|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Sold by:||Hachette Digital, Inc.|
|File size:||566 KB|
Read an Excerpt
It is many years now since he first visited the monastery, though the details of that day linger quietly in his memory. On that clear October afternoon he thought upstate New York was among the most beautiful places in the world. He had come from the Far West, sweeping airborne over ten states with barely a cloud in the sky. From the plane, the beauty of the Catskills, the Hudson River Valley, then finally the vague outline of the Adirondacks to the north took his breath away. He had always loved flying, but passing through the vast expanse of space, from one time zone to the next, he sensed a parallel passage taking place inwardly as well, one leading him inexorably into a new life. Were we to give him a name, none would be better than simply "the Seeker."
The occasion for his journey was to meet a monk whom he knew only by the power of his written word: Father Laurence, abbot of New Skete, an Orthodox Catholic monastery in Cambridge, New York. Several months earlier, quite by chance, the young man had come across several of Father's articles on monastic life and spirituality. Reading them occasioned one of those rare moments when words speak unmistakably to our deepest concerns. With freshness and candor, they communicated an authority well grounded in personal experience that attracted him. Somewhat presumptuously, the Seeker initiated a correspondence that the monk could have justifiably ignored; he did not, and when several illuminating letters only multiplied the number of the Seeker's questions, Father Laurence graciously invited him to spend some time at the monastery to delve into them moredeeply.
Of the Seeker, little needs to be said other than that he had been stumbling along his spiritual journey for quite some time. He liked to think of himself as serious about spirituality, but honesty would have forced him to concede his ambivalence about monasticism. While attracted by contemplative values, and meditating regularly each day, he was wary of the sacrifice such values seemed to require once they were institutionalized. That was why he had boarded that plane.
In a disarmingly direct manner, Father Laurence's articles and correspondence gave him cause to wonder whether a creative synthesis might not be achievable after allwhat Father Laurence described as monasticism with a human face. The contention that these values were of importance to all, and not just monks, intrigued the Seeker enough to arrange the visit. Whether it would result in his deciding to become a monk himself, the Seeker did not know; that, he would leave to God. Nevertheless, he had a deep premonition that whatever he might learn would be of value no matter what he happened to do in life.
Traditionally, it is any aspirant's business to make his own way to a teacher, an indication of the genuineness of his desire and an appropriate act of humility. Distance is never an issue. In ancient times, seekers routinely traveled thousands of miles to mine the wisdom of a renowned elder, as Saint John Cassian had when he and his friend Germanus visited a number of elders in the Egyptian desert in the fourth century. Flying to New York seemed trifling in comparison. The Seeker had planned on renting a car for the final leg of the journey, but when he spoke with him by phone the previous day, Father Laurence had told him not to bother. The monk had errands to do in Albany and could pick him up at the airport himself. That struck the Seeker as unusually flexible. When he asked what kind of car he should be on the lookout for, Father merely chuckled and replied, "Don't worry, I'll find you. Just wait for me in the pickup area."
When the Seeker arrived in Albany, it was a blue station wagon that pulled up beside him at the pickup area, with a mammoth German shepherd staring out from the side window. All of the monks he had met up to that point were predictably "monkish," always dressed in habits and careful to preserve a traditional image. The man who emerged from the other side of the car was heavyset and dressed in street clothes, his graying beard neatly trimmed. Smiling warmly, he extended his hand and introduced himself simply as Father Laurence. After some amiable chitchat, he unlocked the rear door and signaled the dog to stay. As he helped the Seeker get his luggage into the car, he nonchalantly pointed to his canine companion.
"Meet Ivy. No need for alarm, she's a real sweetheart. Hop in."
The second the Seeker got into the car, Ivy shamelessly started licking his ears, and when Father went to the other side of the car, he tapped on the window and told Ivy to lie down in the back of the wagon. She obeyed without protest.
As they pulled away from the airport, the image that stuck in the Seeker's mind was the deft way in which Father Laurence wove in and out of trafficquickly, but not recklesslywith no scruples about using his horn when someone seemed asleep at the wheel. Since traffic was heavy, they spent the first few minutes together in a comfortable silence, but when they eventually eased onto the Northway and the relative calm of steady speed, Father Laurence turned and asked casually, "So you're serious enough about this to have flown to New York. How about telling me a bit about yourself?"
