Monday, September 17, 2018

the closest exit may be behind you

The voice of God comes to us in strange faces.

I saw a woman with her thumb stuck out on the highway in North Carolina, and I didn’t stop, because it’s easier to pray that someone else will. But I realized that the commitment to hospitality is not simply opening one’s house for dinner parties or brunches, but to stop and help the pregnant woman in socks call her brother. And when I think about what it means to be a monastic living in heart of the world, it is certainly to feel that you are the person responsible for hitchhikers.
Because you are.

I have never been one for stability, in that I feel most at home in airports, and I think I am happiest feeling wind roar through an open car window I could live my entire life on subways—there is a thrill in simply going, feeling yourself on a journey, knowing that you are alive because you are moving from point A to point B. You are drinking in the entire world, you think, because you are at least dipping your toes into a new pond. Take your hand off the exit door, asks the monastery. Could you maybe commit to staying?

This is unwise. Your monastery may burn down. They have been known to do so. There could be a better monastery, on the other mountain. Maybe that monastery writes poetry and offers a better view of the sunrise on winter mornings. Maybe at another monastery, there will not be that annoying monk who grinds his teeth at dinner. Maybe at the other monastery, you will always be the best version of yourself—praying the hours thoroughly and meditatively, holding your feelings in balance with reason, and living in perfect conformity to Christ.

You probably won’t. But if you bounce from monastery to monastery you’ll never have to confront that—you can always be the image of the monk you wish you were and who you truly are, when you are not tested. But the voice of God comes to us over bad connections, on long Indiana highways, and asks us to step away from the exit. You may protest, and rightfully so, that you are used to living in doorways. That many people are trapped in rooms too small for you, and you have no interest in being so, no sir, not you. You may have been trapped before and saved only because your hand was on the door. Or maybe it wasn't back then. And you don't make the same mistake twice.

You may want to step away from the exit, in fact, now this is the first time you are maybe convinced you would like to, and not know how. And your stomach lurches when you realize that simply knowing and wanting are not enough in this case, but must be followed by some activity. And you don't know the activity of staying, because you have always exited. Self-awareness is the font of grace, but not grace itself. How torturous a first step, when you cannot make the rest of the journey. The voice of God comes in the quiet request for something you don’t know how to do—a journey of remaining you are not sure how to begin.

We could stay in our peripatetic shell, the easy way we’ve always known, although we know it limits us. But love requires that we do hard things we don’t know how to do. Not by any sort of calculating rule, but because desire necessarily demands transformation. Stability is impossible without, I think, Benedict's third vow—conversion of life. This vow that keeps stability always fresh, that frees us to grow older and deeper, because we are rooted in something deeper than just the version of ourselves given to us by ourselves. We are rooted not in our vain image of perfection or the dark image of our sinful worthless, we are rooted in someone who is not ourselves.

This other person, like the new light of afternoon sun upon the monastery stones, will show us parts of ourselves that had been hidden in shadow. They will remove the scales of justice and sword from our hands. Why don't you, I say, live up to my standards, so that you can earn my love, conveniently excusing my own lapses in ideals.

As I walk through the cellar art gallery cum nuclear fallout vault, the monk says, so nonchalantly one could mistake it for a throwaway line: it's good to have ideals, but not to be idealistic.

The voice of God comes to us in strange places—in between illuminated scriptures in glass cases in the middle of a cold Minnesotan rain.

It's impossible to commit to this grey midcentury monastery—there may be better places. Indeed, there most likely are. But the point is that you are not there. You are here. There is one common factor in all these monasteries—you. You want places that will allow you to be the monk you want to with no effort or intention. The good you seek will slide into place like magic and wishful thinking, with no exertion of your will.

These places are utopia, not paradise. To persist in seeking them is to never enter anywhere at all, but rather to be always exiting.

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