After the Second World War, when young men and women came face to face with the powers of good and evil in this world, there was an unprecedented surge in monastic vocations. We may well all understand the concept of good and evil; to some degree they come into our lives without the need of a World War. But for these people, once the fighting was over, the bare-faced and brutal reality of having looked squarely into the eyes of such engrossing darkness gave way to a new life dedicated to inner peace, found within the confraternity of community life. This exodus from the world of hatred, argument, vituperation and the need for worldly power played out across the entire world. Some monasteries were so full that they made foundations in other countries.
At around the same time, Thomas Merton became a Cistercian monk and his prolific spiritual writing took the world by storm. Humanity was hungry – ravenous, perhaps – for the works of goodness; those like Merton who wrote convincingly about the attainment of real and true harmony and peace found themselves in great demand.
We belong to the successive generations and, for us, it is very difficult to place ourselves in the mind-set of those who made such terrible sacrifices and saw their loved ones and comrades die in such quantities. But truly, it was not so long ago. Since then, too, wars continue throughout the world, reminding us that evil never ceases to claim the lives of many good people, selfless people who place themselves in direct danger in the name of freedom and good.
Reflecting on this gives us an opportunity to live more fully in God’s presence and to ‘seek and strive after peace’, as the Psalmist says.
It may well be that we do not have such horrors to navigate in our own lives, or perhaps our horrors are just different: illness, being bullied, injustice, division or bitter loneliness etc. Perhaps we live a relatively pedestrian life, where our awareness of good and evil are not so clear. It may even be that we have reduced these two forces to the confines of Hollywood movies, and we deny the existence of good versus evil outside the sphere of the big screen. After all, humanity has both a habit and a history of denying the truth if only for the sake of a more comfortable or convenient life.
But it is no mistake that most blockbuster films are based entirely on the interplay between these forces. The reason is this: we are all engaged in this fight, to some extent. Even children are fed on a diet of the battle between good and evil through media and the very first stories their parents read to them. On some level, we recognize this fight in our own lives, whether fist-on-fist against an enemy who wishes to destroy us, or working to rid the internet of abusive language, or putting effort into overcoming an addiction that threatens to destroy us from within. Everyone knows something of this battle, on some level.
When we reflect on the lives of those young men of the 1940s and 1950s whose gut reaction was to run to a monastery after the war, we see that God is able to transform even the worst terrors into the landscape of His beautiful garden.
Many people who do not grasp the essence of monastic life think that becoming a monk or a nun is a form of running away, a kind of escapism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Returning to the post-war influx of monastic vocations, these brave soldiers who had seen so much of life were not running away; nor were they trying to hide. At least, they were not running away from truth, from reality, from their own humanity. They were escaping, but from the absurdity of untruth: from a world polluted by the works of darkness, from a world that opened the human heart to pure evil. This was a world which starved them of their humanity, of their basic and fundamental need for good. The appalling reality of man’s inhumanity to man forced their hand, as it were, and they began to seek the communion for which they were created. They were starved of harmony. So yes, they were running, but into life, not from it. They came to our Cistercian monasteries because these places are beacons of hope and peace, founded on the ultimate truth of God’s presence, and lived out in community.
There exists in the human heart a flicker of light that reminds us of our homeland, our identity as children of God. We are created from matter that is billions of years old and, when we die, we continue to participate in creation as our mortal remains return to nature for another purpose. We are wrapped up in the work of creation, and our part is a vast one. That inner spark in the soul will never die and, if we attune ourselves to it now, we will begin to develop a relationship with our Creator that will last for all eternity. It is what we are for; this is our purpose: to know Him.
We may not be joining a monastery after horrendous experiences of war but, still, we are turning our back on an encircling cloud of vacuity that blurs our encounter with God. If we think of ourselves as broadcasters, then all these things are blocking the waves that we send out and receive. And so, we are saying ‘no’ to being ruled by our mobile phones, to the muscular reaction of scrolling endless posts on social media – a construct designed to foster addiction. We are saying ‘no’ to the god of money and commerce and financial stability, who tells us to work most of the hours God gives us in order to save money so that we can buy all of the endless rubbish that society tells us we must buy in order to be good and normal people. We are saying ‘no’ to the god of material wealth, an idol created by commerce who tells us to buy only the latest gadget or car or clothing or household items or brand, ensuring that we can never be content with what we have, and furthering social divides within communities. Though of a very different kind, this is still a form of warfare, and the world seems to be lost inside the trenches of the battle, certainly not the muddy trenches of the First World War, but the light-filled, glass-shelved trenches of commerce in which we become surrounded by vacuity masquerading as normality.
Yet, few of us are fighting. We have grown used to these distractions, allowing them into our homes as we passively sit in front of endless advertisements, and forgetting the danger of placing ourselves in the midst of unpleasantness on the internet. Have you ever noticed how, when watching, for example, a video about road rage, that it has become a form of entertainment, yet there is always an inner reaction to violence inside the heart, even if we are only watching it on TV. We are opening ourselves to a form of violence that demonstrates how passive we have become, and how little we care for the health of our souls.
