Here I would like to write something about what Thomas Merton calls “monastic renunciation.” This theme is presented in Merton’s 1964 monastic brochure written for the Trappist monks of Snowmass, Colorado. The brochure is called “Come to the Mountain,” and is available on that monastery’s website. It is worth downloading and reading. This is a continuation of my reflections on Merton’s text from 1964.
By going into the desert or the mountains, either literally or figuratively, to join a monastery, a monk or nun makes a serious change with the more usual patterns of human and social life. That doesn’t necessarily mean the entire world of the new monk is turned upside down from what he or she previously knew, but there are some serious alterations made nonetheless! Time is no longer completely one’s own, for example, when a defined horarium or daily schedule is necessarily taken up when entering a monastery.
Some years ago I challenged a potential candidate to our way of life with the question of why would he would want to give up his laudable lifestyle, with a secure job and relatively “stress free” life, including active participation in a Catholic parish, to take up the more regimented and at times challenging life in the cloister. Furthermore, he was fairly free to get up in the morning when he so chose, work when he wanted to, and all the rest that could be very appealing to many in our culture. Why get up every day at 3:40 a.m., which our monastic schedule requires?, I asked him. The candidate assured me our life was really what he wanted, involving more engagement on his part for the things of God and a more disciplined approach to finding God. That man finally came and remained and is an (overall) happily professed Benedictine monk here.
What the candidate described above was seeking, and presumably found here, was engagement in a life of some amount of renunciation, wherein a deeper life could be found. Does that mean entering the monastery entails an evasion of the duties of life and avoidance of responsibility? Merton states that embracing monastic life should be about living “in fidelity to the mysterious and personal covenant” between oneself and God. In Benedictine community life, living under a Rule and an abbot, the monk seeks God, but normally is not going to despise the life he might have had before. Rather, he seeks a “new direction,” or what the poet T. S. Eliot called, “a further union, a deeper communion;” which is not to say that this cannot be achieved outside a monastery, but for those who have perceived and discerned a call to the monastic or religious life, that is what is being sought and nothing else really.
Merton says that not all those who might experience a strong desire “to see God” or to live in the Lord’s presence in an intentional or formal way in monastic life, are in fact called to such a life. And “evasion from the world,” may in fact be a form of sickness or frustration, and not a genuine call to a life of solitude and prayer in a monastery.
But there remains God’s call of some, though not many in this day and age, who are mysteriously invited to what is called the consecrated life, devoted to liturgical and solitary prayer, manual labor, sacred study and all the rest that comprises the way of life of the monk. What is very encouraging in these times is that many people who are not called to be monks or nuns, do feel the attraction to the values usually associated with monastic life, and adapt them into their daily existence outside of the cloister. In the Benedictine context there are called “secular oblates.” It’s the Benedictine version of “Third Orders,” that the Franciscans, Carmelites and other Orders in the Church have.
Many of these men and women “in the world” make an effort to connect with a monastery for regular or even frequent stays in a monastery, including Christ in the Desert, in order to find encouragement and a deepening of their personal spiritual journey to God. “God wills for humans an ordered and happy life on earth,” Merton writes, and the means of achieving this are numerous. Monastic life is one such path. At its best it is also a catalyst to other seekers of God to find nourishment at the same wells from which the monks slake their thirst.
I agree with Merton that “a life that merely accepts without question all the world’s values. . . empties the mystery of redemption of all its seriousness.” What is required is a real awareness of the good that is to be found in our world, God’s creation, and in the souls of “people of good will,” all who are made in the image and likeness of God, and who are called to union with God. This does not negate the belief in the existence of evil and sin in the world, but coupled with it is a call to Christian hope, which holds that evil can be overcome by the pursuit of Truth and Goodness, which we hold is to be found in the Person of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. This process entails fidelity to the pursuit of virtue, the rejection of sin and the ordering one’s life to reflect Gospel values and through adherence to the Body of Christ in the Church.
Every monastic and domestic family has a call to promote peace, order, forgiveness and love, but this always entails some amount of sacrifice. And what is sacrifice? The origin of the word is a combination of “making” and “holy,” meaning to act in such a way that something holy or sacred emerges. The imagery used for this is often related to the notion of burning or being on fire. For a monk, sacrifice means the giving of oneself, to be consumed, not for its own sake, but for the good of others. Merton points out, “This is the real test of the monk, and there is no saying when the demand will come upon him, and the fire will be lit under him by God.” Invariably, though, it will occur! In other words, regularly, even daily, readiness to be a person for God and others is paramount in the monastic enterprise. It has always been that way and always will be.
The meaning of monastic renunciation, therefore, is not about abhorrence to what surrounds us in life, either inside or outside the cloister, but lovingly embracing whatever may come one’s way, and thereby acquiring peace and inner freedom, the discovery of one’s true self, as loved and accepted by God. The daily renunciation in monastic life, or in any life, is not about feeling good or bad, but about the willing what is good and the choice of doing good. Very much biblically based, forgetting oneself and one’s desires, seeking not to please self, but God and neighbor, is the task at hand for all of us.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB