“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
When I was 19, I stood on a mountainside in Switzerland and cried out to God: “Be real to me!”
My next thought was: “I have to get to a monastery.”
In the following days God revealed himself to me in an unforgettable way. I had always had trouble reading the Bible, because, in a way, I knew too much about it. As the son of a Baptist minister, I grew up discussing theories of biblical inspiration at the breakfast table. I knew all the right answers but had never experienced the Scriptures as “meat and drink.”
Suddenly, I found all my spiritual hungers being satisfied by the Word. Ever after my sense of meaning and spiritual health has depended in large measure on meditating on Scripture, drawing my life from its inspiration. This remains my most startling experience of the supernatural — totally unexpected, totally real.
I didn’t make it to a monastery at that time. I was staying at a Protestant retreat center called L’Abri, a Calvinist outpost run by the apologist Francis Schaeffer. I suspect I’m one of the few who began his pilgrimage to Rome there, although many fine Christians owe much to Schaeffer’s influence.
Through one of my teachers, the writer Thomas Howard, I knew enough of the historic Church by that time to think of monasteries as spiritual powerhouses. I understood prayer as the vital link that connects us with the Love at the heart of all things. Books like Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and Dom Bede Griffith’s The Golden String became favorites.
The first time I actually made a monastic retreat it went badly. I stayed up much of the night arguing with an Anglican Benedictine, as we shattered the Great Silence, that belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ was a sine qua non of orthodoxy. Not something you’d think you’d have to argue with a monk, even an Anglican monk!
Through books and studying history, however, I came to understand ever more deeply the romance of monastic life. How can one not admire such spiritual athletes who renounce so much for the one thing needful: life in God?
When I praise monasticism, I often have people question the utility of such a life.
Only those who don’t believe in the efficacy of prayer can take this position, though. Prayer is work, hard work, and our faith gives us every reason to believe that the prayers of the faithful help establish the Kingdom of God in territory otherwise occupied by the Devil.
We could talk as well, of course, about how monasticism evangelized Europe and brought the best things about Western civilization into being. That’s a longer discussion for another time.
When I decided to marry, I felt the loss of this other great romance—the monastic life—to which I might have been called. I have a particular affection for medieval literature and thought of the characters in Piers Plowman—Do-Well, Do-Better, Do-Best. Do-Best is a hermit—someone utterly devoted to being “alone with the alone.” In marrying, was I settling for a lesser portion of God’s love?
I have since rethought these youthful categories, as the Church has, too, in a sense, speaking more clearly of the universal call to holiness versus the spiritual elitism of the past. Each vocation, whether to the religious life, to marriage, or to being single, has its challenges and benefits. I am immeasurably grateful now for how my family has taught me to love. God knew that’s where I’d find my school of charity.
I have been able to participate in the monastic life as well, from time to time, making retreats in monasteries across the United States and even in Italy, where I joined with Camaldolese in singing Lauds (Morning Prayer).
My family and I have been particularly blessed by stays at Clear Creek Monastery in northeastern Oklahoma. The Prior there, Fr. Philip Anderson, put monasticism in its proper perspective. “We do nothing special or unusual here,” Fr Anderson said. “We are simply privileged to enter into the prayer of the Church more often.”
We pray individually, but we pray collectively, as well, whatever our state of life. We pray not only with the living but with those who live before Christ in eternity, in communion with the saints. Joining with a monastic community in keeping the liturgical hours is a powerful means of realizing this truth.
This week’s community letter is a preamble to the retreat I’ll be making during Holy Week at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. I’ll be keeping a journal of my time there, posting updates frequently throughout the week.
I don’t know what the Lord has in store for me, but I do have faith that I’ll be surprised at what I learn. The spiritual problems I’ll be bringing to the monk who will be giving me direction remain obscure. I only know that the past two years have been particularly difficult and have lain to waste my sense of recollection. God has been keeping me together all along, but I have felt scattered. I’m looking forward to this concentrated time of prayer and reflection.
Look for the journal at Catholic Exchange and pray for me, as I will be praying for you.
Harold would like to know what Catholic Exchange has meant to its audience over the years. If a particular article or feature touched you or resulted in an important decision in your life, please write to Harold@catholicexchange.com.
Now for the… BIG NEWS
I’m thrilled to announce that Genevieve Kineke is joining Catholic Exchange as editor of the Today’s Catholic Woman channel. Genevieve is a talented writer and insightful thinker, as readers of her popular blog, “Feminine Genius,” know well. Genevieve Kineke is what I would call a ferocious Catholic, examining every issue in the light of the Church’s teaching, giving no quarter to secularism.
Genevieve has been especially interested in how women image God, and founded a quarterly journal in 1992 dedicated to that topic, Canticle Magazine. Her book, The Authentic Catholic Woman, is founded on presentations given during her many speaking engagements. Using a solid Catholic foundation and universal appeal, her work’s thesis is that the feminine vocation is a call to live as an icon of Holy Mother Church.
For three years Genevieve hosted a weekly television and radio show in Rhode Island, called Women in the Church Today, and she hosted a 13-part series on the same topic for Boston Catholic Television. She has been published in many periodicals, including Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Catholic World Report, and Inside the Vatican; she has also appeared numerous times as a guest on EWTN. In 2008, she was asked to address the participants of a Vatican congress honoring the 20th anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem.
Genevieve has been married for 26 years and is the mother of five.
Catholic Exchange is so pleased that Genevieve Kineke has decided to join us.
Every good and perfect gift,
Harold Fickett, President, Catholic Exchange