As the current crisis in our Church continues to unfold, even I ask myself: Why am I writing about clergy, both in fiction and non-fiction? Well, I wrote about Father Irenaeus, because he is the seeming exception to the rule, a shining example of a virtuous ordained man. And I write about monks and abbeys because, in my mind, monasticism and contemplation are among the very few ancient traditions in the Church that still work, and remain relevant. Monastics rarely have access to power, huge sums of money or (it has to be said) children and impressionable youths, so there is little opportunity for corruption.
I wish I could say the modern-day manifestation of monastic life is healthy and facing a bright, strong future. Alas, the population of many abbeys, male and female—and particularly in the United States—is dwindling, with many monasteries disproportionately filled with the elderly and the infirm. Young novices are few and far between, as a quiet, simple life of work and prayer struggles to compete with a high-powered digital world with endless possibilities for entertainment and employment.
And yet…We live in such a difficult time now, an age of meanness and stupidity. Even the most benign age requires an occasional retreat, time to reflect and examine the meaning of life and love; we need such retreats now more than ever. And this may be where the future of monasticism lies: With ordinary, non-professed lay people, seeking a soothing and uncomplicated connection to the Divine. But keeping the tradition alive, in the midst of everyday living.
Fortunately, most monasteries offer retreats year-round. And I sometimes create my own, DYI getaways: This coming week, for example, in a borrowed house at the seashore. It takes discipline not to turn on the TV or the computer, to put the phone away, and just be still. Reading, writing and walking, of course, are always allowed. But it does have to be alone, you can’t take your best friends along, or your kids, or even your spouse, and that’s a very hard thing to do. But the resulting spiritual benefits are endless, although the “real” world is always a lot harder to come back to, in the end. Next month, I will be making an “official” monastic retreat, and plan to post a blog entry describing that.
Here are some books I would recommend, to learn more about monastic life and spiritualism, in the Christian tradition (I’m still studying the Eastern and Buddhist ways): Anything by Thomas Merton, but start with “Seven Storey Mountain,” and work your way from there; also, a book with a wonderful title, written by a monk and student of Merton’s, Brother Paul Quenon, “In Praise of the Useless Life;” Kathleen Norris’ “The Cloister Walk;” and I also like very much layman Frank Bianco’s book on the Trappists, “Voices of Silence.” Of course there are hundreds more, but those are good starters. Best of all is simply to try a retreat at a monastery or convent, and see how it goes. But you may have to do some traveling, as such places are scattered about and sometimes hard to find. But you can consider the travel part of the monastic adventure