The Seeker had anticipated such questions. His letters, while open and sincere, were still just letters and hadn't really offered anything more than a general description of himself; their one conversation on the phone had been about the Albany airport. So, despite feeling mildly awkward, he began to stumble through a more detailed self-portrait, filling in facts that he had either omitted or only briefly alluded to in his correspondence. Father Laurence listened intently, and as they spoke the Seeker quickly began to forget his self-consciousness. The monk would nod his head and smile from time to time, and at several points he laughed heartily, making no effort to conceal his delight. Yet he always seemed one step ahead of the Seeker's last sentence, as if he were listening to a story he already knew. Finally he asked:
"And what have you learned through all of this?"
Somehow the Seeker was hoping that the monk would tell him that, though it was clear from the ensuing silence that he had no intentions of doing so. He thought for several moments, vaguely aware of the colorful foliage gliding by. They were no longer on the Northway and the landscape was becoming increasingly rural. At last the Seeker replied, "I've learned that the whole world's asleepmyself included."
Father raised his eyebrows and rubbed his bearded chin. "Well now, that's very interesting." He was quiet for quite some time, weighing a response, until finally he offered his own thoughts. "It's the same for all of us. The real question is how serious we are about waking up." He paused. "How far are you willing to go? Life will do its best to rouse you, but you're the only one who can wake yourself up. Nobody else can. Someone can teach, invite, cajole, challenge you, whatever, but no one can make you hear what you're not willing to hearneither I, your parents, your boss, nor the people you live with, for that matter. It's entirely up to you. But if you listen closely, if you're serious, I promise you you'll hearand that hearing will change you forever."
The car slowed down and he honked at a black-and-white Holstein standing in the middle of the road. It turned its head casually, then lumbered off into the pasture. Ivy barked at it from the back. The monk calmed her and then turned back to the Seeker and reminded him how important the period was that he was going through. The following weeks at the monastery were a chance to come to terms with himself in a new way, and they needed to be used wisely. Aside from times of meditation and worship, he would be working with various brothers each day and should feel relaxed about asking questions as they occurred to him. But Father Laurence cautioned him against chitchat, advising him to avoid needless conversation. "Pay attention to what is deeper." He stressed that it was vital to get in touch with the rhythm of the life as quickly as possible, and he offered to meet with the Seeker every couple of days if he wished to discuss his thoughts. But Father also made it clear that this was entirely up to him, and that he shouldn't feel obligated to do it.
The Seeker was curious about the monastery, and he asked about its beginnings. Though he had read several issues of Gleanings, the community's journal, it was difficult to get anything more than a glimpse from that. Father Laurence explained that the community began in 1966, with a dozen monks under his leadership. They came from a community of Byzantine Rite Franciscans. Dissatisfied with the kind of religious life they had been living, they initially tried to form a monastery within their order based on the principles of Eastern Christian monastic life. Once it became clear that no provision could be made for such a life within the Franciscans, they chose to begin a new community. They felt called to an authentic Eastern Christian monasticism for our day, inspired by the vision of the early monastic fathers.
They also had a passion for liturgy, seeking to infuse new life into Eastern Catholic worship. In that spirit, they took the name "New Skete," after one of the first Christian monastic settlements in northern Egypt, in the desert of Skete. From the very beginning, their intention was to incarnate the simplicity of the original principles of monastic life, unencumbered by the institutionalized accretions of the centuries, and to do this in a way that made sense for twentieth-century America. Considering the magnitude of their ambitions, their path unfolded astonishingly according to plan. "When I left the monastery, I had fifteen dollars in my pocket. It's true," Father said in a tone of self-mockery. Then he raised his finger mischievously. "But I also knew that we had many friends who believed in what we were doing and who were willing to help us out until we could get on our feet. Leaving was a calculated gamble."
