The Monastic Life
If I werent a Mormon I would be a monk.
I can see me now. Head close shaven. Heavy beard. Handmade leather shoes and a cassock about as comfortable as a burlap potato sack. My fellow monks and I would be known in our community as service oriented individuals. No, not just helping old ladies crossing the street for us. We would do cool things like paint over graffiti and clean up inner-city parks like the nuns from Sister Act. We would be hip and cool, and youth would flock to hear us teach. Our monastery would be high in the mountain tops, but we would skateboard into town on well paved state highways to do our charitable work. On weekends families would come to tour the Brotherhood of the Awesome Saints of Christ monastery, and we’d sell our homemade goat cheese and wood products to support ourselves. My days would start before the sun comes up with Third Hour Prayers and end in the evenings with Vespers and Compline. My cell, six foot by ten foot, would hold only my small bed, a desk with a lamp, and a small dresser with two drawers of necessary clothing. Other than my hidden cooler of Pepsi under the bed and my Kindle Fire placed reverently beneath my pillow, I would be a complete hermit. Life would be easy, focused on the divine, and simplistic.
The word monk comes form the Greek “monachos“, meaning to be single and solitary. – I like that.
When I graduated from high school many of my fellow graduates embarked on a variety of Senior Trips. Cancun, New York, and even Los Angeles were the exciting destinations of choice. They went in groups large and small, and the stories that I heard afterward were undoubtedly exciting and shared by many. But I took my senior trip by myself. On Monday, 10 June 2002, I got in my small Toyota Tercel and drove 600 miles to Hannibal, Missouri where I checked in at the Garth Woodside Mansion Bed & Breakfast. After spending the night on the greatest bed in the world (feathers! the bed was made of feathers for goodness sake!) I arose and joined in with couples from across the world for breakfast. Being 18, traveling alone, and a Mormon on my way to visit the soon-to-be dedicated Nauvoo, Illinois Temple made for exciting conversation. After a leisurely morning in Hannibal I made my way into Iowa, and then slowly snaked my way north along the east edge of the Mississippi River to Nauvoo the Beautiful. I spent three days traveling, sight seeing, and generally going about as I wanted. There was no schedule, other than the one I concocted on whim; I ate when I wanted if I wanted, and had ample opportunity to commune with God on my pygmy pilgrimage. It was great.
When I turned 16 in May of 2000 I had boldy approached my parents and said, “I think I want to drive to Utah this summer.” My mom had replied in complete shock in a pitch of voice I’d never heard before, “What? By your-self” – She had accentuated the “yourself” like it was a dirty, foul, disgusting word on her tongue. – Once I had replied in the affirmative my awesome stepfather stepped in, patted my mom on the back, and said simply, “I think that would be a fun idea.” – So I set off alone that summer and had the time of my life.
I’ve always been like that.
When I was little I cherished each and every moment I was alone. I enjoyed the silence. I enjoyed the solitude. I enjoyed doing as I wished and not having to accomodate someone else’s schedule. And it was when I was a young boy I first had the inclinations that Jesus was a pretty neat guy and that I wanted to follow Him. My father, divorced from my mother and serving a variety of sentences in a Michigan penetentiary, had sent me small comic books about Jesus. They covered from birth to resurrection, and those, along with the Children’s Bibles my Grandma and Grandpa Way had given me, provided the basis of my young Christian faith.
Early one morning as a youth, as foolish young boys tend to do, I took my BB gun and shot a small baby bird as it was hopping across a neighbors field. I had hit it, but not with a fatal shot. And I was left to watch as it struggled for some time, dying slowly, and chirping intense chirps of agonizing anguish. The neighbor’s field had an electric fence which held in their horses, and I was unable to access the dusty field of death which I alone had created for this tiny creature. As I realized the magnitude of what I had done I began to cry, feel pangs of guilt, and unload BB after BB trying to put the small bird out of its misery.
I cannot tell you how many BB’s I shot at that tiny bird that summer morning long ago when I was only seven or eight years of age. But I remember unloading my BB gun and still not being able to hit the small bird again. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only fifteen or twenty minutes, I finally gave up and couldn’t watch any longer. I ran back into my house. With no one around I ran straight into my small bedroom and threw myself down in front of a small picture of Jesus hanging on my bedroom wall and I begged, between sobs of totall sorrow, for forgiveness and for the bird to just die quickly and be spared from any more pain.
