A Life Worth Imitating (21st Century Monks)
I just ended a three day sojourn with Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Gethsemane located near Bardstown, Kentucky (and also near the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, which was unfortunately closed the day I went for a visit). I hadn't been to the Abbey since my Beeson experience, and had always longed to go back. I had always remembered the place as being quiet and had enjoyed singing the Psalms with the monks. However, since there were a few loving-but-somewhat-closed-minded members of my Beeson Class freaked out about all the Catholic religious imagery (not to mention the veneration of Mary, an image of the "feminine divine" which always makes virtually all Protestants uncomfortable on some level), I wondered what it would be like to go by myself without others unpacking their theological baggage (because Heaven knows I have enough of my own).
Verdict: It was a good experience.
There's something about the monks singing (or chanting in the Gregorian sense.... we didn't sit around going "ohm, ohm, ohm") those Psalms on a regular schedule that's calming. Reassuring. Maybe even hopeful. There's something about knowing those guys are singing Psalms each and everyday that's reassuring. It's a sign of "groundedness" in a world that's ever changing. A mark of God's never-ending devotion to us via the monks' devotion to the world on behalf of Christ. It was just good.
My favorite service of the day is "Compline", the final service of the day. I told my wife that my impression of Compline is the monks are singing lullabies to one another, the world, and the Lord. In addition to the Psalms, the monks sing this prayer:
Before the ending of the day
Creator of the world we pray
that with thy gracious favor thou
wouldst be our Guard and Keeper now
From fears and terrors of the night
defend us Lord by thy great might
and when we close our eyes in sleep
let hearts with Christ their vigil keep
O Father this we ask be done
through Jesus Christ thine only Son
who with the Paraclete and thee
now lives and reigns eternally
My last sermon before I left was all about imitation. Are you imitating the life of Christ and are you discipling someone else so their life might be imitating the life of the Christ? I was thinking about this as I worshipped the Lord with the monks. Monks are all about imitating one another as they seek to imitate Christ. This is their attempt to be just like the disciples: They are seeking to imitate His disciplined simple lifestyle, prayer life, dedication to the Father and world, life of reflection, and even the fellowship he experienced with others.
I'm not saying that Jesus acted, dressed, and ate exactly as the monks do today. The lifestyle of the monk is Jesus' lifestyle re-imagined into a particular context and for a particular purpose. Jesus and disciples seek to unfold the Kingdom of Heaven into the world. The monks are in their own way and specific place, attempting to live out into that Kingdom. They readily admit that their particular lifestyle isn't the only concrete example everyone should follow. Theirs is a specific calling, just as we are called in some specific kind of way. But the object of their calling is the same as the calling of every other disciple of Jesus: Through faithfulness and devotion to the way of Jesus, create the opportunity for others to find the rest, grace and peace made real in the Kingdom of Heaven now and forever. The monks follow the example set for them for the sake of the Lord and their neighbor, hence the opportunity for anyone to come and retreat with the Lord and from the pressures of the world. So should it be with us and others everyday in our home, in our presence as the church.
It's really the question of what example I have been setting that I take with me on this journey, but it's the question of what example I want to set I need to bring back home.
This is what really drove me into this current journey - all that's comforting and everything else that vexing about how I'm imitating Christ - to a monastery (and beyond) for some unpacking and reflection. Because just like the abbot of those Trappist monks, I have a responsibility in some way, shape, or form set an example and create an environment where people can both imitate Christ ultimately for the sake of God and others. Somewhere along the way what this looks like for me personally in the specific context of where I live and work has gotten muddled and confused.
So I suppose on some level I'm looking for some variation of the order the monks live out every day. And while it probably doesn't mean singing Psalms and praying prayers seven times a day (eight, really, if you also count their daily Mass), wearing a robe, and making a fudge, the idea that everything in our life should be designed to bring honor and glory to God by creating a place of hospitality for all restless souls makes a lot of sense. Or as my friend (and current host) Paul Rebelo puts it, "a life built on serving 'The Other'". A place created through holiness, helpfulness, prayer, grace, mercy, and a vision focused on imitating a life dedicated to the restoration and liberation of others in a Kingdom built on love and not force, should be the essence of every church, every home, and every heart that calls Jesus, "Lord".
The world needs some 21st Century monks. What that order looks like is what I'm chasing.