but the atmosphere at this one is quite intimate. At breakfast I had a bowl of porridge with a big mug of tea. After I finished eating, I was sipping away thinking, “Ah, tea with the Lord.” When I was in seminary I used to hate meals in silence (on days of recollection); now I get it.

Manual Labour continues to be a learning experience. Have you ever been to Ireland or England and seen those stone walls around farm fields? Have you ever wondered how they were put together without any mortar? I no longer have to wonder. If it was not for the tutelage of the two postulants, I think I would still be out there trying to fit the stones together.

May 26th

Nothing out of the ordinary happened today, and that is a very good thing! In my opinion one of the goals of monastic life is to get rid of the peaks and valleys so often associated with modern life. No fantastic heights, no terrifying declines. There are emotional highs and disappointments (some times even deeper) in every life. That is unavoidable. But I think our emotions should be like our blood sugar. Avoid spikes. Avoid crashes.

I came across a little book here called The Monk's Mirror. I have just begun to peruse it. I can across where there was the advice of dealing with temptation manfully and not by complaining. Now I hate to reveal so much about my darker side, but whether the temptation is a lurid thought or chocolate cake, I have the tendency of crying out to \God, “Why me?” I think the advice of dealing with temptation “manfully” or “head on” (to be more inclusive) is some of the best advice I think I have ever heard.

06 June 2009

Leading up to the Feast of the Ascension

May 22nd

A little after 5 this morning I took a little post-prandial stroll. I began to think about monastic enclosure. I looked up at the clock tower which faces away from me. I realized that the clock tower is on the guest house side of the grounds; a place where I was not allowed. I looked up at the churches down-spouts. Each one has a coat of arms of a different English (historical) Cistercian house. During my first visit, I walked around and looked at them all, but know they are off limits. Now it is not as if I could never go out there, but if I am to become a postulant and later a novice; then they are out of bounds. At my fist visit, I had seen 5 or 6 monks whose work did not include the guest house, and I was only here a few days.

On the flip-side, the grounds within the enclosure are enormous. Plus being near the forest gives the illusion that the land just goes on, and on, and on. It is truly beautiful here.

Being a Friday, there is a penitential atmosphere, although it is not glum. It is very subtle. I might even say delicate. The underlying joy of the Pascal season still pervades.

May 23rd

I got up right at 3:15. Success! Ok,ok, I take joy in small victories. Speaking of small victories I have lost almost a stone (14 lbs) since I arrived on Monday. YEAH! Watch out for my new book: The Cistercian Diet…. Coming to a monastery near you. Four hours a day of actual manual labour has its benefits. So one stone down, one boulder to go.

There is beautiful spring weather here today. This is a rural setting with a forest next door. It is quite hard not to love this place. I walked over and saw the bull today. Man are bulls big. I saw some of the calves. I never knew the hair would be silky-soft. God’s creation is so wonderful. Poor little guys came up to me looking for some food.

May 24th

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord. Nature is co-operating wonderfully with splendid weather. Sundays are days of rest here, except for a few monks. The cows still need to be fed and milked, meals are still prepared and served., and laundry will be done this evening. But for me after having had a busy schedule all week, I almost feel at a lost end. Almost. I took a nice long walk and did some spiritual reading. Then I took 10 minutes to bask in the sunshine. I think cats really are on to something with that basking business. In a little while it will be time for the Office of Sext, then Lunch.
Tomorrow will be a normal day… so to speak.

05 June 2009

Getting on track

May 20th

I am still trying to get used to the schedule around here. Today I was an early-bird, even by Carthusian standards. But I was able to attend all of the “Hours” today. The manual labour today had two typically novitiate tasks. The morning job was folding the guest house linens with the novice. After folding the bed sheets in quarters, then in half; we placed them in to a giant airing cupboard with four roll-out sections: each 7 feet tall. There are 3 radiators in the cupboard that dry the sheets. After the Office of None I received my afternoon assignment. At first I thought the Novice Master asked me if I wanted to to some reading. Knowing that I could not get off that easily I asked, “Weeding?”. “Yes,” was the response. Well at least it was a beautiful spring afternoon for it.

I decided today that I will not even ask the Lord’s assistance in my decision-making process until next week. I still want to see the abbey at face-value. I was asked to day if the abbey was meeting my expectations. I told the elder monk that I deliberately held no expectations. I said I do not want to shape the abbey into a preconceived image, I want to experience it as it is, and let it shape me.

May 21st

Sleep is fairly on track now. I am actually surprised at my level of alertness at 3:30 in the morning. I went to the novitiate class room today. We watched a video on the 40th anniversary of Mount St. Bernard’s foundation in Cameroon. It was interesting to see “living” history. A couple of the founders had passed since this video was made 4 years ago. Then more weeding. And in keeping with the theme, I did some mowing in the afternoon with a mower that is quite a bit heavier than the one I have at home. I went along at the speed I mow at home. The result being I finished too early and I was sore. I guess there is a reason why the monastic pace seems slow, but is actually wise. Tim, the cat took pity on me today and made nice. Once I referred to this ginger tom as a “lion,” he came up to me with out fear. He was a little playful (and cheeky, too).

A nice hot bath after Compline, a bit of spiritual reading, and bed!

04 June 2009

Back on the 'Island"

I am back home from my visit to Mount St. Bernard's. I kept a bit of a journal, and I wrote a little something almost every day of my two-week visit. I will start posting a couple entries at a time. I am not going to edit the entries so that you may see how my view point develops over the days:

May 18th

I was picked up at Nottingham Station by a friend of mine that I had not seen since his ordination 10 years ago. At that time we had both lost our fathers, now both our mothers have passed , too. We had a pleasant chat and arranged to meet each other after my retreat.

I received a very warm welcome from Br. Paul. He made some tea and we had a little talk. After the Office of Sext, Br. Clement, a novice, gave me the grand tour. He did his best to show me how the books for the Liturgy of the Hours worked together, too: The Psalter, Antiphonal, and Hymnal . He also taught me the three most common signs of the Cistercian Sign Language: Thank You, Sorry, and Joyful. Thank you is similar to the American Sign Language sign, Sorry is a couple mea culpas, and a was greeted with outstretched arms and a big smile. That can means, Happy Feast Day, or Welcome, or any Joyful Greeting. I received that greeting quite a few times.

It is a little past 8 PM and still quite sunny. But 3:15 AM comes early, so it is bedtime.

May 19th

I woke up way too early today - hours before Vigils. I was supposed to sleep in today, too. Hearing the church bells as they rang for Vigils at 3:25 sounded quite lovely. An hour later the first birds began to chirp. I am slowly getting the hang off the books of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Psalter is on a one-week cycle, the antiphonal is on a two-week cycle, and things are a little more complex since this is the Easter season.

I am meeting more of the community but it is not always easy remembering all the names. I spoke with a brother in temporary vows. He was telling me that he attended a lecture from a Benedictine sister from Chicago. Later in the conversation he told me that he had looked at the Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, too, as part of his discernment process.

I did get an unfriendly greeting today from Tim, the abbey’s cat. He hissed at me; but being a good Trappist cat, he made no sound as he hissed.