Why Are We Starting a Monastery? (part3) #theordersf

Being in the World with Intention 

We are starting a monastic expression because true formation requires a set of practices and habits in order to point our hearts in the proper direction.

All of our lives are aimed, consciously or unconsciously, at a particular vision of what we see as the “good life.” Whatever vision of life we imagine as the kind of life that we want, this vision ends up pulling us toward a way of behaving and making decisions. The kind of clothes we wear, the kind of watch we buy, the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the vocations we choose—these are efforts to get what we want. If you want to find out about someone—ask them what they want, not what they believe. 

"Toward the monk the coal burner was deeply reverent."     
-Daniel Carter Beard. Pen & ink. 

In the first chapter of The Rule of St. Benedict, which became the rule of life that has governed the majority of Christian monastic expressions for the past 1500 years, Benedict describes four types of monks. 

1. The first type, Cenobites, are monks who live under a rule of life, and an Abbot. This is the kind of monasticism that Benedict set out to form at the beginning of the 6th century. It was Benedict who had the vision for solitary hermits to come together under one roof and share a life together—a life of prayer, study, and bodily labor. 

2. The second kind of monk, according to Benedict’s rule, is the Anchorite, or the hermit. Benedict thought that the only way one should go out into the wilderness by himself, is after a long period of living with others and receiving their encouragement, exhortation, and strength. 

3. The third kind of monks are the Sarabites. These are the worst kind of monk. These kind of monks have never submitted themselves to anything. They don’t live under a rule. They don’t submit to a leader. They aren’t willing to be molded by others. And as a result of this, “…the pleasure of their desires is to them a law; and whatever they like or make a choice of, they will have to be holy, but what they don’t like, they consider unlawful.” Benedict says these kind of monks have a character that is as soft as lead. There is a loyalty to the world, says Benedict, that makes one’s commitment to God seem like a lie. 

4. The fourth kind of monks are the gyrovagues. These are the drifters. They are one’s who refuse to stay put and be formed by a particular people. They are constant guests while traveling from one place or another. 

Benedict goes onto say that it is better to keep silent about these last three kinds of monks. He just passes them by and launches in on his plan for the strong kind, the cenobites. 

With no disrespect to St. Benedict, I can’t resist making some observations about the kind of life that most of us are content in living. 

If everyone was a monk—most of us would be Sarabites. It's in our nature. We, all of us, are naturally directed by our desires. We find ways of calling the things we want, “good.” And this happens without us even realizing it. The power of our desires end up shaping the little decisions in our life, and before we know it, the habits of our everyday life are pointed and aligned in a specific direction. This is why you can learn most about a person by asking them what they want, rather than what they believe. What we want ends up pulling towards the kind of life we are trying to get at.

But what happens when we discover that the things we want, and thus, the direction of our life, aren’t really all that great? We can try to change the things we want, but it doesn’t work that easily. If you have ever tried to give up a bad a habit, you may rememberer that it’s not often that you stop wanting the thing you are trying to quit. You want to quit that afternoon cup of coffee, but 1pm comes around, and you want coffee. Changing what we want is actually really hard. 

In his wonderful book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith leads us through a discussion of how we all have an implicit picture of the kingdom of God. Smith argues that our primary orientation in the world is governed by our loves and our desires. You should read his book. There are few books that really have the power to re-orient. This is one of them.

We are starting a monastic expression because true formation requires a set of practices and habits in order to point our hearts in the proper direction. This doesn’t happen only through the institution of a monastery, of course. There are a multitude of ways to be formed and habituated toward a certain way of being in the world. We are formed, for better or worse, by our habits and practices. What monasteries have done throughout history is provide a way of life–a forma vitae–not a list of rules and regulations that we super-impose on life, but rather, a doing and living with a level of intention that eventually trains our hearts to do the things we set out to do in the first place. 

In short, once our hearts are trained toward the kingdom of God, the rule of life that we have chosen to come under nearly becomes obsolete. A rule of life is there to hem us in when needed, but it works more like a marriage vow than a daily operative. In marriage, the vow only comes into sharp focus  when the heart has become trained away from the commitment. The marriage vow is a reminder of  the commitment to be formed (in one’s love) toward a particular person, and in a particular way. The vow is what you return to. But it isn’t the vow that does the heavy-lifting on a day-to-day basis. What operates on a day-to-day basis is the doing and living of marriage–hopefully, the kind of living that is in line with the commitment that the vow holds. It's in this doing and living where our flaws are exposed. This is where we learn about grace and forgiveness. This is where we receive the gift of another person’s constancy. This is where turn to another with a deep reverence for the work of mirroring back to us the capacity of who we are.

