I can think of two extreme experiences as a Vocation Director over the past few decades. One, shared by many of Vocation Directors of our Order in this country, is being approached by a candidate who’d report a curious experience. “I tried to find out about entering a Trappist monastery”, he’d say, “so I spoke to my pastor. But he said, ‘Why would you want to throw away your life like that?’ I didn’t know what to think!” From the opposite end of the spectrum is the sort of letter sent by a third party telling me of this wonderful, shy young man in their parish who has few friends and would make a wonderful monk. Wouldn’t I please contact him and invite him to join our community?
One approach–and it doesn’t have to be a priest or a pastor; it could be a parent or an employer or teacher–suffers from an under-estimation of our vocation. The other suffers from both an over-estimating the monastic life’s ability to straighten people out and usurping the role of the Vocation Director. Both points of view are misinformed about our monastic vocation and the actual experience of it.
Certainly, our communities are only human and we contain all the human foibles of any institution. But we are not really sociopaths, fleeing human company and despising the world around us. Nor are we losers who couldn’t survive in the corporate world. In so far as our physical plants are still afloat, there has to be enough organizational ability, enough social adaptation and enough imagination to concoct strategies to maintain where we live, to earn an income, to run businesses and to pay the bills. We don’t come here, get locked into cells with a prayerbook and a pallet of straw and stare out the window all day. We do what anyone does to make a living. The big difference is, our aim isn’t to make a living. Our aim is to support ourselves to live a life of prayer, to live out an on-going, intentional relationship with God. We “pray on our feet”–at work, over worries, through fraternal joys and sorrows–as much as in church or the solitude of our rooms. This is a creative life nurturing the natural gifts of members and needing a broad spectrum of human talents and interests. No one here is throwing away his life unless he’s running away from God and the community.
Following upon that, although we are counter-cultural in our values (obedience rather than self-will; simplicity of life over against consumerism; fraternal accountability, etc.) we are communal and must learn to mature as social human beings. A loner, someone who cannot relate easily to others, someone needing to be carried through life, is not an ideal monk. Any member of the community must be willing and able to carry his own weight, to contribute, to express himself responsible, in a way that opens channels of exchange. He must also be able to cope well with authority figures, to trust his Abbot and his brothers, to listen to his bosses–AND contribute helpful suggestions. We live a communal life. “Cenobitic” is the traditional monastic adjective which describes the community as the “coenobium”; it’s the Latin form of the New Testament Greek koinonia, a fellowship or communion of human beings.
There’s much more to say on the subject of supporting a vocation and I’ve only offered the background. How can you begin?
Of course, by praying. Prayer is first and foremost: pray for monastic vocations. Pray that people may discover the guides they need; the support they need, the open-mindedness they need to support such a call. And while you’re praying, reflect on what it’s like to pray: the joys, the difficulties, the distractions–and don’t forget the self-interest and the smugness. This will give you some taste of the challenges of a life of pray.
Second, be informed about the monastic life. Don’t settle for hear-say or caricatures. A website like this is packed with information to inform you; explore the site and if you don’t find what you’re looking for, ask. That’s why we have “contact us” or “leave a comment” on these pages. It doesn’t have to literally be a comment, it can be a question–the computer won’t care.
That’s just a start. This post will be continued. And the future posts can reflect what you ask about.