Why I am going to a monastery
The difficult practice of true rest and real relationship.
People often ask me why I want to enter a monastery and I am beginning to realize why this question has been hard to answer. One does not go to a monastery because one likes this or that lifestyle—wanting has little to do with the process. Instead, I need to go to a monastery, but trying to articulate the difference is complicated and takes practice.
Much of the difficulty stems from a misunderstanding of motivation. Most seem to think one enters a monastery or convent because one desires solitude or “whatever it is they do in monasteries or convents.” In this way people seem to conflate desiring solitude with the central motivation. People go to monasteries to get away from the world, right? Although superficially plausible, I think this explanation is incomplete.
The problem has to do with how we tend to talk about our motivations today. We date for compatibility. We enter university to get the career we most enjoy. We attend one church rather than another because the service suits our spiritual preferences (other services aren’t bad per se—they just aren’t “right for me”).
What fascinates me about this way of speaking is that we tend to speak the same way about shopping. This register is effective for avoiding conflict, and that is why we use it to talk about going to church: “I just like this or that service better, so there is no need get mad. I am just expressing what speaks to me.”
But this register is effective precisely because it softens certain forms of contact. The sort of relationship you can have when speaking this way is one of shared interest. Those who have eclectic interests are often best able to relate with multiple people. But a shared interest is the icebreaker; it is never the sustaining factor in a relationship.
Ever notice how awkward it feels to work out issues with a good friend while trying to have fun together? The shared interest is rather dull, every moment of silence is agonizing, and the friend’s very presence induces anxiety.
The same would be true if I tried to enter a monastery for the solitude. Being there, alone and quiet, would become a noisy hell. I would start to loathe the silence and yearn for the presence of others to get away from my own voice, not so much from the voice of God. So much for the solitude.
The truth is, a monastery has little to do with being alone or getting away from the world—little to do with liking that kind of “religious stuff.” I am going to a monastery because I need to, not because I want to. And this need reflects a deeper desire to relate to others in a culture of icebreakers and distractions—all the flashy entertainment we use to “unwind” after a difficult day. When I watch a television show to unwind, it is much like taking a sleeping pill before tending to an open wound. It is the wrong sort of rest, inappropriate to the circumstances.
The right sort of rest takes practice, and monasteries are houses of practice. My sin, my insecurities, my pride—these all cut me off from others even while we are talking. As long as I numb myself to these issues, as long as I ignore my own mortality and sinful nature, they have free reign in my soul and act as barriers to participating in community. Instead, I pray daily to practice true rest in the words of Psalm 1. I pray for that delight we can have in the law of the Lord. I pray to be like a tree planted by streams of water, a tree which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—to prosper in whatever I do—isn’t that a maturity, a restfulness, worth pursuing in faith?