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.