I think people are searching for a way of life. Our cultural hindrance in the West is that we have been taught that we ourselves can provide that way of life. We have been taught autonomy. We have been taught that we can read scripture, by ourselves. That we can worship, by ourselves. That we can work, by ourselves. And while we can do those things on our own-it’s a fools errand to believe that we can change without the constancy of other people. We have been conditioned to embody the spirit of a Sarabitic monk, and this makes for a long road toward true formation. 

We are starting a monastery because we want to invite people into the joy that comes from a willingness to be molded by something outside of oneself. There is a great freedom in obedience. This is the foundation of historic monasticism–that in the humility of obedience, we walk into a way of life that more closely aligns with Jesus. 


*This post is the third in an ongoing series. Here is Part 1 where I talk about what happens when we seek our life in God. And, Part 2, where I consider why people have never considered a monastic vocation.

Why Are We Starting a Farm? (part 1) #theorderSF

Knowing the Value of Having a Little Land

They never attempted to drain their estates of all that they could produce, for they thought of the future, and would neither exhaust the soil nor the men who lived on it. As soon as they were in possession of a new estate, and before deriving the lease profit from it, they always gave up to the poor, who gathered round them everywhere…[land] which was intended for them.
— Charles Forbes Montalembert from The Monks of the West from St. Benedict to St. Bernard, Volume 6
The Cistercian Abbey of Llantarnam, or Caerleon as it was originally known, was founded in 1179 in mid Wales

The Cistercian Abbey of Llantarnam, or Caerleon as it was originally known, was founded in 1179 in mid Wales

Some time ago, in the country-side of Europe, thirteen men began to work the soil on a barren piece of land that was given to them to make the best of. They were poor, and thin, and not of any noble upbringing. This was virgin soil, but not rich. It was the cast-away plot of a wealthy landowner who hadn't even dreamed of cultivating this part of his vast estate.

    These men drained the marshes, improved the streams, and planted wheat and vegetables where the thistle had grown up unchecked. They bartered for a few cattle, which now spotted the back meadow, and within a few seasons, sheep would occupy the upland hills. The wool would be used to make clothing, the cows would be breed each year for more, and now with some hired help, land was expanded, trees were planted, and their methods honed for the climate and the place. 

    In the years to come, and in the aftermath of war and poverty, these men would add to their number others who were drawn to a place which was once filled with disease and rot and uninhabitable, but that now produced a surplus of food and goods which were sold in the towns. Peasants and kings alike came to learn a lifetime of devotion to prayer, which, according to their rule of life, also meant work. Work and pray, said St. Benedict. ora et labora. Each man (and later women) would find a role---the orchard, the apiary, the hay-fields---and in each decade the project was expanded and more land reclaimed until a system of agricultural advancement occupied over one-fifth of England's parcel. 

    At a time when the work of raising crops and tending the land was spurned as degrading by men who should have had their hand on the plow, monks emerged from their place of solitude to plow fields and dig ditches, providing a model of living that eventually helped peasants re-imagine the noble work of tending the land, and caring for livestock. 

    Though it was not inspired by an ecological crisis or a particular eschatological vision, beginning in the 12th century, the people who seemed to pray the most, and whose life was most centered around the work of God, were also the ones who grew the most food, tended the most land, and taught others how to do the same.

Saving Agriculture 

    In a 1901 address to the Massachusets State Board of Agriculture, the then President of the Massachussets Agricultural College, Henry Goodell, said that these men (and later women) "saved agriculture when nobody else could save it. They practiced it under a new life and new conditions when no one else dared undertake it."

During the emergence of monasticism, food was scarce, and land lay fallow. With the fall of the Roman empire, barbaric tribes swept across Europe, and civilization as it had once been known, ceased to exist. Lands that had once been filled with food to feed families and villagers, through neglect, reverted to forests and swamps; towns lay in ruins, and most common people became beggars and slaves. 

