An Unusual Road to Monasticism

People sometimes wonder how I became interested in monastic life, which I am currently preparing to enter. It is hard to express, except in fragments and glimpses.

These are some glimpses of that kind: certainly not a “conversion story,” nor even a “vocation story”; but only pieces of the process, as I remember it.

I. Spring, 2005

I am a college student with a habit of staring holes through pages, people and other things. Studying the “Great Books of Western Civilization” has nearly caused me to despair of human reason. I can analyze everything and make sense of nothing, least of all my own life.

My roommate says I sometimes remind him of Siddhartha Gautama: the rich young man whose fixation on suffering and impermanence led him to become an ascetic and formulate the doctrines of Buddhism.

This is an undeserved compliment, but also a criticism. It’s not so much the ascetic religious founder, but the suffering-obsessed son of privilege, that he sees in me.

Still, this remark – and the recognition of my burned-out state – spurs me to resume the Zen meditation practice I learned in high school. Seeking some kind of freedom, some kind of wholeness, a truth beyond pure rational comprehension.

I am a very driven, very motivated, very frustrated person, academically and otherwise. This combination prompts my decision to leave college at the year’s end, with the hope of moving somewhere gray and unpleasant.

I want the opposite of “Siddhartha’s” indulged life. I want an end to luxury and useless intellectualism. I think about joining a Zen Center, a Buddhist temple, something of the sort. That seems like freedom, if anyone has it. That seems like truth, if that isn’t just a word.

Since age nine, when I borrowed my sister’s Walkman on a family trip, I’ve loved the long-defunct punk band Operation Ivy. After their frontman dropped out of public view, he was rumored to have become a monk. That has stuck with me.

So has the passage in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, where Holden Caulfield puts this question to his boarding school roommate:

“Listen. What’s the routine on joining a monastery?” I asked him. I was sort of toying with the idea of joining one. “Do you have to be a Catholic and all?”

I even feel a fleeting impulse to pray, myself. In response to – what?  A sense of beauty? Gratitude? And it is not a mere vestige of childhood religion, which was minimal in my case.

But in the spring of 2005, I am an atheist of long standing – albeit, an atheist who was troubled by reading the Confessions of St. Augustine; an atheist who has joked that he might someday become a priest. An atheist whose closest college friend once mentioned an interesting author named Thomas Merton.

II. Winter, 2005

I have not joined a Zen center. I have not moved to a gray city. I have come back to my hometown and struck up a volatile romance with a fascinating, troubled woman; and we have both contributed to its collapse.

Now we are both at the same Christmas party. This is a mistake. I have heard upsetting things about her recently, and I’ve responded gracelessly – explosively – to those things. Her problems run deep, but so do my immaturities. I am far from guiltless in all of this.

Guilt has been on my mind a lot lately, both as a philosophical theme and as a personal reality. Not a neurotic, maladjusted, irrational guilt; but the real, objective condition of human shortfall, from the ordinary to the tragic: the guilt that is not a self-centered emotion, but a profound fact about mankind.

One night during the rocky middle of our relationship, I told her I was losing my atheism and beginning to believe in Jesus Christ. It was strange news for her to hear, and for me to convey.

But this is also not – by any means – the most awkward reality between us. There is much more. And so I am locked in our mutual friend’s bathroom: slumped against the door, sitting on the linoleum floor. In a dejection that almost attains to serenity.

I pull out my phone and call a close friend across the country. We are like brothers, but he questions my newfound faith. His skepticism heightens when, during this particular talk, I think aloud about lifelong celibacy.

To him, it must seem only like a reaction to present circumstances. Perhaps it is that, but not only that. I am picking through the smashed glass of my recent life, asking what kind of life I actually want.

As I sit on the bathroom floor in someone else’s apartment, a clear image enters my mind. This is unusual, as I am not a “visual thinker.”

But in my mind’s eye, there is a scene which I am not so much imagining, as simply viewing. It is almost more real to me in that moment, than the room I am sitting in, or the party going on outside.

Two men are dressed in white, habit-like robes. They seem mature and yet ageless. They are standing on a sort of pier, by a large body of water. The sky above them is a brilliant blue.

What I see is the opposite of what I am living through. I see the peace and freedom I have at once desired, and willfully rejected. I see an absolute simplicity that is the opposite of all our twenty-something theatrics.

I understand immediately that this is the image of another kind of life. These are men who chose the path of Christian celibacy.

In the immediate moment, and for many years after, the men register only as archetypes: not particular historical figures, but anonymous symbols of that path.

I see them differently now. They no longer seem anonymous. But that is not important to discuss here.