It was a sacred moment, alone in my bedroom, with a picture of Jesus, that I told Him I wouldn’t hurt anything or anyone else ever again intentionally. I went on for some time crying, pleading for mercy, and asking Jesus to take away that bird’s pain when it finally came. It was a peace, a warmth, and something truly holy that I had never fully experienced before. I felt it from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes in my sneakers. And I knew the Lord forgave me, and that He loved me, and that the little bird was going to be okay. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to serve Jesus. I wanted to follow Him. And I wanted to do only the things He wanted me to do.
So as a Protestant youth in central Utah I would often dream of one day being a priest, a Catholic priest nontheless (because even as a youth I realized the Protestants had it all wrong), and of living a life without marriage and commited soley to God. It was a fun thought as a child, and I loved movies that showed monks, priests, friars or anyone living a monastic lifestyle. It seemed exciting. It seemed adventurous. And it seemed like something Indiana Jones might do for a summer in-between finding buried treasures (becuase what young man doesn’t want to be in-part like Indiana Jones?!).
Obviously things turned out differently. My love of Christ and desire to do His will have been a constant throughout my life. And my desire to spend my time alone, with Him, and with no one else, has always been a source of great strength for me. But one cannot be a Mormon and a monk. It turns out, the Lord really likes marriage, insomuch that He’s commanded that everyone do it. And, in addition to that, we have to work out our own niche in the world in some sort of living to provide for our families. No filthy lucre for us Mormons while teaching others about His great sacrfice. We have to provide for our own and teach about Him.
Yet a monastic life is one I often find myself daydreaming of. Films such as “Into Great Silence” and “Of Gods and Men” help inspire my subconcious thoughts. Monk’s lives are so simple. So pure. But in reality I’m already blessed to lead a consecrated life, one in which I have covenanted to give my talents, time, and own will to do the things the Lord would have me do. I remember in my exit interview from my mission asking my mission president, President Kevin Pinegar, only one question. “How do you live a consecrated life?” I had asked. He replied with a story about a scouting trip in which one of the scout leader’s trucks had broken down; so a good brother from his ward had stepped up and offered his own truck for the camping excursion. At the time is seemed too simple. Too simplistic. Not enough of a sacrifice in my zealous missionary mind. But as I’ve matured, lived, and learned, I’ve realized that it is in the daily sacrifices we truly come closer to God.
In 17th Century France there lived a common monk that went simply by the name of Brother Lawrence. He was a monk after the Carmelite Order who entered the monastic way of life at the age of 24. Without any unique abilities or talents he was quickly assigned to menial tasks within the priory, and spent the remainder of his life in such positions we would now term as a “cook” and “janitor”. Amid the mundane (and not super spiritual) tasks of cleaning and cooking, he made it a habit to continually turn his mind to the Lord.
Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”
– Brother Lawrence; “The Practice of the Presence of God“
Cleaning toilets was Brother Lawrence’s “common business”. Yet he did it “wholly for the love of him”.
The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”
I confess I’m yet to attain the tranquility which Brother Lawrence attained doing his everyday jobs. In fact, it is when I’m at work dealing with God’s other children (i.e. the good folks of Walker County Alabama) that I often feel furthest from Him. Being yelled at for phone bill overages that aren’t my fault isn’t exactly my cup of tea. But I’m sure I can learn from my faithful French friend, who in fact gained fame among Christians only after his death and when his private writings were published by another.
The famous Protestant Reformer’s words have also always touched me.
A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God.”
– Martin Luther
And in our own day Elder D. Todd Christofferson has said,
True success in this life comes in consecrating our lives—that is, our time and choices—to God’s purposes.
Perhaps the hymn says it best when it says,
It may not be on the mountain’s height, Or over the stormy sea; It may not be at the battle’s front, My Lord will have need of me; But if by a still, small voice He calls, To paths that I do not know, I’ll answer, dear Lord, with my hand in Thine, I’ll go where You want me to go.”
The truth is that a consecrated life is the greatest form of a monastic life. Because in service, among others, and in the nitty gritty of things, is truly where we get to commune with God the greatest.
In closing, I’ll probably never end up with a group of guys on a mountaintop raising goats and making cheese for Jesus. But I can live simply (I love the Small House Movement for instance!), and serve wherever and however the Lord lets me in my small part of Zion. And if I’m really feeling froggy, perhaps I’ll even wear a cassock…but don’t count on it. I’m far better looking in a shirt and tie.