Daniel Berrigan, no stranger to confederate sources of wisdom, once suggested that monks have secrets worth knowing. This I learned, first-hand , recently when I spent ten days on retreat with a Trappist community in Oregon. One secret, among others, that this particular community revealed to me (certainly more clearly than I have ever understood it before) is what it takes to live Christian community.
The Abbey that I stayed at, fairly typical of Trappists I suspect, is made up of an extremely diverse group of monks. You find there every kind of temperament, background, age, and political and ecclesial bent. Monks, at least it is true of this group, do not comprise a simple homogeneity, nor anything simple for that matter. This is a very diverse group of men who , together, are equipped to illustrate every temperament and personality under the sun. They were obviously not all ordered from the same catalogue.
Moreover, seen a bit from the inside, monastic life does not so perfectly approximate its romantic ideal. We have, all of us, a rather simplistic, romantic caricature of monks as serene, faultless contemplatives, all of whom have beautiful voices. The reality is not exactly always that. These are men, ordinary men, subject to ordinary weakness and experience. They too have to live with pettiness, jealousy, tiredness, personalities which grate on each other, conflicting ecclesiologies, political differences, and frustrated sexual tension . As well, like the rest of us, each of these men carries with him into the monastery his own history of hurt, wound, and ungrieved deaths.
Yet, despite this, they live together in relative harmony, accord each other respect, make room for each others’ differences, faults, and eccentricities, and essentially live their lives for each other – not to mention the hospitality they create for others and the beautiful harmony they make together six times a day when they sing God’s praises. In the end, their differences make up their real richness. They are an inclusive community in the real meaning of the term, inclusivity. They make for a house with many rooms. Every kind of personality, temperament, and ideological bent can find a home here.
So what is their secret? What makes this all tick (when it generally does not tick for the rest of us)? Ora et labora (“Pray and work”) is the motto of monasticism. In both their work and their prayer, their focus is not on themselves but on the praise of God. Their centre, that place where they are directing all of their longings and energies, is a place outside of themselves . This is what makes their community possible and harmonious, beyond differences. Moreover it is our failure to see and understand this that lies at the root of why most of our own attempts at community (even in marriage and friendship) fail.
All of us long for community,all of us search for community, and most of us never really find it. Why? Because more often than not we try build community around ourselves, around a charismatic personality, around someone’s ego, around like-mindedness, around an ideology, around a cause, or around simple, adolescent romanticism. None of these, ultimately, can carry the load. None of them is powerful enough to bring us together and hold us together precisely beyond our own egos, hurts, past histories, ideological itches, natural jealousies, sexual need, different personalities, individual rhythms, and the many changes that we undergo as we grow. One cannot build inclusive or lasting community around any of these because, in every one of them, the centre (that should bind and hold things together) is not something beyond the human ego with its glories and wounds. When we try to build community on the basis of any of these things , we end up with a house with only one room and that room soon enough becomes too asphyxiating to hold us.
Monks have secrets worth knowing. One of these is that community is possible … but it is only possible when it is founded on the praise of God. We can live together as brothers and sisters as long as our focus is not upon ourselves – upon our own egos, needs, talents, and ideologies. We can love each other, despite our wounds and differences, only when we are not facing each other but are all facing in the same direction, eyes raised heavenward praising God.
Would that we understood this! It is the secret for a good marriage, a good friendship, a good parish, a good religious community, and ultimately even for good civic community. Community is possible, despite differences, when something more powerful and life-giving than human ego is given centre stage.