Saint Joseph’s Abbey – I took this picture while at a retreat last Fall.
“Jesus Christ is My Monastery”
The first book that I have chosen to work through is Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. It is one of the more accessible reads on the contemplative life that I’ve come across. The first two chapters are primarily concerned with building a theoretical framework for contemplation and Christian mysticism. I’ll share more in depth about this in a little bit. The next three chapters speak into the pragmatic aspects of meditation: the importance of body posture, a “prayer word” and working though other distractions that come along. The final two chapters are centered on the emotional journey of contemplation. It is in the Epilogue where I wish to begin this three part review of this book.
Laird wrote a parable that he titles “Tales of a Monastic Failure”. This is a story of a young man in search of a “real” monastery and joins an Order as a novice. He gets really good at being a monk and twice approaches the Abbot for permission to take his religious vows. Both times the young man gets rejected. I’m cutting in where some years pass for the young man and although remaining a novice he hasn’t approached the Abbot a third time…
One day the abbot asked the novice master, “What about that man who was so intent on making his profession in our monastery. Is he no longer interested?” “He doesn’t mention it much anymore,” said the novice master. “Is he unhappy?” asked the abbot. “No, he seems content enough,” responded the novice master. “He doesn’t say much to anyone. He goes about his tasks in the garden; he consoles the old monks in the infirmary, and encourages the new ones in the novitiate.” “Bring him to me,” said the abbot. The man was brought to the abbot who began to question him: “I was wondering if you were still interested in making your profession. You don’t seem as keen to do it as you once were when you were making such a thorough study of our tradition. Have you gone off the idea altogether?” The man looked at the abbot. The lines beginning to show round the man’s eyes reflected the fact that he’d been in the monastery a number of years now. But his face had the freshness and peace of those whose poverty had taught them they had nothing to defend. The man said to the abbot, “Jesus Christ is my monastery.” – Laird, Into the Silent Land pg. 134
What does it mean for Christ to be my monastery? I’ve been asking this question over and over for the past couple of weeks. I frequently go up to our local monastery – Saint Joseph’s Abbey – and it is so quiet there. The lake’s water is always still. It sits on acres and acres of land with a hundred different trails that invite you to walk down. The cathedral stand tall, solid, unphased by the storms that pass through. The monks spend their days in the stability of Benedict’s rule – work and prayer. Silence abides there and provides rest for the soul.
My interior life looks a lot like my exterior one right now. It’s a big house next to a busy street with sirens going off all day and night – mostly at night. The neighborhood is busy with lots of noise and becoming increasingly violent. The stability that our house brought us has also been taken as our landlord has allowed his mortgage to go into foreclosure. In little less than a month it will be sold to the highest bidder and, it seems, we will be looking to relocate yet again. How can this chaos be transformed into a monastery? Working out an answer to this question seems to be the bull’s eye of Laird’s book. This first part is, going along with the metaphor, learning how to aim.
Union with Christ and Turning off the Interior Video
There are certainly moments in life where we experience on a visceral level only what can be described as God’s absence or his forgetfulness. Yes, yes, in our minds we believe God loves us, is on some level working toward his ultimate goal of restoration and resurrection BUT our interior castles feel cold, dark and lonely. It is an echo chamber for our own voices and we only use it in hopes of hearing another return our calls. Mother Teresa put it this way in one of her letters that were posthumously published:
“Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
And the Psalmist expressed it like this: “How long will You forget me? Forever?” It feels like abandonment. It feels like a betrayal of friendship as you are left more or less to the mercy of the elements. More often than not these turns in relationship happen suddenly, without a moment’s notice.
Laird begins this book with a rather bold statement: this separation is an illusion. Now, the image of God that Laird describes is not some cheesy evangelical notion that God is this little chatter box, always trying to talk to you and if you can’t hear him it’s because you’re just not “tuned into the right frequencies”. No, the separation is an illusion because God is the ground of our being:
God is the ground of the human being. Various Christian traditions may argue over orthodox or heterodox ways of understanding this, but there is clear and authoritative testimony based on living the Christian mysteries that if we are going to speak of what a human being is, we have not said enough until we speak of God. – Laird, Into the Silent Land pg. 9
Peel away the various hats we wear, psychological profiles, personality tests, personal narratives (both real and imagined) and all the other things that inform our sense of identity and what is left is a person contingent upon the creative love of God. The task is being aware of this grounding. Laird calls this awareness our “Christ-self”. Our Christ-Self is a union that begins at baptism, is consummated in the Eucharist and cannot be severed. Further more our Christ-selves, who we truly are, are “hidden in Christ” (Colossian 3). Meaning this grounding of identity cannot be taken away when all of a sudden we lose our jobs, or move to a new city or any of the other things that cause us to reevaluate “who we are” from time to time. Our Christ-self is the bed rock because of our contingency toward our Creator. On this level we can never be separated from God.
What of these experiences which make us feel so intensely that the opposite is true? Laird calls these experiences which foster up the illusion of separation as the human condition. Our human condition distracts us, makes noise and tempts the mind to be occupy itself with “the constant chatter of the cocktail party going on in our heads” (Laird, pg. 15). It fools us into believing we are not contingent but are autonomous from God but when we set our hearts and minds to achieving the stillness of the monastery, however, we are flooded with the sudden joy and knowledge that we are not alone.
The struggle in gaining more awareness of the Christ-self is turning off what Laird names “The Interior Video”. It’s a video inside us all that constantly streams memories, stories and messages that offer an identity that is often destructive and painful. It’s a video that manipulates are deepest insecurities and fears. It tells us we aren’t good enough. We’re too fat or ugly. We won’t amount to much in life. Our value is based upon how we perform. We are not truly loved for who we are. God is not there. This internal video needs to be turned off by building Silence into our lives. Silence, then, is a shift of our attention from “the screen of thinking mind on which both thoughts and feelings incessantly appear, as they are meant to, to the ground of the heart, this immense valley of awareness itself in which thoughts and feelings appear” (Laird, 28).
The aim of our interior videos is to keep us ignorant of the truth that our identity, the Christ-Self, is located in our hearts. Practicing Silence pushes out the noise of those things which try to tell us who/what we are and allows the God that is with us to speak, to heal, to restore and to provide stability…to build his/her/whatever monastery.