The group spent their first six months together in western Pennsylvania, in a hunting lodge made available to them by Dom Damasus Winzen, OSB, founder and prior of the Benedictines at Mount Saviour, in New York State's southern tier. Before actually leaving the Franciscans, Father Laurence had written to him for counsel, and Dom Damasus had enthusiastically invited him to Mount Saviour to talk about the group's plans for a foundation. A pioneer in monastic and liturgical renewal himself, Dom Damasus proved to be a sympathetic ally. After listening to Father Laurence's story, he graciously offered the monks temporary use of a lodge that belonged to a novice of his community.
Those six months gave the monks the solitude and stability they needed to initiate a serious monastic foundation, as well as the time to look for a permanent home. Within a few months, their search led them to a beautiful piece of property with an old, broken-down farmhouse on Stanton Road near the village of Cambridge, in upstate New York. Within another six months, the monks had transformed it into a suitable monastery, fully renovated and beautifully landscaped.
But paradise proved to be uninhabitable. Sitting adjacent to what had initially seemed to be an isolated country road, the new monastery turned out to have everything but privacy. "Sort of a fish tank," Father mused. Tourists drove by slowly, gawking at the young men clad in medieval robes; on several occasions the monks actually discovered strangers peering in at them through their front windows as they ate dinner or chanted the monastic hours.
The extreme visibility of the monastery also gave rise to bizarre rumors amongst the local townsfolk that their bearded neighbors were actually draft-dodging hippies who had formed a commune to sit out the Vietnam War. Oddly, noise was also a major problem. Beneath the property in the valley below, summer transformed the sleepy little lake community into a busy resort featuring water-skiing by day and rock music by night. In a memorable summer meeting that lasted late into the night, the monks painfully came to the conclusion that they would have to look for a more suitable location in the general area.
In July of 1967, they came across a promising piece of property for sale on the other side of Cambridge: 300-plus acres of dense woodland on Two-Top Mountain, in the town of White Creek. But claiming it for a monastery would require an immense amount of work. There was an old shack on the property, but no road, and since the soil was completely shale or clay, the hilly land was unsuitable for any kind of farming. What the property did offer, however, was a secluded location of profound beauty. Together the monks weighed the pros and cons, and the majority of the monks prevailed: they decided to take the gamble.
With help from friends they were able to get a down payment on the property as well as a mortgage, and they began the enormous task of building the monastery themselves. For seven months they shuttled back and forth from Stanton Road to the new property, and much of the hardest work fell in the dead of winter. The daily liturgical services served as a steady anchor in what was routinely eight to ten hours of heavy manual work each day, coupled with community meetings that lasted well into the night, as they hammered out the principles of the monastic life they were forging. Given such intensity, a couple of brothers left.
"In retrospect, it seems astonishing, impossible to believe," Father remarked. "We started with practically nothing, philosophy majors owning no more than a vision. We relied on sheer enthusiasm and willpower to make things work, to make up for whatever else was lacking." He paused, as if caught in a dream he was reliving. "Yet I wouldn't trade those days for anything. They were filled with great passion and zeal, and they set the tone for the type of monastic life we live now."
In 1969, with the monastery three years old and finally established in its permanent location, another remarkable thing occurred. A small group of contemplative nuns were looking to form a new monastic community, prompted by many of the same ideals that had originally inspired the monks. Having heard about New Skete, they made contact, and, after visiting the monks, decided to settle nearby, eventually becoming a sister community.
"I sometimes wonder whether I wasn't out of my mind to seriously consider such a thing," Father said, his eyes reflecting the recollection of all that was involved in such a step. Though the monks had discussed the idea of a sister community from the very beginning, no one had expected it to come about so quickly. When the possibility arose, the vision of what the benefits of a male/female community could be outweighed the certain risks, and the community decided to move forward with the idea. In the years that have followed the nuns' foundation, the result, though not without difficulties, has been something entirely distinctive, no doubt even prophetic, in modern monasticism. New Skete has demonstrated that monastic life can accommodate men and women in a spiritual communion that is fruitful for all concerned, celibate yet free of unhealthy attitudes toward human sexuality.
