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Monday, October 20, 2014

Monasticism for Ministers: You Can Learn a lot from a Monk

30 Wesley Seminary students joined me recently for a course I designed called Spiritual Retreat for the Leader. The location for the course was a monastery in Kentucky. Shortly after my return I tweeted, “If I didn’t love my family, job, and ESPN so much, I would join a monastery and become a monk.” I think I actually meant it.

The monastic life is appealing to me. I have taken several 3-4 day retreats at the monastery over the past 8 years. I miss my family so much it hurts every time I retreat. There is, though, a small part of me that wants to stay behind at the monastery forever. But God has not called me to be a monk. I am compelled, instead, to incorporate into my everyday “normal” life those monastic practices that most cultivate the soil of my soul for God, the gardener, to grow me.      

Here are some ways for ministers to infuse our lives with monastic practices without leaving our lives to do so.

-Monastic Practice #1- Silence: We preach sermons, teach lessons, lead meetings, counsel couples, make small talk and return phone calls. At some point, most of us run out of words. Those who don’t, should. The practice of silence allows us to peek more intently into the holy of holies. When we shut up, we can hear God speak up. Then, and only then, will we have something life-giving to say. Perhaps you can designate one day weekly or monthly to shut off the noise that goes into your ears or comes out of your mouth. No music. No words. No noise. Only silence. When we shut up, we can hear God when he speaks up. That’s when we are most ready to receive a “word from the Lord.”

-Monastic Practice #2- Solitude: The 21st Century pastor is hardly ever alone. Solitude is hard for us. It brings us face to face with our true self, since there is no one around to distract us. There is no hiding from God or ourselves when we are alone. We remember our failures and frailty, as well as our potential, when we are alone. Being silent and still in solitude strips us down to our core where we find our true naked self. This is often a painful but peace-filled balm for the minister’s soul. In solitude there is no one to please or impress. It’s just you and God. Solitude is not a license for isolation. No, learning to be alone actually prepares one to maximize life together in community.  

-Monastic Practice #3- Supplication: Monks gather together to pray nine times daily, including 3:15 am and 5:45 am. They gather to sing the Psalms as prayers to God. In the span of just two weeks, they will prayerfully sing all 150 Psalms! Most of us can’t imagine praying the Psalms nine times each day, but how about three times? I read a Psalm when I awake, at noon, and just before I sleep. I prayerfully intercede for myself and others based upon the content of each Psalm. The Psalms have a way of voicing for me what I feel deep in my soul but can’t find words to articulate. The prayers we find in the Psalms encompass a full range of emotions. There are angry prayers, sorry prayers, “help me” prayers, grateful prayers and more. It’s harder to find time to sin when you’re praying the Psalms frequently.

-Monastic Practice #4- Submission: We’ve all heard the phrase, and most of us have said, “It’s not about me.” Monks actually live it. They have to. Although monks have space for silence and solitude, they are forced to live in a 24/7 community with people they would not choose if they had the choice. The monks work, worship, and eat together every single day. There is no escape from people who frustrate them. Intense interconnectedness is much harder, but more sanctifying, than isolation. When a person joins the monastic community, he must submit to the monastic community. He must also submit his life to the Abbot, the head of the community. We have lost a healthy view of submission and authority in the 21st century American Church. Our country was built on rugged individualism and anti-authoritarianism. That was necessary in tyrannical times. But there is something soul-sanctifying about submitting ourselves to a community we have chosen and to the leaders within that community.

-Monastic Practice #5- Simplicity: Monks don’t worry about “keeping up with the Joneses.” The one with the most toys might be the winner in pop culture but is the loser in the monastery. The monk leaves every possession behind when he joins the monastic community. While there, nothing he possesses is his own. He owns nothing, so that God can own him. The monk doesn’t have to worry about stuff, preserving and protecting it. The good life is the simple one, and the monk knows it. Possessing and being possessed by God’s love liberates us from wanting anything else. Imagine what would happen if the Church and her ministers were free from bondage to opulence and content with the basic necessities of life! We could focus less time, money and energy on things that don’t last and more on things that do.