While I don’t leave for my trip to visit monasteries until mid January, I was able to make it up to New Melleray Abbey near Peosta, IA for a weekend prior to my departure. I have grown to consider this particular monastery somewhat of a second home. I have felt so welcome, so loved, so encouraged, and so spoken to during my time here.
A reading came to mind today from The Genesee Diary by Henri Nouwen (a book about his 7 month stay at a trappist monastery)…
“Monks go to a monastery to find God. But monks who live in a monastery as if they had found God are not real monks. I came here to come “closer” to God, but if I ever were to make myself believe that I am any closer to God than anyone else, I would just be fooling myself. God should be sought, but we cannot find God. We can only be found by him.
Two passages from Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire about the Kotzker offer a powerful illustration of these paradoxes. In the first passage I read: “A disciple tells the Kotzker his woes: ‘I come from Rizhn. There everything is simple, everything is clear. I prayed and I knew I was praying; I studied and I knew I was studying. Here in Kotzk everything is mixed up, confused; I suffer from it, Rebbe. Terribly. I am lost. Please help me so I can pray and study as before. Please help me to stop suffering.’ The Rebbe peers at his tearful disciple and asks: ‘And who ever told you that God is interested in your studies and your prayers? And what if he preferred your tears and your sufferings?In the second passage it says: “‘Certain experiences may be transmitted by language, others-more profound-by silence; and then there are those that cannot be transmitted, not even by silence.’ [The Kotzker.] Never mind. Who says that experiences are made to be shared? They must be lived. That’s all. And who says that truth is made to be revealed? It must be sought. That’s all. Assuming it is concealed in melancholy, is that any reason to seek elsewhere?”
These passages have a Kierkegaardian quality. I can quite well understand that Heschel was struck by the parallel between the Kotzker and Kierkegaard. But there also is a mood that I find reflected in the early desert fathers. God cannot be understood; he cannot be grasped by the human mind. The truth escapes our human capacities. The only way to come close to it is by a constant emphasis on the limitations of our human capacities to “have” or “hold” the truth. We can neither explain God nor his presence in history. As soon as we identify God with any specific event or situation, we play God and distort the truth. We can only be faithful in our affirmation that God has not deserted us but calls us in the middle of all the unexplainable absurdities of life. It is very important to be deeply aware of this. There is a great and subtle temptation to suggest to myself or others where God is working and where not, when he is present and when not, but nobody, no Christian, no priest, no monk, has any “special” knowledge about God. God cannot be limited by any human concept or prediction. He is greater than our mind and heart and perfectly free to reveal himself where and when he wants.”