Just like the monks, the nuns, too, had a cold baptism. Connecting with New Skete, not to mention becoming part of it, meant integrating themselves into the existing mindset of the community, no easy proposition. Father Laurence was the founder and leader of the community, and part of their adjustment involved accepting his leadership. Further, they had to find a means of self-support so that they could build their own monastery and stabilize their way of life. They initially took up residence in the workshops of the men's monastery, while looking for property where they could build.
To achieve their hopes, they did whatever work they could find. Several nuns did housework for local people and others performed hospital and secretarial work in Cambridge. Two learned iconography and the fabrication of liturgical vestments for the monastery. One nun even began an upholstery and drapery business.
Next, because the nuns were starting with nothing, the monks agreed to purchase a piece of property for them near Cambridge, a small farmhouse that was three miles from the monks. Though the farmhouse was far too small to serve as a permanent residence, the property included a hilly pasture across the road with an idyllic view, which was a suitable site for the monastery. This meant that once the nuns' new monastery was habitable, the monks could sell the smaller house to pay off the mortgage. The plan worked. After the monks built the shell of the monastery, the nuns were able to finish the inside. By taking shop courses at a nearby high school, they learned the skills necessary for building, and within a year they had settled into their own monastery. Thus, New Skete acquired the unusual characteristic of being a modern male and female monastic community.
At the time of the Seeker's visit, the community numbered twenty-three between the monks and the nuns. This was before the creation of the married couples' community, the Companions, which began in 1982, adding another eight members to the mix. The Seeker asked if there were limits to how big the community intended to grow, but Father Laurence just shrugged philosophically and said, "We've had many people come and go, so at times the number has been more, but basically we've remained the same size for several years now."
He went on to explain that since their spartan beginnings, the monks had developed several stable means of supporting their community. They breed German shepherd dogs, offer an obedience-training program for dogs of all breeds, run a mail order business specializing in smoked meats and cheeses, and publish liturgical books and music. The nuns, meanwhile, have developed a thriving cheesecake business, and continue to produce liturgical vestments and icons. The Seeker was impressed and said so, but Father Laurence just shrugged and said, "We simply did what we had to do."
When conversation is good, it builds steadily, without self-consciousness; Father's manner, relaxed and open, made it feel natural for the Seeker to introduce more personal concerns, and while Father Laurence could have easily deflected these for another time, he listened patiently and without condescension to what must have seemed the accumulation of years of questioning and ambivalence. There is no need to recount these concerns at length, only to say that they reflected the Seeker's own spiritual confusion and frustration, and his singular desire to break through them, to come to real self-understanding and integration. More than anything Father said, what moved the Seeker was the monk's sincere interest in him, and the fact that the Seeker could talk about these issues openly with him.
He was so immersed in the conversation that he barely noticed the sign that said Cambridge, signaling their approach to the general environs of the monastery. Father noted the hazy outline of the Green Mountains in the distance and mentioned that New Skete was a couple of miles from the Vermont border as the crow flies. Then he motioned to the right toward a distinct pair of peaks, set like beautifully proportioned breasts along the eastern horizon. "The monastery's tucked on the other side of those hills."
They descended into the outskirts of the village, passing through a corridor of flaming maple trees that seemed to glow in the soft light of late afternoon. Cambridge is small, a "one-stoplight town" as the locals will tell you, and passing through it took all of a couple of minutes. Riding by the Cambridge Hotel with its tacky "Home of Pie a-la-Mode" sign, Father noted that the famous chef James Beard once remarked that he had had the worst fried chicken of his life there. Aside from that, the village has precious little notoriety: an overgrown graveyard marking the site of the second-oldest Methodist church in the United States is about the extent of it. As they traveled eastward out of the village on Ash Grove Road, Father soon pointed out the nun's monastery, half hidden on the hillside, and honked the horn as they drove by two of the nuns walking their dogs along the road.
The Seeker expressed his pleasure at the remoteness of the surroundings, and Father nodded in agreement. "Monastic life requires a certain degree of solitude, and this location has served us well in preserving that." Then he added pointedly, "But we're not hermits." Along the road a local farmer waved to them as he waited to move his herd of black-and-white Holsteins across the road.
