Thursday, July 31, 2008

Monking Around

(Picture of the monks of Mepkin)

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I get in the car, drive for less than a minute and find that I’m back in this crazy world of rush and noise. Not much has changed in three weeks. Monday night I returned from my three weeks at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery close to Charleston, South Carolina. This is the same order of Thomas Merton and this specific monastery was actually started as a plant from his.

With hopes of starting a Christian community in Israel/Palestine, part of my motivation in going to Mepkin was to learn from this classic form of community and spiritual life which has been practiced now for roughly 1,500 years. Beyond this, I hoped to simply encounter and hear from God in a deep way, through what Richard Foster calls the “recreating silences,” to learn about contemplation and prayer. My hopes were far exceeded.

Participating in the three pillars of Benedictine spirituality: the Liturgy of the Hours (seven daily community prayer times, based largely on the psalms), Lectio Divina (meditation and prayer through Scripture) and manual labor, I became one of this community of 20 monks. What a crowd! Ages ranged from Br. Leo, age 25, to Fr. Christian age 94 (with 3 Phds.!). I think only with time will I see how deeply this experience has shaped me.

There is much I could write about from what I have begun to learn, but I think I will just touch briefly on one topic, what I have called dirty, or earthy spirituality.

Coming into the monastery, I had somewhat of a romantic view of what deep prayer and life in a monastery entailed, even though I had been to several before on short visits. I sort of expected my experience and the spirituality of the monastery to be an “otherworldly” experience. Soon I discovered that this place was full of quirky characters who farted, fell asleep during the prayers, swore, got cranky, and also loved God with a deep, quiet love (I think there was at least one resident saint). I discovered that life in the monastery was pretty mundane and everyday, just like life in the “real world,” but that this wasn’t an impediment but rather an aid to prayer and meditation.

I learned that some of the most basic, mundane things like food, sleep, work, and other people are the most important parts of “spirituality,” not just the ethereal times of private prayer. Some of the most powerful experiences were shoveling chicken manure, picking eggs and walking under a pristine dawning sky (while getting bit by mosquitoes). Our otherworldly view of spirituality is a mistaken (and gnostic) view of our relationship with God. That is the beauty of the incarnation. As we say at my church: matter matters!

This “earthy spirituality” slaps you in the face in the Psalms. As I mentioned, the Psalms is the main component of the Liturgy of the Hours and chant the whole book out loud every two weeks. What a powerful experience! In reading these Psalms I was confronted with: betrayal, hate, sex, blood, war, the poor, justice, the land, and sights, sounds and smells. These are not what we would consider proper prayers (and thus many of these Psalms are actually not found in our lectionaries nor talked about much). A “gentleman” wouldn’t be able pray them (nor for that matter, a Buddhist or Muslim), they are too dirty, too earthy. Surely, this is not the stuff of spirituality! Yet it is. It is in bringing to God all that we are and seeing him in all that we do. It was in the mundane, everyday events of life that God could be encountered, what someone called the sacrament of the mundane.

The poem below tries to bring this point home and to summarize some of my experience.

Earthy Spirituality: Ode to Mepkin Abbey

3:20 AM: Vigils
With the monks I sing “Lord, make haste to help me,”
Otherwise I might pass out from lack of sleep
At this seemingly ungodly hour,
when the candles flicker and the dawn awakes.

5:30 AM: Lauds
As I struggle to find the right page in the Psalter
all of a sudden everyone’s bowing. I look a fool, again!
Finally, I found it!… and nearly rip out the worn page
(to the enjoyment of my neighbor)
It’s the Magnificat, the hauntingly beautiful song of Mary.

7:30AM: Daily Mass
I’ve already committed sacrilege (or is it the unforgivable sin?):
I kneelt with my back to the Eucharist: Sorry, Jesus!
Then as “we fly to your patronage---” I discover I’ve blasphemed,
I just worshiped Mary. I guess it depends on your perspective.
At least they still let me take Eucharist, being a Protestant and all.

8:45: Work time #1
The super Christian mystics speak of “infused contemplation,”
True spiritual union with God.
All I’ve encountered is infused constipation
A mind clogged up with the same old thoughts.
Yet slowly, as I sort these eggs, my mind begins to be freed for prayer.

12:00 Noon: Sext
“He prepares my hands for war” is a bit of an awkward prayer,
For a pacifist.
From there we go straight into Solomon’s bedroom in Psalm 45.
Looks like he’s got a cute new wife…
Yikes! Is this really Biblical?

1:15 PM: None
“We thank you, Lord, for this [simple, vegetarian] meal”
And I can’t help noticing my 94 year old neighbor
Who has just thanked the Lord in a slightly more noisy and smelly way
I wonder what heaven will be like with these guys

1:45 PM - Work time #2
I’ve already had three naps and its time to shovel some chicken poop,
Or “shit!” as brother, so called, Placid says. I hadn’t heard that in the liturgy yet.
“Maybe it’s a Catholic thing,” I think
as my soul slowly rises in prayer amidst the shoveling and sweat

8:00 PM: Vespers
The end of the beginning and the beginning of the next
In my three weeks I have learned at least this:
That monasticism is all of our vocation,
That God is a God of this earth
And that true spirituality sees the holiness of the mundane (and profane)
Seeing God in all things.

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