Friday, September 28, 2007

Home Again

It is wonderful to be back in my own monastery, finished with what turned out to be a very enjoyable and productive Provincial Chapter (about which I will have a good deal more to say in future posts). Of course, it was also wonderful to spend a week in the paradaisical setting of En Calcat, in the picturesque south of France, with the Pyrenees looming nearby. I heard no yelling, no traffic and no sirens for a whole week. The only sounds in my cell were the birds outside, the movements of the abbots above me and next door and the bells of the abbey church.

We have long had the custom of monthly escapes from the city to 'reload' on silence and stillness, which is easy to lose in the midst of the bouleversements of urban life. However, our goal obviously cannot be to 'teach' the city how to be more silent or contemplative. This would be arrogant. We can witness to these things, but if we ourselves degenerate into complaint because the city robs us of precious contemplation, well then, the game is up.

We have had other monks and religious visit from time to time and declaim that contemplation is not possible in the city. Probably for most people in most circumstances there is truth in this, but the Church has called our community here, unremarkable folk as we are, and so we make an act of faith that God will give us the grace needed to carry out the task He's assigned. In this return to Chicago, I have noticed that I am more aware of the noise, not in the sense that it bothers me more, but in the sense that I am perhaps a bit more present to it.

How to be a contemplative in the city? This is a question that I hope for the brothers to discuss together in community over the coming months. However, it occurred to me as I took a siesta today (my body still being seven hours out of whack), that when we are faced with external noise, there is a direct analogy with the internal noise of our brains that churn out thoughts incessantly. From this, I returned to a thought that I had in my pious days as a novice, which I perhaps understand with a bit more perspective now. The idea is this: what if, instead of trying to combat the noise, one just accepts it as it is, without passing judgments, but with the additional observation that God-is-with-us? So often we try to mask the noise or fight it; after we become hardened a bit to it, we might allow ourselves to become noisy, aggressive, or nervous; at some point, we might just give up and become bitter, wondering why God has chosen this lot for us. What if we simply listened to it all a bit, observed a bit, didn't jump to conclusions, but blessed God in the midst of it all?

After all, we do similar things with our own thoughts. If we become aware of them and they are threatening somehow--we peek at ourselves and discover to our horroe that we hate someone, or we are driven by sensuality, we are proud or jealous--we go into fight-or-flight mode. We pretend the thought isn't there by masking it with pious thoughts (in the external city analogy, this would be like smarmy brotherliness or righteous activism in the face of rudeness and callousness on the part of our neighbors): "I'm not really that bad because I also have these good thoughts!" But of course, we have long ago passed judgement on ourselves and are only pretending that we haven't. How much better not to judge ourselves in the first place: to observe merely that we have such thoughts, look them in the face, share them with God and be at peace with the situation, trusting God's help and not our own to battle our thoughts!

We monks are always amazed when people visit and talk about the silence that we have. In some superficial way, of course, we can say that we cultivate silence. We don't talk at meals or in the halls of the cloister. We don't talk over night. We try to avoid banging things around. We try to be men of peace. But mysteriously, I suspect that we do more for silence simply by acknowledging that noise exists and not trying to fight it or worry anxiously about what it is doing to us, but to invite God into the midst of it. This, of course, monks find ways to do almost automatically, but finally, for us to become holy and fulfill the mission of 'Silence in the City', we need to invite God personally into our inner and outer turmoil, not become agressive against it or pretend it is not there, either of which solution tends to put more stock in our own efforts than in God's sovreignty.

Peace to you all!

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