New Melleray Abbey • Peosta, IA

Because New Melleray Abbey is the 2nd oldest Trappist Monastery (1849), stepping upon the grounds has a sense of sacredness that immediately induces reverence for the people and the place. The interior of the church is pleasingly textured in stone, which, while aesthetically pleasing, it also awakens various senses to texture, sound, aroma, etc. Upon my arrival to New Melleray, one of my traditional first stops is to ensure I place foot in the church, whether it be time for prayer or not. There is something about this church in particular that is both venerated and pacifying all within one step.

Coming to New Melleray has begun to feel like a homecoming of sorts – faces are more recognizable and interactions have deepened. Many asked how my journey is going and I’m able to respond in a way that is honest and humbling, which is ultimately the most helpful for any capacity of progression. What is it about the familiarity of a location that can seem so soothing, so comforting, so relaxing? And, more importantly, how can one prevent themselves from allowing that to form complacency, satisfaction, or a disregard for self development (ultimately self discovery)?

New Melleray has become a space that I long and hope to resemble in my own life; alongside my comfort in familiarity, I am challenged by engaging conversation, testing reading, overwhelming insight, and the frequently appealing (and terrifying) silence. The reason I desire to mimic such a space is because complacency has become far too easily appearing in my life and I have found it to be extraordinarily deceiving. Each moment in which I find myself satisfied with my amount of striving, seeking, or attentiveness, I know something is wrong – because, for me, to be a recipient of total self-satisfaction is contrary to the life I’d like to live.

Since I’ve been making an attempt to study the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Abbas and Ammas) of the 3rd and 4th centuries, this topic has continued to surface in conversations.  These Abbas and Ammas would be asked by seeking pilgrims whom embody great desperation and longing, to be given a word. The tradition is for these seeking pilgrims to enter the desert and cry out to the Abbas and Ammas, ‘give me a word.’ Upon further conversation I was told that one of the responses (all of which tended to be short and potent and can be found in numerous readings on the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers) to a pilgrim coming to an Abba or Amma was “Flee forgetfulness.“ Or, “Flee the land of forgetfulness.” What in the world does that mean? To me, it means to not live oblivious, to let go of the unimportant in order to hold on to the significant. Personally, I’ve encountered this deception in numerous ways – from my false ideas of progress and accomplishment in daily tasks, and my misconceptions of success, to my visions of prosperity (whatever that really means). More directly, what am I really doing in life that has an eternal impact, or at the very least an impact in which will carry on upon this earth? In short, I’m fully aware that it is the love I give and receive: the relationships I truly engage in (and remain for the highs and lows), the encounters with those I may never see again, the small smiles and gestures that come from a place a genuine reverence and love. While this may be a complex way of describing the golden rule, in these Trappist monasteries there is another rule by which they follow – the rule of St. Benedict – in which it is stated, “…This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of the body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else…” (Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 72. The Good Zeal of Monks).

I’m often overwhelmed by the vast knowledge and insights provided by my encounters, readings, and even the wisdom of silence. Luckily, it hasn’t created a chaotic experience but more of an easing into understanding. I’m not sure this would be possible without the silence, space, and freedom I feel amongst these locations and experiences. The monastic life is geared toward self-discovery, in the sense that it tends to awaken one’s true self. While there is nothing easy about the experience, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier as the days go on, it is edifying. It’s as if each day brings me a little closer to my true self at which I’ll never arrive – for arrival is actually defeat, in that it imposes a false attainment or achievement. The only accomplishment is to continue day after day. The only satisfaction is to strive hour after hour. The most heightened of joys come from those seemingly small self-discoveries that lead me to better love and be loved by others.

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From Tales of a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk:

The Mountain of Decision

“How long have you been a monk?” I asked.

“A real monk? Not long. It took me fifty years to get up the Mountain of Decision.”

“Do you have to see first before you decide, or is it that you decide first and then you see?”

“If you’ll take my advice, “ he said, “you’ll drop the questions, and go right up the mountain.”

The Audacity of Humility

I walked up to an old, old monk and asked him, “What is the audacity of humility?” This man had never met me before, but do you know what his answer was? “To be the first to say ‘I love you.’”