Soon, the car slowed and turned onto a narrow gravel road marked New Skete Road. The Seeker also noted a Dead End sign and wondered to himself whether it wasn't some local road commissioner's idea of a joke. Immediately the road began to trace a gradual incline, flanked by rows of white birchhundreds of themand brilliant sugar maples. Purple asters and goldenrod blossomed abundantly beneath the trees, composing a pleasing vision of warmth and color. Father pointed toward the top of the mountain, looming up ahead of them and set majestically against the deep blue sky.
"You can't make it out from down here, but when the sun is just right you can see a gilded cross at the top from the road. Brother Stavros tacked it up there near a spot he likes to hike to." They continued to climb steadily up the mountain, past broad oaks and a dilapidated shack that was barely visible through the thick tangles of locust and sumac. Father described it as the decaying testament of the former owner, a local lawyer who kept it as a low-profile getaway. By the time the monks bought the property it was in complete disrepair; all they could use it for was a chicken house, which they did for several years. "You can still smell the evidence even now, years after we've stopped using it."
They passed by a small pond; a lone mallard glided peacefully back and forth. As the Seeker watched its movement, dust clouds from their ascent spread out behind them. Further up the hill a honey-colored doe and her fawn emerged from the woods. They paused momentarily, then bounded across the road and disappeared on the other side.
The Seeker had been so put at ease by nature's welcome and the serenity of the landscape that he was quite unprepared for what he saw next. Rounding the final bend, he was suddenly dazzled by the sight of brilliant gold domes, leaping like candle flames atop a beautifully rustic church. To an American used to typically Western religious architecture the vision was stunning. This edifice wasn't something simply to be admired: its beauty accosted him, becoming the context for whatever else he would experience. Even the landscaping around the church supported the space without diminishing it, integrating juniper bushes, Japanese maples, flowers, and stone. In front of the church, next to where the car stopped, a majestic golden locust grew from a carefully constructed rock island.
Father smiled slightly, as if reading the young man's thoughts.
The Seeker really didn't know what to say. He just stared for a few moments, taking it all in. The church had been designed and built by the monks themselves, in seventy-three days. It was loosely patterned after the wooden churches of northern Russia. The gabled roofs, supporting the smaller domes, were covered with cedar shingles and rose from one another naturally. The principal tent-style support holding up the largest dome reached effortlessly toward the sky, no doubt carrying with it the hopes and aspirations of many a monk and pilgrim. The church stood at the heart of the monastic complex, the first thing visitors see when they visit the monastery. It is an appropriate introduction. Such a sight gives one something to ponder immediately. The other monastery buildings flank it to the north and west sides, partially obscured by con-color firs and Austrian pines.
"Why don't you get out here and look around," Father said. "It's almost time for vespers and I still have a few things to do beforehand. The service will last about an hour and a quarter, and then we'll have some supper with the whole community. We'll get you settled down in the guest house later on."
The priest smiled and patted the Seeker's shoulder. "Wandering through darkness isn't pleasant, but if you're patient, your eyes adjust." The Seeker wanted to say something to him in reply, some expression of thanks, but he drew a blank. Thanks seemed altogether insufficient. After an embarrassed silence, he simply nodded and got out of the car. The monk pulled away and the Seeker walked slowly around the driveway toward the entrance, guided by the low shale walls surrounding the church. The exterior was darkly weathered pine, set off by eaves painted dark red. The front doors were red as well, and above the entranceway was an icon of the Transfiguration, the mystery to which the temple was dedicated. Opposite the doorway was a simple tower with two bells; nearby was a larger bell fastened to its own support. Before he could open the door, a brash chipmunk hopped up onto the shale wall and began chattering away at him. The Seeker removed his cap and entered the temple.
Inside it was dark. Several tinted windows allowed narrow shafts of golden light to reflect off the slate floor. He kissed the festal icon and stood off to the side for a moment to collect himself. Incense-laden air, the subtle legacy of years of worship, mixed with his thoughts, quieting them and permitting the many strands of distraction to settle. He breathed deeply several times. A lone figure in a dark robe was lighting oil lamps for the coming service. One by one the lamps came to life, their warm light reflecting off the gilded icons. Though highly stylized, these images colorfully made the saints present and brought to life the mysteries of Christian faith. The temple was filled with them. On the upper walls surrounding the nave of the temple, the Seeker glimpsed Gospel scenes transformed into iconographic murals. Everything blended gracefully into a harmonious whole. He felt the deep stillness.