We surround ourselves with noise: it is on the TV, on our phones, in supermarkets, in cars and public vehicles, in shops and airports, in swimming pools and on the end of the phone. Nowadays, documentaries must have sound tracks in order to keep us entertained. We have forgotten the beauty and the importance of silence. We have forgotten that it is a healer and a road to self-knowledge. Part of the reason we block it out is that we do not want to confront ourselves as we are – it is thelast thing we wish for. And so will fill the space with noise.
By turning our back on this endless tirade of vacuity, we are not running away from life, but running directly towards it. As St Benedict wrote: ‘Run whilst you have the light of life, that the darkness of death may not overtake you.’ We are not seeking to hide from our humanity, but to embrace it fully, within a community of like-minded individuals and in the name of the God of Love. For those with a vocation, becoming a monk will authenticate our humanity, not redact it. It will give us the situation in life to practice community charity. Once we have cleared away all the many distractions that life gives us, we find the space to know ourselves in a truer and fuller way than before. In his sixth-century Rule for monks, St Benedict called this ‘the school of the Lord’s service’. And in this school we begin to find a peace that the world cannot know.
So we say no to all those things already mentioned, but not because they are the final goal, but so as to clear a space for Christ. Through our ‘yes’, He infiltrates everything we do, and our life takes on greater meaning. There is a deep peace and a profound sense that we are growing into a wider landscape of fulfilment and humanity.
God’s peace has a single syllable which lasts for all eternity. His peace is new life, seeded inside our worst troubles, born from the very centre of our human experience.
Those who come to our door seeking to become monks have begun to take that internal flicker of God’s presence seriously. We are not experts, for we live in a mystery. Part of our vocation is to deconstruct our understanding of God so that we can be open to Him without all the preconceptions we have. Yet still, there is a sense that the way we lived previously is being turned upside-down. Jesus has always been a disturber, someone who has taken what humanity considers acceptable and turned our understanding on its head. There are as many ways for this to happen as there are people who experience it; there is no rule. But generally, that inner spark of God’s presence grows to illuminate both the light and the darkness of our life. We begin to make new decisions and promises, whilst turning from older ways.
We are invited to act by the gift of grace, and we begin to sense that we are intricately connected to our Creator, that He lives inside us, and that He is knocking on our front door to be let in. This is the story of conversion, yet it is only the beginning, for an entire lifetime cannot hold the newness that God has in store for us. Every day is a new day; every moment is a new beginning; every reading of Scripture is a new invitation to praise the God who is ever new and eternal.
The Christian life is awash with seeming contradictions: finding life through death, strength in weakness, riches in poverty, encounter in solitude and silence. All of these things take effort and require reappraisal. We must return to our promises and begin again. But to those who enter this narrow road, Jesus has already said:‘Knock and the door shall be opened.’ This is His promise to us that He will ‘…attend to the sound of our cry’ (Psalm 5.) For ours is the cry of the Psalmist when he writes: ‘O men, how long will your hearts be closed, will you love what is futile and seek what is false?’ (Psalm 4.)
Only God can bring us into the fullness of our humanity and raise us to be His eternal children. For He is the author of our race.
Only God can satisfy that inner longing in our hearts which endlessly trends towards goodness and never evil. For God is all Good.
Only God can transform us into the people we are created to be. For God, in His love, wants us to do our best, and He gives of Himself that we may attain sanctity.
The Psalms have the capacity to speak to us directly in the 21st century, for example in Psalm 119: ‘Alas, that I abide a stranger in Mesheck, dwell among the tents of Kedar! Long enough have I been dwelling with those who hate peace. I am for peace but when I speak, they are for fighting.’ We are made for peace, harmony, true community life and charity and we recognize this need not only in Scripture, but in our own lives now, in 2018.
We finish this reflection with a quote from the opening of Thomas Merton’s book, The waters of Siloe:
‘A monk is a man who has given up everything in order to possess everything. The monk has found the key to existence in things without romance and without drama – labour, hunger, poverty, solitude, the common life. It is the silence of Christ’s Nazareth, in which God is praised without pomp, among the wood shavings.
The monk’s business is to empty himself of all that is selfish and turbulent and make way for the unapprehended Spirit of God. That is his ministry and his whole life: to be transformed into God without fully realizing, himself, what is going on. Everybody who is drawn to the monastery and understands what is happening there, comes away with the awareness that Christ is living in those men: “That the world may know that Thou hast sent me, and hast loved them as Thou hast also loved me.”
… When the hermit St Anthony emerged from the ruined city in the desert that had echoed for twenty years with the bickering of the devils against him, his face astonished the men who had heard of him and had come to be his disciples. They did not see a dead man or a man twisted by fanaticism and half-idiot hatred, but one whose countenance shone with the simplicity and peace of Eden and the first days of the unspoiled world. It was a face that would make expressions like “self-possession” and “self-control” look ridiculous, because here was a man who was possessed, not by himself but by the very uncreated, infinite peace in Whom all life and all being lie cradled for eternity. He was more of a person than they had ever seen, because his personality had vanished within itself to drink at the very sources of reality and life.’