Abbey of Gethsemani • Trappist, KY

The Abbey of Gethsemani was the first monastery I have ever traveled to, so there was something delightful about returning to ‘where it all began.’ While I now sense a greater home at New Melleray (due to my more frequent stays and being from Iowa), I’m still so thankful and reverent of the introduction to the monastic life that Gethsemani gave me.

Gethsemani is the oldest of the Trappist monasteries in the US – founded in December of 1848 and made an abbey in 1851. For most, Gethsemani may be most well known for being the home of Thomas Merton. While that is what initially led me to a Trappist monastery (Thomas Merton’s writings), that is certainly not what has carried me through this continued vision and eventual pilgrimage. It’s more as if the readings of Thomas Merton planted a seed which grew into question after question, which finally led to this pilgrimage (which in turn has led to even more questions).

While my last post possibly seemed to oversimplify the life of the monastic experience, I think it’s important to re instill the concept that potency is found in simplicity, that depth is only where there’s a surface, that pain and darkness reside with those who are willing to feel/deal/experience them; allowing for the contrast of the greatest healing and greatest light.

It’d be easy to say that the life of a monk or nun is simple – that they go about their day in perfect harmony in community, prayer, work, etc. It’s nearly a fantasy of the world that this is the case. But it’s important to note that each monk or nun is not immune to the experiences of those without a monastic or even religious vocation.

A monk at a previous location said to me, “to really say yes to God, you see your limitations are not depriving you.” In other words, how are my pains, frustrations, uncontrollables creating me to be more of a service to others, and ultimately God? While the frequent Biblical reference here may be to that of Paul discussing the ‘thorn in his side’ (2nd Corinthians 12:7), it may be more familiar language for me to discuss the implications of depression, death, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, pain, uncertainty, etc.  Is it ‘just’ the humility of owning our limitations or is it more than that?

To me, it’s more than that. None of us want to be entirely alone. Our limitations are not only connections but also connections that practically force humility and vulnerability.  While my initial reaction to these limitations are to hide them and myself, I realize that without these vulnerabilities, I’d certainly have a tendency to isolate (even more), to hide (even more), to run away (even more), to disappear (even more), etc. With these vulnerabilities, I have a lean towards desperation and need of connection, to know I’m not alone, to know there is healing, to know there is better, to know there is light.

I was so blessed to meet with a monk who seemed to fully understand what I said when I told him, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, why I’m doing this, but I know I’m supposed to be.”  When we see the ‘supposed to,’ or the ‘meant to,’ or the ‘made for this,’ isn’t that a glimpse of light to grasp onto and continue with? Doesn’t that allow us to overlook the anguish, the pains, the loneliness, the desires, the temptations, and the distractions? With that being said, is it only when we embrace our limitations and vulnerabilities that we are able to more fully become who we are meant to be? It’s much easier for me to continue in this pilgrimage with the acknowledgement that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know I’m meant to be doing this.

“…Fundamentally, as Max Picard points out, it probably comes to this: living in a silence which so reconciles the contradictions within us that, although they remain within us, they cease to be a problem. (of Word of Silence, P. 66-67.) … Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values which make them trivial by comparison.” Thomas Merton, from Thoughts in Solitude

Breathing room

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.”

 

New Melleray Abbey New Melleray Abbey

home away from home

Many people ask me why I call this ’17 spaces.’ The reason for this is that for every Trappist Monastery I have traveled to, I have felt it to be a free space for me to explore, learn, grow, ask hard questions of myself and the world, and ultimately deepen my sense and understanding of love and the importance that holds.

I have found that encountering free space in my life has been the most enlightening provision for self discovery. With meetings of this free space, I am allowed to be fluid, to be right or wrong, to ask or not ask, to empty and fill my mind, to challenge societal imposed traditions, to grasp gigantic concepts in few or no words, to smile at the beauty of a stream, to ignore the rush of the cars, etc. To me, free space never tells one what is right or wrong, it simply provides the limitless bounds for one to discover what is right or wrong for them.

These photos are from the Monastery in Peosta, IA.

the lonely tree