“In Your mercy confer on me a conversation pleasing to You, the patience to wait for You, and the perseverance to long for You. Grant me a perfect end, Your holy presence.”
– Saint Benedict of Nursia
He intimidated me on that first day I met him. He must have all the answers, I thought. Surely he knows the secret things of God, learns them in his five daily prayers.
I sat in the back of the room as the Trappist monk spoke about how his free-form writing had helped him encounter the dark spaces of his own soul. He’d stroke his chest-length white beard as he laughed. He seemed so casual and approachable at that moment. I imagined if I were to see him out in regular clothes, I might wonder if he was a biker. Yet here in this place, he seemed otherworldly.
Brother Mark is one of the dwindling number of Cistercians that make their home at the monastery I visit a couple of times a year. It’s less than an hour from my home and yet when you enter the sprawling grounds, you feel like you are entering an inherently sacred space. From the Abbey Church’s towering ceiling to the rolling lawn and lake nestled between massive Georgia pines, you truly feel minuscule against the backdrop of the testament that the monastery is to God’s majesty.
We all spend our lives in the slow, stumbling surrender to the mystery that is God and that God would entrust us to be people who represent Jesus in this broken world.
I had come for a retreat in which several of the brothers taught about writing and journaling. Brother Mark shared with our small group about his struggles with anger and the temptation to squabble with the men he chose to live his life among.
What—monks arguing? Of course, deep inside I knew this must be true. They are only human, after all. And yet, I had this image in my mind of the holiness that must set them apart, the pedestal these men must belong on for having chosen this life. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the paradoxes of Brother Mark.
That evening my mother, sister, and I sat in the common room of the retreat guest house. It was the period of “the Great Silence,” the time after compline—the last prayers of the day—when the brothers retreat to their cells until the bells again call them to prayer well before dawn. Yet Brother Mark sat chatting with us about writing, faith, miracles, and dreams. I don’t know what all we discussed; I just know it was the night my illusions shattered.
When he fidgeted his jeans peeked out from below his white habit and black scapular. His signature white socks and black sandals tapped the floor when he spoke. He talked about his experience in the navy, his sister, and the life he chose to leave for this life of prayer and work. Every now and then, he’d check his cell phone tucked away in a holster on his black belt. He had to make sure he hadn’t missed any messages. As the guest master of the retreat house, he was always on call.
Saint Benedict wrote the rule these men live by over 1,500 years ago. There are other patterns of monasticism people live by around the world, but Benedict’s rule added a vow that others left out: stability. He added it to the virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience for those who choose the monastic path.
Esther de Waal writes about the Benedictine vow of stability saying it means “accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God.” Stability is how “the individual may have space and time to enter into his or her personal dialogue with God.”
For the Benedictine, this stability is a literal choice to commit to one community for life. I’ve heard Brother Mark talk about how this choice means committing to the men who you call brother—whether you like them or not. It is also committing to a life of prayer and the work of the monastery. And it is contrary to everything the modern world, and even the modern church, says about the disposability of all things in this life.
Having lived on three continents in the past thirteen years, I can’t imagine this kind of rootedness to a place or a people. Most of us won’t choose an intentional community. So, how can we bring this virtue into our unstable hearts and worlds?
Will we dig down deep and find God on this day? In this place? With these people?
Brother Mark says, “without self-knowledge, real communion is not possible with anyone. True growth in this area is slow. Which is the normal path most of us follow. A slow, often painful process of purgation towards deeper union.” The world around us may be constantly changing, but we can dig our roots down into the life of Christ that takes a lifetime to explore and develop in us.
When the darkness closes in around us, will we still know that God is good? When the storms rage inside, will we be able to abide in the truth that Jesus will be with us to the very end of the age? What keeps us anchored to God in times like these? We, too, need something to keep us steadfast when it would be easier to cut ties and run from communities of faith that seem to be crumbling all around us.
There is no place we can magically find God, no one Christian tradition or person who holds the answers. We all spend our lives in the slow, stumbling surrender to the mystery that is God and that God would entrust us to be people who represent Jesus in this broken world.
The truth is—we all live by vows. We all live by a rule. The question is: What do we choose to anchor ourselves to? Will we dig down deep and find God on this day? In this place? With these people?
I’ve heard Brother Mark say that those who choose the monastery do so not because they are stronger in faith than others, but weak. They know how much they need the structure, the prayer, or the refinement a life of stability brings.
Sometimes when I feel unable to hold onto the Vine, I read one of Brother Mark’s short poems. I remember the universal nature of our struggles, that this man that has devoted fifty years of his life to one community still has to work out his vows every single day.
Then I sit still.
And I pray.