The Spark from Heaven: The Mystery of the Monastic Life


Thou waitest for the spark from heaven! And we,
   Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
           Who never deeply felt, nor clearly willed

   Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,
       Whose vague resolves never have been fulfill’d;
           For whom each year we see

   Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new;
       Who hesitate and falter life away,
        And lose to-morrow the ground won today –

   Ah! Do not we, wanderer! await it too?
            —“The Scholar-Gipsy,” Matthew Arnold

Recently my wife and I have been looking to buy a house our first. Constrained as we are by a limited budget, and young and full of dreams as we are, none of the houses that we have yet seen have measured up to our visions, with the result that we have spent a considerable amount of time with our realtor (bless her heart) in search of “the one.” As will happen, professional barriers have begun to be replaced with a more casual acquaintance, until recently we found ourselves standing on the driveway of a house we had viewed (not “the one”, alas!) discussing, as will also happen, religion.

At some point I had mentioned that I was going to spend a few days over Easter at a traditional monastery, and this seemed to pique Cindy’s curiosity. Cindy, our realtor,  is a fallen-away Catholic, jaded by the chaos of the sixties and seventies, and the scandals that were brewed in their midst, and expressed her skepticism about the monastic project. “You will probably disagree with me,” she said, “but it seems to me that the life of a monk is a life without choices.” But I did not disagree, pointing out that the lack of choices is precisely the point – that a monk gives up his right to choose in order that he may be able to focus, without distraction, on the one thing that matters.

But of course, Cindy’s complaint wasn’t really that monks are not able (or, perhaps, are unwilling) to choose. This was simply her way of saying that in her view the life of a monk is a dull one, without responsibility, comfort, freedom or happiness. I realized this at the time, and I tried to head off these objections by explaining that many of the priests, monks, and nuns that I know are some of the happiest people I know – far happier, I said, than myself or her. “Are they?” Cindy answered. “I am glad to hear that.”

But I don’t think she believed me. And I don’t blame her. Of what, after all, does the life of a monk consist?

Routine, mostly.

A monk does the same thing day after day after day – no matter the day of the week, the season, the year, the decade…or the millennia, for that matter. A monk here at Clear Creek, the traditional Benedictine monastery in Oklahoma where I am writing this article, does today almost exactly the same thing a Benedictine monk would have done a thousand years ago on the same day of the year: he wakes up at the same time, puts on the same clothes, recites the same psalms, works at the same tasks, attends the same mass, says the same prayers, eats basically the same food, and goes to bed at the same time.

Of course, over the course of the months and years there are the certain changes: the breviary cycles through the various psalms and scriptures, feast days come and go, the food changes depending on what is in season or whether it is a penitential season or not, the weather waxes and wanes with the tilt of the earth, a new abbot is elected, new monks join the monastery, old ones die, etc.

But these are not the things that we think of when we think of “change.” When we think of change we think of a wide variety of new experiences, of adventure and excitement: getting married, perhaps, having children, travelling, trying new cuisines, getting a promotion, winning an award, buying a new and better car, moving to a new house, going to parties, seeing the latest movies, buying the latest gadgets, voting for the latest political candidate, making new friends, taking up new hobbies. But all of these are permanently closed to the monk.

A monk at Clear Creek Monastery will spend his entire life, but for extraordinary circumstances, such as the death of a parent, on the same small piece of land, praying in the same church, eating in the same refectory, and sleeping in the same bed in the same tiny cell. When he joins the order he essentially says farewell, for life, to all of those whom he has loved and cared for: practically cutting himself off from all interaction with his friends and family, except for the rare letter or telephone call or visit with close family members. And what is perhaps most shocking to the modern world, he decisively cuts himself off from any sustained interaction with the opposite sex, and from the pleasures of sex or romance.

Monks here follow a strict rule of silence, meaning that except for during the occasional times of recreation, the only speech they have with their brother monks is whatever is necessary in order to carry out their work. And after nine o’clock at night – the beginning of what they call the “Grand Silence” – they do not talk at all, but for emergencies, until the morning. Nine times a day a monk is summoned by the bell either to pray or to eat, and he will be expected to respond promptly every single time, unless he is sick. And even in between these times of communal prayer his time is not his own: he must work at the task appointed to him by his superior, whether or not he finds it congenial. And the fruits of his labor, whether physical or intellectual, will not accrue to him in the form of personal wealth or prestige, but will transfer to the order in general.

So too are there many physical hardships. Monks here rise for matins and lauds long before the first glimmer of the sun touches the horizon. In the winter months the steam billows from the mouths of the monks, their heads enshrouded in their cowls, as they chant the psalms in the early morning darkness, with temperatures in the church dipping to freezing and below. Meals, while sufficient in quantity, are extremely simple in quality, and it goes without saying that a monk cannot choose what he would prefer to eat – cannot treat himself to a steak and a beer after a hard week’s work, or order pizza when he is in the mood.