    Emerging from this state of affairs, many who professed faith in God, at God’s invitation, sought out the land as refuge and solitude, only to much later find that their presence was so great, and so great was God’s presence within them, that multitudes were drawn toward them. What began as beds of herbs and small plots of gardens, stretched out eventually to fields of waving grain, hills clothed in vines, and valleys covered in fruit trees. They went out to pray and to embrace a life that they imagined would be quiet and inconsequential to anyone else. And while their life was quiet, it was far from inconsequential. 

The monastic institution unconsciously became an instrument of helping people move from a place of disease, to a place of health. Its rise was also the rise of free agriculture for the world. This was the people of God, exchanging worthless parcels of barren marshland and thorny forests, for beautiful estates. 

These men would eventually make known to the world the wisest and most productive methods of agriculture. Agriculture and the art of living well came first, by necessity, and what followed was civilization, and eventually conversion of countless men and women who would come to work alongside these monks who opened their doors to all. Shelter and protection were given to the sick and oppressed and then the skills of production and good work, and indeed, peasants began to know well, as Wendell Berry has said it, the value of having a little land


Perhaps it is time to do it again. 

Why Are We Starting a Monastery? (part 1) #theordersf

What happens when we seek our life in God?

In the early 1880’s there was a man named Joseph Dutton who turned up in Memphis Tennessee after years of drinking and gambling. Dutton had been a Union soldier from Vermont whose colorful life became the stuff that legends are made of when he entered the novitiate at the Abbey of Gethsemani nearly thirty years after Gethsemani was founded. Dutton was one of the first American novitiates of the new monastery in Kentucky. The Trappist Monastery, which sixty years later would welcome Thomas Merton, was just beginning to see some interest from American-born men. The pioneer stage of the founding of a new Trappist Abbey had now passed and the question that was beginning to be asked by the brothers in Europe was whether or not Americans could ever be able to be converted to contemplatives. 

Joseph Dutton was a new convert (to Catholicism) who had begun his instructions in faith with the view of marrying a catholic girl in Memphis. He suddenly disappeared from Memphis, and was later discovered to be the new postulant at the Abbey of Gethsemani under the care of Dom Benedict Berger, Gethsemani’s Abbot, who was a stickler for the Rule. 

Joseph Dutton spent 20 months as a Novitiate. He was just a few months shy of taking his final vows when a runaway horse came galloping down the road carrying a young girl. The girl fell off as the horse went by. Joseph Dutton picked her up and carried her to the monks’ school. When he left the monastery a few months later, the rumor went around that he had gone off to marry her. 

In reality, Joseph Dutton went off to join Father Damien (who was later canonized by Pope Benedict XVI) on the island leper-colony of Molokoi in the pacific. There, Dutton became a close friend to Father Damien and lived on the island (now part of Hawaii) for over 40 years, caring for lepers, and later, beginning a school for boys. Caring for lepers turned out to be his true vocation. Joseph Dutton became a member of the Secular Franciscan Order. 

The vow for monastic vocations has historically been a life-long vow. And true to form, a great number of men and women have given their lives to prayer, study, and manual labor. Most of them do this quietly, with little renown. The men and woman we read about are ones who write, like Thomas Merton, who devotes a page to Joseph Dutton's story in his book The Waters of Shiloah. The people we read about are people like Father Damien, who ended up dying from the same disease that killed so many for whom he had cared.

But then there are men and woman we never really hear much about–men like Joseph Dutton. There are men and woman who start out exploring the contemplative life and they end up stumbling into another calling, or charism, as we like to say. They begin with saying, “Yes”— to the invitation to silence and solitude and prayer—and they end up putting their hands and feet to a courageous work, even once they have left their vows behind. There are countless names listed in the records of entries and departures found in monasteries all over the world. We never hear about their lives because the season they may have spent in the monastery, (or traveling with a mendicant order), was historically insignificant. 

But it isn’t. 

Even those who leave the monastic life before making their final vows—or even after they’ve made them—these men and woman take something with them that never finds its way into the historic record. 

Something happened to Joseph Dutton during his 20 months as a novitiate in Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsamani. He came in after having tried everything else to fill and mend a broken life. He left with a determination to go and serve and love lepers on a far-away island. 

I wonder what would become of some of our lives if we had a season to get at the heart of what we truly want?

We are beginning a missional monastic expression because when men and woman make room for silence and solitude, when they leave behind everything to seek life in God, something happens.