I recently finished reading a book called “Voices of Silence”. It’s an incredibly gripping read documenting the experience of the author’s journey getting to know various Trappist monastic communities, mostly in America.
For those of you who don’t know who or what a Trappist is, they are an order of monks. Trappists are big on silence (hence the title) and ceded from the Cistercians some time ago, owing to a desire to be more “orthodox” in their practises and adherence to the monastic way of life. The Cistercians in turn are strict Benedictines, who had similar feelings about their predecessors.
So you’d expect me to be pretty damning about them. Overly religious, obsessed with ritual and rule, boring, detached from the world, pointless, etc. Malice aside, some of those sentiments do indeed have traction. But that’s not what I want to write about today. The book gripped me – its stories staying with me even now two months after finishing the read.
What drew me in was their desire for authenticity. Yes, there were many older monks described in its pages who resisted the most feeble changes and modernisations at every turn, but even they found themselves redeemed in later chapters. Broadly, the monks we meet along the way recognise two key truths about life that I think are invaluable to us all:
- We cannot force God to meet with us; we cannot demand a voice or an answer to prayer
- Routine, rhythm and simplicity are not intended to restrict, but to bring to life
What struck me the most about their lives was that they are in a sense no different to yours or mine. They grieved, wept, laughed, cried, conversed, argued, were filled with joy, sadness, fear, loneliness, experienced community, and so on. The ideal of a monk is to leave the distractions of the world behind and to focus on a prayer life with God. From what I could tell, this was no easier a task inside the monastery than outside of it – it turns out that people cause problems and those problems follow you everywhere you go.
They did have a heightened focus on the divine, of course. But that heightened focus often served only to amplify their experiences. To return to my two points above:
We cannot force God – monk, priest or “lay person’ – we have no control over God. We are not here to demand his attendance in our lives. That is up to God. It’s a level playing field, and don’t ever let any Christian tell you otherwise. I don’t care how many times a day they meditate or read their Bible or whatever. Meeting with God requires both sides to take part. You might be struggling with this. I know I have. I forget on a near daily basis to bother to pray. But that doesn’t mean I don’t meet with God in all kinds of ways. Which brings me to…
Routine, rhythm and simplicity are life giving – because although we cannot force God to meet with us, we can give ourselves space to meet with God. We can make a choice to avoid where possible the lures of the other masters of this world – the master of money, the master of power, the master of status. We can choose instead to bind ourselves to Yahweh and to recognise that the Kingdom of God is a far greater way of life. Deliberately taking time out on a daily basis to remember this isn’t exactly going to do us harm – not if it is done well. We may never meet with God in doing this, but that’s a risk worth taking, isn’t it?
My girlfriend often jokingly mocks me for my love of monasticism. It is true, I have an immense admiration for men and women who are prepared to sacrifice what the world sees as the more fun aspects of existence, and instead seek to be with God as frequently as possible. I think it’s the wrong approach, but I respect it nonetheless. That said, the rhythmic, ancient traditions it holds dear have been a source of great strength for me.
I have found that in my life, when I make daily space to meet with God, then I appreciate not only those moments, but also the rest of the day – the little things – like when someone smiles back, or a tree looks particularly beautiful – are easier to enjoy and appreciate when one is postured towards God.
I have found that in trying to live a simpler life – both outwardly and inwardly, I have less to worry about, less to think about, and less to distract myself with. Leaving me with two things: more space to meet with God, and more space to love others. Someone once said those were two of the most important elements to life.