Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Touched by God

I have recently been digging into this book- a collection of testimonies of people who have taken up Benedict's call to follow hard and fast after God by entering the monastery. It is a fascinating and challenging read.

A number of things emerge strikingly from it. Here's one.

One of the most common experiences that every person in the book describes in some form is a period of intense difficulty that seems generally to begin in the novitiate (though not always) and reaches a supreme intensity in the years after Solemn Profession (when the monk/nun makes a total and irrevocable commitment to monastic life, like marriage vows). Each person who has written in this book speaks of a point where it all became too much, where they felt empty, depressed, utterly alone; felt that they might have made a mistake in choosing this life, that, in short, they needed out. For the reader, they certainly don't paint the monastic life in very flattering colours. It appears ruthless and demanding, like the army, maybe worse.

I know that there was a mass exodus from the various monasteries and Orders in the 60s and 70s, which is when most of these folk entered it, and one expects to hear such things from people who did leave. What makes these testimonies interesting is that each of these individuals stayed. For some it was a near thing. But God beckoned each of them on in different ways, and each of them made the choice not to abandon Him or their vows. One man took up an offer to study theology in Rome for three years, and through that whole experience returned to the monastery with his faith and his monastic vocation revivified. One lady did leave but had to go back to pick up some things, heard the sisters singing Vespers, and in that moment remembered the vow she had taken, the longing to surrender herself totally to seeking after God and realised that she could never really live contentedly elsewhere. One man took up a post as parish priest in which he served for seven years. Only then, after he had seen what it was all in aid of, was he ready to take up his monastic calling to the full.

At least one of the writers submitted that that period of utter desolation is what St John of the Cross means when he talks about the 'dark night of sense', that point that a person reaches where God makes the offer to them of loving Him for Himself simply, and not for any of His gifts; and so all the gifts are removed for a time and the soul left to grope after God, and eventually find Him, with no external incentive apart from Himself and that only. I have never experienced that, although I think two years ago I may have experienced something which approached it, albeit for a couple of weeks, not years at a time. The prospect is a scary one. One does not get many warm fuzzies reading these testimonies. But our faith is a relationship and it is proper that it should have these elements. We are called to love a Person. More than that, we are called to love Him the same way He loved us. And, if we take a moment to look at the Cross, we realise there was absolutely no external incentive for Him to love us. He loved us while we were still sinners, in the midst of our sin, and even had the creative audacity to use our sin to redeem us, though at the cost of His own life.

Why did the martyrs go to their deaths rejoicing? Why did Francis exult in giving up everything he could think of? Why did Anthony run to the desert? Precisely to reflect that extraordinary love in their own lives and, more than that, to live in that love; to become a diamond in which that light is captured, reflected and beamed forth anew.

Its a demanding relationship. It demands death. Actual death- with blood- or, failing that, the long, hard living death that stretches on for decades, that involves the sacrificial burning of our dreams, our desires, of all that we hold dear so that we may have, know and love Christ.

I become more and more convinced that we need to take this kind of relationship with God (for actually this is the only kind He offers us) deadly seriously. We live in a culture rife with hypocrisy, full of unfulfilled promises and salespitches. The saying by St Francis- "Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary"- is sometimes trotted out to relieve us of the responsibility of preaching the gospel with words. This is, I think, to misunderstand it. I do believe there is a lot of preaching with words that falls empty to the ground, even if well-intentioned. This does not, however, relieve us of the responsibility of bearing witness. On the contrary. But so much of our witness proves a counter-witness because our lives tell against it. People will only stand up and take notice when we look like what we're talking about. And that requires- REQUIRES- death. I suspect that there are times when it is actually easier to preach with words than not. To preach with our lives is well nigh impossible. Why? Because, well, at the end of the day, we don't want to die.

It is for this reason that I begin to get an inkling of why, in the second great Christian evangelistic push, after the Roman Empire fell, it was the monks who succeeded in converting whole nations, including most of those which are now sliding inexorably into a post-Christian malaise (eg. England, France, Germany, etc.). Every skerrick of the monk's life demands death; and every skerrick is a pull, an impulse, a tug towards the extraordinary love of God incarnated in Jesus Christ. Take a dozen lives formed in that kind of crucible by that kind of lifestyle and plant them in a pagan nation that has never heard the gospel before and things will happen!

This is why I begin to realise how necessary the monastic vocation is in our own time. Monasteries are not just powerhouses of prayer (although we certainly need them to be that too- nothing is more powerful than prayer and Christians who don't see the point of monks and nuns simply haven't understood what Scripture teaches about prayer); they are powerhouses of evangelism. Our post-Christian culture will always be able to dismiss Christians as hypocrites who don't believe in what they're selling as long as we allow ourselves to be merely singed by the Holy Spirit's fire, rather than burned up. Monks and nuns are there to show us, and the non-Christian world, what the latter is supposed to look like.

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