Readings: Genesis 12:1-4; Acts 4:32-35; Mark 10:17-30
The call of Abraham described in our first reading resonates in a very special way with many monks who, in various ways and degrees, also perceived a call to leave their land, relatives and their father’s house to a land that God would show them. And although for many this has not meant traveling great distances, in every instance it involved leaving the known, the familiar, and setting out in faith for an indeterminate future. For some monks this initial call was powerful, convincing and attractive enough that they were able to respond with enthusiasm and a sense of eager anticipation. In contrast, others heard the call with unease and trepidation and could thus sympathize with the man in today’s Gospel whose face fell in response to Jesus’ instruction that he sell his goods and give to the poor before following him.
However, once within the monastery a reversal to these reactions to God’s call can occur as those who initially responded with enthusiasm and eager anticipation are surprised and disconcerted by the inevitable difficulties and disillusionments that beset those who seriously undertake this long and often spiritually perilous journey. Conversely, those who entered the enclosure with heavy hearts and with trepidation sometimes find to their surprise that much they had dreaded or anxiously anticipated either failed to occur or was outweighed by the blessings and unexpected peace that monastic life bestowed on them.
We are not told of Abraham’s inner state as he quietly and obediently left for that still unknown land that God had promised to show him–a silence that may suggest that he did so with less than unbounded enthusiasm. In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter whether God’s call is undertaken with enthusiasm or with reticence; what is important is that this important journey is undertaken.
As we know from the life of Abraham, his journey from his father’s house was more than just an exploratory excursion aimed at viewing the land that his descendants would one day possess, and it incorporated several life-changing experiences that radically transformed the man who initially set out from Ur of the Chaldeans. And in this, Abraham serves as something of an icon for the inner journey that lies at the heart of the monastic quest. For, although his journey was a physical one, his journey was more importantly an inner one that forced Abraham into new and unknown regions of his heart. Likewise, the monks’ call to leave land, relatives and father is that summons to leave the familiar and often superficial regions of self-knowledge and journey ever deeper towards those inner depths of the heart–that meeting place with the Lord. But, as with Abraham, the inner journey occurs in conjunction with the outer journey. This is to affirm that the monastic life and the monastic community are not simply the physical contexts which the otherwise hidden journey occur. Instead, there is a constant interaction between the two and when these are not held together, the monastic life fails in the central purpose and becomes barren and meaningless.
One of the ways this can occur is to resist the inner journey by settling for a more superficial and external living of monastic life that loses sight of the eternal by immersion into the petty ephemeral concerns and dynamics of daily communal life. Constantly gazing out from ourselves–and rarely within–we become strangers to our own hearts. And then all too often the still unrecognized sin within us spills over into community life and contaminates it. To paraphrase Saint Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians, we can neglect the inner work and by not keeping busy with this central task and end up minding the business of others. However, no less problematic is the attempt to pursue the inner journey as something separate from the outer one and to view experience the communal dimension of monastic life as an unfortunate necessity to be endured–this is a spiritual fallacy that more than one pseudo-hermit has fallen prey to over the centuries.
And so, just as Abraham was formed and inwardly transformed by the outer journey–along with the people he encountered and the situations he faced–so our inner journey has to incorporate and integrate the outer dimensions of that journey that plays out in our daily monastic lives. This reflects the age-old wisdom of the monastic endeavor whereby our foremost teachers in the School of the Lord’s Service are not necessarily those acknowledged spiritual masters or revered elders, but the brother whose very flaws and imperfections illuminate our own sinfulness and thereby afford us the opportunity of opening our spiritually diseased hearts to enlightening, healing and transforming grace. However, when we finally reach that Promised Land then this distinction between inner and outer will cease as our reintegrated selves enter fully into Christ and come to share that unity in which the good of one is the good of all, and the good of all is the good of one. May the prayers of Robert, Alberic and Stephen speed us on our way as we recommit ourselves to this perhaps still long road ahead.