III. Fall, 2006

Having returned to school, I have become fascinated with the Danish Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard – whom I have read ardently in the past, and whose book Works of Love I am reading in an elective seminar.

I am also becoming fascinated with a woman in the class above me. This is a bad combination, because of what I know about Kierkegaard’s own tortured romantic history: how he broke off an engagement to a woman he loved, knowing she could not accompany him in his philosophical quest. He never married.

I am no “Kierkegaard” now, just as I was no “Siddhartha” before. And yet, a Kierkegaardian question haunts me: Can it be a greater act of love, not to pursue someone romantically? Can the greater love – both towards God, and the human “other” – consist in renouncing that goal?   

Works of Love contains a discussion of St. Paul’s statement that “Love seeks not its own.” It does not seek to gain, but to give. This scripture verse becomes somewhat of an obsession. What does it mean for me in this situation? What does it mean for me in general?

I try to give college my all, as before. But I get distracted, at times, by the philosophical question that has arisen for me – the question of romantic love and religious sacrifice. Can the greater act of Christian love consist in letting go, renouncing that desire? Can one simply release it? Watch it float away?

And, then again: What if one could do that, but decides not to? What if you choose to pursue her anyway? Is that a loss? One that consists not in letting this person go – which could, in the eternal sense, be a great gain – but in refusing to do that, and thus choosing against the greater spiritual good?

It is not a servile or fearful anxiety that I feel. There is no dread of punishment in it. Either path could perhaps be a means of grace. Yet I always come back to the simple, impossibly hard question: Could the greater love – the greater self-giving, the fuller realization of one’s freedom – consists in renunciation?

Much of this is contemplated from afar, though not all. She and I become friendly, then something more. We talk about philosophy and faith; about each other, the past, the future. She knows I have decided to become a Catholic. She is a non-Catholic Christian, and wants to understand my choice.

In the end, I lack courage: I lack the courage not to pursue her romantically, the courage to choose the higher good of renunciation. I lack to courage to choose a higher love than romantic love.

In the end, over the course of a chaotic year, circumstances force us apart anyway. And yet the lesson is not learned. The courage – for renunciation, for celibacy, for greater freedom – is not gained. That will take another six years’ worth of failures.

I am in no position to recount most of those. But they have confirmed, for me, the words of Bl. John Henry Newman: “It is the rule of God’s Providence that we should succeed by failure.”

I have many reasons for wanting to become a monk. One of those reasons – not central, but present nonetheless – is to make a kind of reparation to those on whom I have inflicted my failures: to pray for them; to be reconciled with them; to love them rightly, for once.

image: Shutterstock

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former journalist, and incurable philosopher. He is preparing to enter monastic life at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.

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  • Koufax

    Brother, the point about giving up the one you love as being a greater act of love is very relevant in my life. Glad to see I am not alone.

  • anonymous

    I don’t get it. Why or how would giving up the one you Love be a greater act of Love? God IS Love. Love is inclusive. What is this question of romantic love and religious sacrifice? I can’t believe that God would ask us to forsake the other in religious sacrifice. Romantic Love is not complete. God does not want sacrifice, He wants mercy. The ultimate sacrifice has been made thus, is already in real Love. With God as center the couple/family grows together to His manifestation, real Love, Holiness. Mercy is also already in that real Love, and although may be hard to follow through in, the ‘how to’ in Mercy may be easier to understand. I mean, how can we truly and fully understand and know Love who IS God. Mercy draws us into participation in His Divine Life.

    He gave us His Law, we are to follow it.

    And, yes, I do believe HE sets some aside. John the Baptist is my favorite example for that.

  • catholicexchange

    My friend, you’ve asked this question a lot here and I’m not sure I can answer to your satisfaction, as much as I’d like because I think it’s a good question. However, just a few points:

    I can’t speak for Mr. Mann, but I think he can say that his calling was to love God and others in a way that is not necessarily romantic love. You’ve pointed out that some have been called to this life. When we embrace the religious life out of love it is not to scorn any other loves, for saying that would be like saying the man who gets married to one woman is scorning all other women. A commitment is made to grow in love.

    You also say, “God does not want sacrifice, He wants mercy.” I don’t know that I agree with that, because we are indeed called over and over again by Christ to give up so much in the cause of going after Him; even to the point of our very lives, if it comes to that. Again, mercy and sacrifice and love are not competing values but are part of the path to Christ. I know when I converted I wanted immediately to leave everything behind to follow Christ because he had given up so much for me that my life and my heart seemed so small in comparison. If only I could remember that desire more often!

    Again, I’m not sure I’m much help. Your comment just made me reflect on a few things and I wanted to respond.

