A Monastic Life Experience: David Buttrick
Reflection: “What is a monastery?”
By David Buttrick
I had a great time on my Monastic Life Retreat!
Before I visited Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, I had been living on a small organic vegetable farm for several years. I was eager for a journey. I wanted to learn about life in a Christian monastery. I enjoy new experiences and learning about different cultures but I also wanted to see if some of the values I had learned were also cherished by the monks. After all, from what little I knew about monasticism both Western and Eastern, I’d heard that regular periods of manual labor served not only to finance and support the community physically, but also as a kind of moving meditation; a way of losing one’s self-consciousness through discipline, service and interaction with the natural world. These days most of us Americans don’t really use our bodies so much as play with them. One older monk I spoke with compared the battery-caged laying hens that dispense our mega-cheap omelets with the young cyber-go-getters he has seen trotting in serried ranks on treadmills in front of TVs at the gym.
No pain, no gain? Of course we frequently associate monks with renunciation: gnarled hermits living in holes in the ground, emerging only for a weekly wedge of cabbage, whipping themselves with thorns if they should accidentally sneeze. (There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian that comes to mind.) To be sure, in the distant past there were some who mostly fit the stereotype. But things are sure different after Vatican II: at Guadalupe, we ate as much cabbage as we wanted, every day. With dressing on feast-days. But, whether we talk about the fourth century, the twelfth, or the twenty-first, there echoes the call of Jesus: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, will save it…”; “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”; “if the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you,” etc… At Guadalupe, there are no cellphones, we keep silence during half of the day, monks need express permission to leave the grounds, there’s a man wearing glasses held together with packing tape, and we all awoke before 4 AM every day to chant soft praises to our God by moon and candlelight: St. Benedict called it “the work of God.” What’s the point in all this? What’s wrong with just watching a Yankees game now and then? What does Jesus mean by “for the sake of the good news”?
In anything worthwhile, there is a price to be paid, a sacrifice, discipline. This is one dimension of the mystery of the cross, that life can come through death. “Not my will, but yours be done” is the pivot of the Gospel, and its origins in Our Lady. The idea of dying to the world is naturally unappealing. How can celibacy, submission to authority, silence, fasting and little sleep really lead to a fuller life? To be sure, it is not only monks and nuns that are admitted into heaven. But during my month I learned how life under the Rule of St. Benedict is basically healthy, stable, and designed for spiritual progress. The monastery is not a place to build up a resume of accomplishments and impress people. Rather it is a place dedicated to the interior life, mainly through verbal and mental prayer – deepening our dependence on God, persevering in the purification of our souls and the growth in Christian love for God and our neighbor. This means that diligence is the watchword: care for the grounds, tools and facilities, care for ceremony and tradition, care for human relationships. As Buddha would say, the monastery is a “middle path” between the oblivion of utter sensual gratification taken completely for granted in our culture and the self-exaltation disguised as self-mortification practiced by some extremists back in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts of late antiquity. Yet are we in the world such sensualists? Most American food these days is mass-produced cardboard – mere gasoline for our bodies as we race around and wait around and fiddle around trying to “get things done.” That is not a truly human existence. In the best tradition of Christianity, as St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a living man.” The monastic ideal is to be a vehicle for self-development in Christ. Therefore the authentic needs of man are all present: bodily needs, social needs, intellectual and cultural needs, spiritual and religious needs. No compartmentalization or commuting necessary. No anxiety of freedom: the primary-color maelstrom of fifty kinds of toothpaste clamoring for your attention. The beauty of silence: the rising, reflecting moon.
For me in my short stay, the emphasis on silence as a spiritual discipline was perhaps the most difficult sacrifice. I tend to be very verbal in my relations with people, sometimes using conversation as a means to shut up the many voices (and annoying songs) popping into my head throughout the day. At Guadalupe there were fewer places to hide from myself, fewer distractions – an austere spirit of the desert, going back to those early monks. But the desert can be very beautiful in its silence, and I surely enjoyed the early morning quiet and the almost businesslike demeanor of the monks. It made me think about why I say what I say, and why I choose to talk to people, even at times without giving them my full attention. The retreat gave me an opportunity for increased intentionality in my speech, which is always needful.
I am thankful for my time at the Abbey, for the unrestrained and patient hospitality shown to me by all the monks and staff, for the gracious kindness I encountered among many of them, and for the risk they routinely take in incorporating a near-stranger into their highly cultivated, traditional way of life. If you are taking the time to read this, why not pay a visit yourself?