I returned a few days ago from traveling with a group of students during USC’s “Maymester”. As described in a post early this year, the topic of this off-campus course was Christian monasticism.
The students and I spent four days in each of three monasteries: Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine men’s community in northern New Mexico; The Holy Monastery of St Paisius, an Orthodox women’s monastery in Arizona; and St Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, one of the Elder Ephraim’s foundations, also in Arizona.
The students were asked to keep journals during our travels. The majority of them were from Protestant backgrounds. Roman Catholic and, especially, Orthodox teachings concerning such things as the Mother of God, the veneration of icons and relics, and the soteriological meaning and purpose of ascetic struggle were something they’d never encountered before.
Needless to say, there were many questions, and not a few moments of utter bewilderment and skepticism! At the same time, I’m finding that the entries in their journals betoken an admirable depth of insight and spiritual engagement. It’s obvious these young people were, and are, processing things on a very deep level. I thought you might be interested in a few of their reflections:
“It has been refreshing to see people who aren’t concerned with things like good looks, money, or personal glory. The monks and nuns I have met on this trip have a certain lightness about them that I believe most worldly people don’t have.”
“I am amazed by St Anthony’s! I seem to catch a vibe from Orthodox Christians that beauty can be healing for the soul. I think they’re right!”
“The heights of the nearby mountains dwarf both the monastery and its inhabitants. This is a constant reminder of the exhortations of St Benedict concerning the search for a humble and contrite heart. As one gazes upon the peaks and their beauty, the soul is reminded of its smallness compared to the mountains—the Mountains of Christ and His saints. Truly the geography reflects the monastic vision.”
“Quite honestly, I was plagued by depression for the last few months. As I have gotten deeper into college life, I’ve realized I no longer want to get a nice job for the sake of making money or to impress my peers. Why am I in college? Who cares if I can make all A’s? If I grow up and get a good job, what would that really do for me? These thoughts plagued me for many months and brought me deep sadness. However, after seeing these monks and nuns, I am energized with a zeal for life. Finally, people who really understand what I was feeling! These men and women aren’t out to impress anyone. They’re not trying to look attractive or intelligent so that people will flock to them. They aren’t hiding their inner struggles to appear perfect, either to themselves or to others. They go through life with a purpose. Monasticism has refreshed me, given me energy and drive!”
“I hate the fact that I have so many possessions, and I hate even more that I cannot bring myself to part from them! In contrast, these monastics have virtually no possessions. They’ve willingly given them up in order to seek God. This is both inspiring and terrifying! It’s certainly got to be freeing. I guess it’s just a fact that the most massive lie we as human beings have bought into is that anything can be more fulfilling than God.”
“The Sunday morning service was amazing. I enjoyed it, even though I had no clue what was going on 85% of the time. It’s incredible to me that people, young and old, are willing to sit (and stand!) through a three-hour church service, whereas people at my church throw a fit if the sermon is over twenty minutes long. I think this really exemplifies the ideals of monasticism.”
“The community that has sprung up around St Anthony’s shows that it is possible to live a certain kind of ‘monastic’ life without actually being a monk or nun. The parents seem to be instilling in their children the importance of God. The older children help with the younger ones, and they all seem to lift one another up. And they have the monks as examples. Even though I sometimes disliked the crowded, somewhat ‘touristy’ feeling here, I can appreciate what attracts people to this place.”
“I’m beginning to see that a good candidate for the monastic life is going to be someone who desires to learn to love in a totally radical way.”
“One thing I’ve noticed. The Protestant churches got rid of some things at the Reformation that they shouldn’t have. I don’t know why we don’t emphasize clearly Biblical practices like fasting and prayer (in the ‘pray without ceasing’ sense). It also seems like a good practice to confess our sins to another person, especially a wiser spiritual leader. It seems like this would make you more truly repentant.”
“I’m glad we have been able to help the monks with their work. The participant in the work gets to experience firsthand the range of human emotion, spirituality, and personal growth in virtue that accompanies physical labor.”
“By abstaining from heavy foods and eating less, I do feel a lot better. I guess this is the purpose of fasting, to avoid feeling sluggish and having dull thoughts. If so, it seems to be working!”
“As I have entered back into ‘normal’ life, it seems the world has a different sense about it. I am shocked by the vulgarity of non-monastic life, the bestial concern with the immediate and the forgetfulness of death. Rage and moodiness had no place at the monasteries. The average man, however, seems to have an existence permeated by these fits of passion. He lacks true vision, thus making him only a shadow of those who are really human, the monks.”