    Prayers from me on this end of cyberspace that is all well and that you are looking forward to a good weekend.

    Michael Lichens

  • anonymous

    Hi Michael, I’m not sure what you mean when you say I’ve asked this question a lot here. I ask a lot? What question is that?

    I think my response to this article is being very misunderstood, and, i don’t know what other words to use. From your reply, i am seeing that we agree on most. I am seeing we are saying the same thing in different ways.

    Michael, I was responding to the author’s statement: “I get distracted, at times, by the philosophical question that has arisen for me – the question of romantic love and religious sacrifice. Can the greater act of Christian love consist in letting go, renouncing that desire? Can one simply release it?”

    My response was simply saying that i can’t believe God would ask us to choose. God does ask us to make a choice, but it is not between Romantic love and Religious Sacrifice. It appears that the author has struggled with this specific thing. perhaps could be read more like a journal.

    I think Mercy may be a little easier to adopt into one’s life as any sacrifice we make can never compare to what He did for us. Mercy and Sacrifice are already stuffed into Love, God is Love – the true meaning of Love, and oh, so easy in this world to turn upside down what Love is or perhaps i should say the word love.

    My thought is that the greater act of Christian Love is living one’s faith, living His Law.

    I’m sorry for any misunderstanding, and honestly, i still very well may not understand. Thanks for hearing me – that’s love.

  • catholicexchange

    Well, a misunderstanding on my part! My apologies. Apparently I need more coffee. :)

    Michael Lichens

  • Raul D. Valerio

    A monastic life and at the same time a chaste life in thoughts and in deeds, pray for this noble calling, vocation. I suggest you pray three Hail Marys everyday until you enter in the monastery and until you die as a monk, if you are accepted, pray the Rosary devoutly. A monastic life has three requirements; one is you have that strong desire, very, very strong desire that nobody can stop you to be a monk; second you have the capacity to become a monk, these are you pass the test mentally, physically, socially, spiritually, etc and last but not the least, the ability to stay a monk, meaning you are not going to quit or marry. If in your prayers, realization and discernment, you can fulfill all what I say, then you can be a monk. To be a good monk is to follow Jesus Christ! Our Lady of Carmel, pray for us. Jesus, I trust in u.
    NB
    I said pray the Holy Rosary because Mama Mary will help you fulfill your desire to die as
    a monk. To protect your vocation as a monk. I heard this advise from a priest.

  • chaco

    GLORY BE TO GOD ! I start with that to emphasize ; “God resides in the praises of His people.”(couldn’t locate where that is in the Bible, even with my concordance, but I’m sure it’s in there). I consider it a given that the most “POTENT PRAISE” is logically orientated toward the 2 things that “CLUB THE ENEMY” (deceibt) the hardest; 1) Eucharist & 2) Our Lady/ Immaculate Conception – the 2 things that the enemy never got its “Greasy Grubs” on. [Oh !, Our poor separated bretheren who don't have this "Edge".] After clubbing the deceiver to the point of unconsciousness or fleeing, I’ve experienced that my quieted spirit then receives some degree of union with Divine assurance/ peace. With such a regimen of praise, one can then go about offerring their daily Joys, Works & Trials in union with Our Eucharistic Lord and “Let
    the chips fall where they may.” (to quote a buffalo). From my own experience; If an attraction toward a romantic encounter isn’t fueled by a “Common Fire” of love for a benevolent God who proves His Love by WILLINGLY “Taking a Bullet” for us, it’s not worth pursuing. [Paul points out the distinction between marriage in Christ & other marriages (see 1 Cor. 7: 12).] But, even then it has to be discerned whether it is a “Marital Love” or a “Brother & Sister in Christ Love” – Addiction to out of control sexual appetite makes this discernment quite complicated. One major clue to my discernment was my now wife having a never felt before yearning to have a particular man’s children. [ There's a song with the refrain; "Have you ever really loved a woman ?" with a line in it; "...you can see your children in her eyes." ] Perhaps her yearning sprouted from an assurrance that I could help lead her children to the God she so adored. If we aren’t creating life; spiritual, biological or both, we can’t be fulfilled (The “Image of God” generates new life). We’re either married to The Church, our profession or a spouse. Final reflection; The most freedom attainable in this life is gained through a heartfelt assurance that you are doing the will of a God who knows & loves us better than we do ourselves – AND – developing a prayer /reflection regimen to stay strong in that *BLESSED ASSURANCE* ( “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in Her Heart.” Lk. 2: 19 )

  • Anonymous

    Thank you you for yet another excellent article. (You certainly are a talented writer.). May God bless you and sustain you in your vocation.

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