From outside, a sudden, sharp rapping on wood rhythmically began to build up momentum. He later learned that this was the semandron, a six-foot-long board struck repeatedly with a wooden mallet fifteen minutes before the service. A tradition has it that this was the way Noah called the animals into the ark. Somehow the Seeker felt certain that the monks here wouldn't buy that.
As the hammering slowly died down, he sat on one of the benches lining the narthex and waited. Soon the church began to fill with monks and nuns. Entering from the side vestibule, they made the sign of the cross and bowed reverently, touching a hand to the floor. To touch the floor meant that you had to bow fully, from the waist. It was the gesture a vassal made before an emperor in Byzantine times, and made the Seeker feel a bit uncomfortable when he first observed it. He didn't like the image of a slave. As he thought about it, however, he started feeling foolish and petty: this wasn't any earthly lord they were attending to. They were coming here to worship, entering the presence of the Lord of the universe, the King of the ages, who is infinitely more than some Byzantine despot. How does one say that properly with the body? Perhaps touching the floor wasn't such a silly idea after all.
Despite the increasing number of monks and nuns, the temple remained very quietno unnecessary noise, no coughing or hacking. Each took a position in the choir and waited. From the side shadows, Father Laurence entered, now robed in a flowing black riassa, with a silver pectoral cross hanging from his neck. He bowed and went into the altar area to vest. As if on cue, the large bell from outside the temple sounded three times, followed by the joyful peal of the other bells, announcing the evening service. This was definitely more impressive than the semandron. With the bells outside ringing various rhythmic patterns, the priest began censing inside the church, the gentle jingling of the censer's chains discernible despite the bells outdoors. Rich curls of incense smoke drifted upward toward the ceiling, rising throughout the temple in his wake, first within the sanctuary, then from the nave. He was in no rush. He moved with dignity throughout the whole of the temple, censing each icon deliberately. To finish, he stood on the solea and censed the worshippers, who bowed their heads in response. The peal trailed off and three monks entered the temple from the back, taking their places in choir. From the darkness of the sanctuary, the priest returned to the solea with a large paschal candle in his hand and intoned, "Wisdom, stand aright! Behold Christ, the light of the universe!"
Immediately the choir responded, in a haunting Byzantine melody, chanting the ancient hymn " Radiant Light." As they were singing, the candles throughout the temple were lit, followed by the ceiling lights, turning the dark temple into a pavilion of light. On the iconsstasis, or icon screen, that separated the sanctuary from the nave, the Theotokos and Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint John the Baptist, and Saints Sergius, Herman, and Nil reverently pointed toward the central icon in the apse which now revealed Christ enthroned in glory. The priest chanted a centuries-old prayer:
O great and exalted God, who alone are immortal and dwell in unapproachable light! In your wisdom you created the entire universe. You separated light from darkness, giving the sun charge of the day, and the moon and stars, the night. Now, at this very hour, you permit us, sinful as we are, to approach you with our evening hymns of praise and glory. In your love for us, direct our prayers as incense in your sight, and accept them as a delightful fragrance. Throughout this present evening and the night to come, fill us with your peace. Clothe us in the armor of light, rescue us from the terror that creeps about in darkness, and give us that sleep you designed to soothe our weakness, a sleep free of all evil dreams.
For you are good and full of love for all of us, O God, and we give you glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: now and forever and unto ages of ages.