Entertainment, as we think of it, is practically nonexistent. Occasionally the monks will host a concert of sacred music, and there are, as previously mentioned, times of recreation, when the monks are free to talk with one another and may perhaps go on a hike or play a game of soccer. But there are no televisions, movies, music, video games, concerts, plays, or novelties of any kind. And of course, there are no vacations, other than the occasional days of rest from work on high feasts, and Sundays: but even on these days the monk is expected to respond to the call of the bell to mass and the divine office.

For the young monk the days stretch on into years, and the years into decades, every one outwardly the same as the one before, until the day when at last he dies, practically unknown and uncelebrated save by a few of his brother monks, and his surviving family members, most of whom will hardly know who he is.

Truly the life of a monk is one of repetition, hard work, and duty, a life of continual austerity and self-denial, without any of the comforts or pleasures or honors for which we men of the world yearn and work so hard.

But if this is so, why, then, do we envy the monk his life? Because the fact is, we do envy him his life: and I don’t mean just conservative, orthodox Catholics, who may have seriously considered a religious vocation at one point, and now that they are married with a dozen demanding children on occasion wistfully ponder if they might have missed their true calling. No, I mean the average person, non-Catholics included.

Why, for instance, is it that a three-hour, almost entirely silent film simply showing the daily routine of a group of Cistercian monks in France won the special jury prize at the Sundance festival, and went on to make millions at the box office, and even more in DVD sales? Why is it that another largely silent movie about a group of Algerian monks who were martyred by Islamic extremists won the coveted Grand Prix at the Cannesfilm festival, and literally topped the French box office for weeks on end? Why are there popular reality television series about pilgrims visiting these monasteries and attempting to live in accordance with their rules? Why are CD’s of Gregorian chant selling like hotcakes? And why, in this age of excitement and progress and technology and entertainment and opportunity, are the ranks of the strictest and most traditional orders swelling with young men and women?

What gives?

Is it simply the appeal of living a “simple” life, of knowing that as a monk we would never have to worry about what we would eat that day, or how we would make our mortgage or our car payments, or whether we would be able to keep or find a job or win that promotion? Is it this that makes us daydream about becoming a monk or a nun? Or is it the rustic setting, with its picturesque hills and bubbling creeks and rolling pastures? Or is it the peacefulnesswith nothing but the sound of the breeze through the trees, the newborn lambs bleating (as they are now outside my window) in the spring, of cattle lowing, of birds singing? Or is it the purity and beauty of the Benedictine architecture, or of the Gregorian chant, which soothes the mind and the heart as the voices of the monks rise and echo amidst the empty spaces in the soaring nave of the church?

The answer is that, yes, it is all of these things. But it is also much more than them. For as anyone who has taken a vacation knows, a bucolic setting and silence are nice for a while, but can soon drive a man out of his mind without further stimulation.

No, we envy the monks for the same reason the narrator in Matthew Arnold’s poem envies the scholar-gipsy: we envy them because they are men who have found their purpose in life, and who have dropped every extraneous striving in order to, as Arnold writes, devote themselves entirely to this “one aim, one business, one desire.” They are the men who patiently wait for “the spark from heaven” to fall, and whose faculties are utterly collected and utterly devoted to the search for that spark: while we, we men of the world, move ceaselessly from “change to change,” our energies dissipated by a variety of pursuits, jostled about by the “repeated shocks” of life, which “exhaust the strongest souls.” Just like the scholar-gipsy, these monks have left the world “early,” “with powers / Fresh, undiverted to the world without / Firm to their mark, not spent on other things”: while we “fluctuate idly without term or scope / Of whom each strives, nor knows for what he strives, / And each half lives a hundred different lives.”

Unlike us, a monk never doubts “for what he strives.” He strives for God, and only God, because he has learned the great truth that God is everything, and in possessing God, he possesses everything.

Indeed, it wasn’t until much later, after my conversation with Cindy, that I realized I was wrong when I agreed with her that the life of a monk is one without choice. On the contrary, it is a life entirely suffused with choice. Choice permeates every breath a monk takes, every beat of his heart, every motion of his limbs: for he has done what we men of the world have not done and dare not do – he has chosen irrevocably, in a single moment of divine folly, to give up his life, his will, his all, in exchange for the One Good which surpasses all other goods. Every single thing that he does from the day of his final vows onward flows directly from that choice, and is, in a sense, part of that choice.

No, the monk has not given up his right to choose, he has simply made his choice, once and for all. And it is for this, more than anything else, that we envy him.

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