Our Monastic Spirituality class retreat to the monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia was one that I will remember for a long time after my time at SEBC. Going into the weekend, I possessed various expectations: to be alone often which would afford me ample time to read and write some letters to friends, to learn more about the daily life of the monks and about Catholic practices, to be able to completely shut out the world because of the environment change, and to basically learn how to infuse or recharge my spiritual life so as to not be distracted throughout the day. I consciously did not make too many loft or grand expectations but chose to view the weekend as a much-needed time of refreshing during my most straining semester at the college.
Some of my expectations were not entirely met after the weekend. I did have a lot of time to read and ended up writing five or so letters to friends that I wanted to encourage. However, there was more “together” time than I expected. We were around each other for large portions of the day which I now see is a valuable tenant of the monastic experience (community). I originally pictured the weekend as being one where we go to the monastery, attend all the set church services, but then spend all of our time alone. However, I am grateful upon further reflection that we were taught some rudimentary elements of the monastic life from Brother Michael. My expectation to learn more about the daily life of the monks and about Catholic practices was met. That may have been one of the most interesting elements of the trip. I pictured a monk as one who was in constant prayer who occasionally would go out and till a garden from sun-up to sun-down. I had no idea that they ran stores, worked in the office, and taught various classes and retreats. My nostalgic picture of a monk who would speak spiritual truisms when asked and be “disconnected” from modern life was shattered.
The environment change did contribute to the benefit of my spiritual life but that did not completely prevent the world from still having its presence felt. The idea that I could completely shut out the noise of the world with merely a change of locale was foolish to begin with. The problem is not the noise of the location or environment but my allowing of the noise to be within my head and heart. I left Birmingham for the weekend but thought about numerous problems, issues, and pressing concerns that were left to be dealt with when I returned. Leaving
Birmingham requires more than a change of location but an actual, cognizant decision to not let those problems control the thought-processes of the day. I did glean many valuable insights from the weekend that have had and hopefully will continue to influence my daily walk with the Lord. Most of them were not revolutionary, earth-shattering truths but were a refreshing or restating of things I have heard, read, or learn from various people.
Brother Michael’s teachings upon the pillars of the monastic life were very beneficial. Silence, solitude, work, community, and prayer are all areas where growth could occur within my own life. The teachings on silence and solitude were likely the most helpful. I think I may be some sort of hybrid between an introvert and an extrovert and feel at ease both alone and in groups of people. However, even when I am alone, I am rarely silent. I have noticed that my devotional times are cluttered with noise-whether it is the constant questions, thoughts, or ideas that are running through my mind or some music I have in the background. If I am to turn inward and pay attention to the still small voice, I’ve got to learn what Brother Michael called the “language of the Spirit.” I’ve got to learn to be silent. I also appreciated the monk’s comments about silence and solitude being the birth place of self-realization. Brother Michael said that “Self-realization is the danger of silence. You will learn who you are and who you are not when you become silent.” If I am to know myself accurately, I have got to be still and quiet before the Lord.
Brother Michael’s comments on community were very relevant for me because of my life within the dorms of SEBC. Many of the things he taught were more of an affirmation or restatement of many of the things I have learned living around thirty other guys for three years: there is no community without vulnerability, community is a choice, being in a crowd is not being in a community, and that we are meant to share both our joys and sorrows in, with, and for the community. His distinction between “being alone” in the midst of community and “being lonely” was a good one. The cure for loneliness is what we crave the most- an affirming, gentle voice from another, a time of fellowship where life is shared. Loneliness can be cured by community. His statements about the subject were reminiscent of some things I’ve read in the past from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Frederick Buechner. Despite denominational differences, all the speakers have essentially affirmed that community is necessary for the Christian life. Community is not only necessary but also the testing ground for our spirituality. It is easy to think highly of one’s spirituality when it is not put to the test. Loving your neighbor as yourself is easy when you are not around your neighbor much or when your neighbor is very lovable. Community is a helpful rejoinder from the Lord that we are not as spiritual as we think we are.
While at the monastery, I was struck with how the monks listened to one another. Brother Michael pointed out and explained that during services one side of the monks would sing a portion of the liturgy as the other listened and vice versa. He expressed the necessity of listening to not only God’s word but also God’s word through his people. Many times I fail to be a good listener. I consciously hear what is being said and disingenuously let the person know I understand but am not really listening. I usually think of what I am going to respond with while the other is speaking instead of just really stopping to give an ear. The retreat encouraged me to abandon my fickle listening practices and truly listen with the ear of my heart not only to the Lord but also to people. One can never reach the world or meet others’ needs if he or she completely lacks the ability to thoughtfully listen.
The retreat has already admonished me to pay attention more to the simplicity and beauty of contemplative prayer. As I have reflected, I am making decisions to not just set aside times of prayer but cultivating what Brother Michael referred to as an “attitude of prayer.” I know I am not called to be a monk whose sole ministry is contemplative prayer but I am called to be with the Lord. Contemplative prayer is an avenue to “be” with the Lord at all times. The trip also gave me a better understanding of Catholic spirituality. I have met various Catholics before this trip and have had conversations about numerous things within their religion. They are not to be demonized because they hold a different viewpoint on justification by faith than I do. The trip also has affected the time I spend in reflection and solitude about my daily choices and actions. I am more cognizant that the Lord’s presence is always near and that I am to minister to him by ministering to others well. My education at SEBC, my job, my relationships with friends and foes, my reading and other things I do for enjoyment should all be extensions of loving him well and “being” with him daily.