“It’s bad enough that we make fruitcake and bourbon fudge for God. Our main job is singing.”

So said a monk on videotape shown to incoming retreatants at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. I was one of those retreatants, having arrived that Monday afternoon in mid-October to begin my first week-long sojourn at a monastery. What was I hoping to find? Other than the usual reasons anyone has for getting away—rest, relaxation—I wasn’t quite sure. I knew that the retreat would be undirected and mostly silent, something that had enormous appeal. I looked forward to finding out what it would feel like to have 4-5 days of uninterrupted time in a monastic setting, participating with the monks in praying the daily hours. Although I had no expectations of receiving a beatific vision or hearing the voice of God in my ear, I wanted to enter into the experience as fully as possible, hoping to deepen my relationship with God in some way. 

What did I find? To keep this brief, let me simply point you back to the quote at the beginning of this post. When they pray the daily hours, the monks are singing/chanting the psalms; they are singing the psalms on behalf of the world to the one who was, who is, and is to come at the end of the ages. I find this inexpressibly beautiful.

The other thing to notice about the quotation is the wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. Here is what, weeks later, I realized I most needed—and received—from the retreat: a monk’s view of the world. Monks, more than most, are in a position to withdraw from the world not for the sake of escaping it, but to have a proper perspective on it.

This lesson comes out quite clearly in Jon Sweeney’s book Cloister Talks: Lessons from My Friends the Monks (Brazos, 2009). I picked up the book because Sweeney relates conversations he’s had with monks from 3 Trappist monasteries, including Gethsemani. I did not set aside time to speak to a monk on my retreat (other than listening to talks given by the guestmaster), so the book gave me the opportunity to get the inside perspective on a life I had only glimpsed.

What quickly becomes apparent is that one shouldn’t romanticize the monastic life. The monks certainly don’t. As Sweeney relates, the full range of human experience, of life and death and joy and sorrow, takes place in the monastery. But there, in the context of a life devoted to communion with God, in the conscious cultivation of a life of simplicity, beauty, and mystery, all the things we tend to give lip service to, like authentic friendship or love or the meaning of work, seem to take on a richer, fuller cast.

The monks are there to help us remember what’s important. In their set-apartness and in their hospitality I found resources to help renew my life in the world. Does the monastic life not show us, in miniature, what the Christian community is to be for the world?

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