Rev. William “Dawg” Strong shares a window of his experience as a Monastic Guest
Monastic Institute Reflection
Talking with Br. Mary Clement from Holy Spirit about doing lectio divina with the Job readings we’ve been hearing all month, he replied, “That much lectio probably isn’t helpful. Maybe you shouldn’t practice it so much.” I kept my mouth shut, but what I wanted to say was, “Well, flipping doodah, brother, have you seen this place? Every building and pathway, every human and every creeping creature, every mossy tree; the work, the weather, the history – it’s all one big open book of walking, talking, living, breathing parables. I’m in a constant state of lectio. It’s both overwhelming and exhilarating at the same time.”
It seems to me that not to read – the people, the place, the circumstances – would be, as Sr. Manuela explained, negligent. So here are some of the parables I’ve encountered in the last few weeks and how I have read them.
Work. Thomas and I have spent most of our time chiseling old mortar and paint off the stones that will be used to build the new Marian grotto out by the library. Talk about a parable of the spiritual life. Some stones just need a little dusting off, other stones need to get whacked with the biggest hammer we’ve got. Whether or not they come clean effortlessly or take a long time, all the stones are precious. Hard stone doesn’t come from the Low Country so these had to be bought and brought here at great outlay of money, time and labor.
Well, flipping doodah, isn’t this place and program – isn’t Jesus – doing the same thing to me that I’m doing to these granite blocks? Unfortunately, I’m one of those stones that requires a lot of knocking about and extra power washing. I feel bad that I cause so much extra work – for Jesus, for Fr. Guerric, for my family, for all y’all. But I am also grateful, profoundly grateful, that so many have taken so much time to knock the accumulated debris of proud and wayward living off the surface of my soul. I must be precious to Jesus. God must love me very much. And the rest of you all must be at least a little bit fond of me, because no one spends this much time on something or someone they don’t care about. Of course, for some of you all, it might not be fondness, it might just be the fact that the monks lock us in here after 6 PM and we can’t leave even if we wanted. I know. I tried.
Earplugs. I am easily distracted in worship. I have a hard time keeping up with which page I’m supposed to be on and where all those ribbons are supposed to go. In an effort to keep focused and shut out the sounds of the other people around me, I tried wearing earplugs. What a disaster! I’m tone deaf. In order to sing even remotely well, I have to match my voice to the person next to me. So while the earplugs protected me in some sense, they also isolated me and kept me from participating in and being moved by the stirring music and chant that fills the church and my heart so regularly.
Another flipping parable. Another St. Antony of the Desert moment when the whole universe seems to stop and look me right in the eye. The things I do to protect myself are the very things that cut me off from what feeds my soul and supports me on my way. Better to remain wide open. Better to let it all in. Better to accept the moment and what it brings, trusting that Christ is hidden in each circumstance, each encounter. I used to wonder why the tabernacle doors are always closed except on Friday evenings, but now I understand, now I get it. Another parable of the place. Christ is hidden everywhere – in everything and everyone. What a surprise. What a delight. What a mystery. What a challenge.
Beads. On the afternoon of our first desert day, Fr. Gerard Jonas took time from his own desert day to teach me how to make a rosary. It took a lot of effort on my part and a great deal of patience and help on his, but I completed my rosary. Father blessed it and now it’s hanging over my bed in the retreat center. I don’t carry it around like I usually do because it’s a bit fragile and keeps coming apart if I handle it too much.
Flipping doodah, another freaking parable. The individual beads are spiritual practices like lectio, the divine offices, the Eucharist, the prayer of the heart, manual labor, and Tai Chi. But without connecting wire, without something to bind them together, they are just a random collection of activities, just as the beads in Fr. Gerard Jonas’ bag are just random beads until made into a rosary. If the beads are prayers then the links represent all of you all. The links are community and without community my prayer practices just don’t amount to squat. And as we all know, I have struggled with community something fierce.
I have struggled with the give and take, the push and pull, the comfort and the challenge of living and eating and praying with so many people I don’t know and didn’t choose to spend this much time with in such close proximity. That’s why my beads keep separating, and why I have to keep going back over each link, one by one, revisiting and repairing. Fr. Gerard Jonas shared with me the insight that the chain is only as strong as each individual link. All are important. None can be overlooked. And to the extent that I have overlooked any of y’all, I apologize publicly here and now. Just like the links in my rosary, I have to revisit and rebuild community – communion – each and every day if it’s going to mean anything, if it’s going to last.
Along those lines, I want to close by saying what a delight and a pleasure it has been doing the breakfast dishes this past week. Who knew this simple chore would bring me such peace and contentment. I’m reminded of Fr. Joe saying to us, “Keep it simple. That’s the monastic way.” Maybe it’s the simplicity of the task or maybe Jesus is finally simplifying my heart – either way, I love starting my day with soap suds and dirty dishes. I love seeing each of you each morning and greeting you at the kitchen door. I love that little look of delight each of you gets when I take your tray to clear, clean and return to the rack for you. Such a simple thing, really, yet each of you seems so pleased at this small gesture that it pleases me no end. Simply being of service in simple ways that make other people happy, even if only for a few minutes – this might be the most powerful and important practice I learn here. And I’m grateful to have learned it with and from you all before we leave.
PS – If someone wants to switch dish washing duties with me for this coming week, let me know. I’ll take your breakfast shift all week long if you take my two lunch time shifts. See me after Compline.