The six-part choir responded with a resounding "Amen." The Seeker believed they meant it. Throughout the service he stood in the back transfixed, awakened to a new universe. Sight, sound, and scent consorted to invoke the hidden yearnings of the human spirit, the quest he felt so strongly in his own heart. Harmonies blended with seeming effortlessness as the choir chanted traditional Eastern Orthodox hymns that had been translated in a fresh way into modern English:
Shadows of the law now fade in the light of divine grace! Like that bush so long ago, unconsumed though the flames raged on, so, O lady, you brought forth your Son, while remaining a virgin as before. Where once there stood a pillar of fire, now the sun of justice shines forth for all. Moses, too, now gives way to Christ, the saviour of our souls! (Dogmaticon of Tone Two)
The service was a feast of the senses, as well as the mind and heart, that moved him beyond words. It swept him up into its spirit. He had attended several Orthodox Christian services before, but none quite like this. Here, in this small chapel in upstate New York, he felt the wonder of liturgy in a manner unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Here was his own identification with the story of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who in the tenth century sent ambassadors to all of the religious centers of his day, trying to find a faith suitable for his kingdom. Unimpressed by excursions elsewhere, when his envoys returned from Constantinople they reported a totally unique and moving experience: "The Greeks led us to where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men. . . ."
Once one experiences this, everything changes.
Life never seems to prepare us sufficiently for epiphanies. By definition they come upon us suddenly, dazzling us by their raw power. They are not magical intrusions from another world, but reality, naked and without shame. Their very ordinariness shimmers with unexpected depth, which is why they take us by such surprise. It does not matter whether they occur in the majesty of Hagia Sophia or in the elegant simplicity of a wooden chapel, the effect is the same. In the Seeker's own case, whatever else he was living with, his confusion and fears, this unmistakable realization leapt out at him: God dwells here among these people. In the very palpability of their worship he knew this was so, and suddenly all of his other questions were put into clearer perspective. They were illumined in a cleansing moment of worship that left him changed. How so he dared not describe at that moment, other than to know it had occurred. "This is what has been missing," he thought. "I've had it wrong all along."
What he encountered transcended all his doubts and confusion: knowing this dynamic beauty would be enough. It hardly surprised him when the Gospel chanted at the end of the service was the story of Thomas, who vowed he would believe in the resurrection only if he touched Christ's wounds. There were no revelations, no visions, just the simple poverty of Christ's words to the apostle Thomas: "Put your finger here and see my hands. R each out your hand and put it into my side. Do not doubt, but believe" (John 20:27). He wanted to, for the first time in his life.
That was many years ago. The first days of that stay turned into weeks, which in turn became months. They were the prologue of a journey that Seeker is still making in union with us, as a member of our community. This book is not about him. Nor is it about this monastery per se. Rather, it is about discovering the principles of an integrated spiritual life and authentic happiness. We shall not hesitate to draw from our own experience as monastics to illustrate the ways in which these principles take shape concretely in our lives. Throughout, we shall return often to the experience of the Seeker, as well as that of the other monks and nuns like him. We do this consciously, trusting that this will also be of interest to those who are not monastics. The spiritual journey involves the interplay of the heart with life, and the longer we travel this road the more we are convinced that it is every human being's journey. It is not of the essence that ours takes place in a monastery. If you listen carefully, you realize that the world itself is a cloister, worthy of awe and respect.
Monastics or not, the universal human problem is that we're often too busy to listen. We go about our lives forgetting who we are. Therefore, what follows in these pages is a deliberate attempt to present a spiritual vision that is of relevance to anyone seriously interested in living life in a more abundant, fruitful manner. By reflecting on the ebb and flow of our own monastic life, we also hope to address not simply monastics, but universal needs and desires extending well beyond the confines of the monastic life.
As Father Laurence said to Brother James in the kitchen yesterday while they were making tomato sauce, "We have to be sure to mention that what characterizes a monk's life are the questions that consume him, the same questions that all human beings have to face to truly know themselves. After all, there's a monastic, contemplative dimension to every human being's life, monastic or not. We've simply chosen to pursue this in a professional way. Now could I have that garlic, please?"
We don't want everyone to become monks. Nevertheless, we do believe that monasticism has the capacity to speak universally, to monastics and nonmonastics alike, because of its singular concern with ultimate issues, with what real living is about. You need not be a monk to share these questions and reflections. You need not be religious or pious, either! Mull over them patiently, in an atmosphere of silence and thoughtfulness, and you may discover that they are indeed your own.
Table of Contents
|Epilogue In the End, Happiness||308||(7)|
|Bibliography Understanding Scripture: Suggested Reading||321||(2)|