I have been rereading a publication from 1964, the year that the Monastery of Christ in the Desert was founded. The booklet, or really an expanded vocational brochure, is called, “Come to the Mountain.” The text is by the famous Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968), known as “Father Louis” in his abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Merton wrote “Come to the Mountain” for his Trappist brothers at Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.
For me, as a monk for nearly fifty years, the text is still a worthwhile read. For those interested, the monks of Snowmass have the entire booklet on their website, which can be downloaded. See: snowmassmonks.com
Merton begins his work, “Come to the Mountain,” with a quote from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 2, verse 3, which reads:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His Paths.”
This Scripture passage, recently part of our Advent Liturgy, sums up well the purpose of the monastic journey that we monks embrace, but really the journey of all who follow in the footsteps of the Master. This principally means embracing the teachings of our God, which for us Christians is embodied in the life and Person of Jesus Christ and walking, day by day, along the path to God’s House, in the light of the Gospel and by the graces received in the Sacraments of the Church. For monks this is the one and only “way,” and in fact the early followers of Christ, even before they began to be called Christians, were simply known as seekers of “the Way.”
What purpose, precisely, does a monastery hold in society today? Merton penned a response to the question almost sixty years ago, with emphasis on the fact that in a world of so much noise, confusion and conflict, places such as monasteries, dedicated in a particular way to silence, prayer and hospitality, offer the “peace of inner clarity and love,” as Merton describes it, by the road of “discipline and ascetic renunciation.” Those last four words may strike the modern ear as a negative approach, implying that advancement occurs by the way of giving up (abnegation), but that is really what Jesus taught his followers, expressing it as “taking up one’s cross each day” (see Luke 9:23) and walking joyfully in the Lord’s ways.
Merton believes monks seek to “integrate their inner lives,” as he expresses it, not through avoiding what is unpleasant or “running away from problems,” but by confronting reality in all its harshness at times and its very “ordinariness.” This means living in the present, embracing things as they are, and as the famous “Serenity Prayer,” attributed to the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1982 – 1971) says: To accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The monastery is never to be thought of as a place where strife is absent or problems non-existent. Every life has a degree of anguish, strife, suffering; and the faith we possess as a gift from God is no guarantee that problems will vanish if we simply “believe.” We all have to come to terms with life—its fragility, brevity, ups and downs. Life is a mystery, with peaks and valleys, conflict and peace, uncertainty and certainty.
Monks and those who are not monks pass through many of the same trials and errors, joys and sorrows, weaknesses and strengths. We all have qualities and limitations, good points and bad, aspirations and indifference. The individuality of each person, monk or not, is a gift of God, and enriches the entire human race to which we belong. We all grow closer to God (or not), by the choices we make, striving to be faithful to the vocation to which God has called us, finding Christ where we are and at this particular moment in history, and not in an imaginary world or time.
Monastic discipline, which entails the give and take of living under “a Rule and an abbot,” as Saint Benedict describes it, is intended to be the response to a positive call from God, something that is guided by faith and the spiritual wisdom that has been handed down through the centuries. This wisdom is especially embodied for us in Sacred Scripture, the Bible, God’s own Word for the good of humankind. The word “Gospel,” of course, means “Good News,” which is what the Bible is supposed to be for us all, monks or not.
Other wisdom has come down through the ages in the teachings and writings of the ancient Fathers and Mothers of the Church, those early Christian authors, often who were monks or nuns, who through prayerful reflection on the teachings contained in Sacred Scripture, applied those teachings in an eloquent way to the daily life of ordinary persons.
Saint Benedict states in his Rule for Monasteries that his monks are to be “strangers to the ways of the world.” The Latin phrase is also sometimes translated as: “strangers to the world’s way of acting.” At first glance it can appear that Saint Benedict wants his monks to be “above and beyond this world,” as though his monks are superior to what are sometimes called “worldlings.” But that is not the intention of Saint Benedict.
The more likely intent of Benedict in his notion of being a “stranger to the ways of the world” has to do with the cynicism which selfless charity is met with in many corners outside of the Christian context. Another way of saying what Saint Benedict intends is that nothing whatever should prevent his monks, and any Christian, from following Christ.
In that sense the world or society is not to be “despised,” but in fact service of neighbor is at the heart of monastic discipline and Christian living in general. If it’s missing, then there is a real failure in embracing the Gospel message. The preference is always to be for the love of Christ and extending that love to all one meets. We don’t live in a vacuum or a cage, but in the open and in the midst of others, day in and day out. That is our challenge and opportunity while we live.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB