Thursday, October 23, 2008

More on the monastery

As we slide quickly past October into November, I see ahead of me another visit to St. Meinrad Archabbey--another year, another week with the monks and with other discerners, and another look at where I have been, and where I am going.

In December of 2006, I made my first "Monastic Observance" retreat at St. Meinrad. I was a clinically depressed diocesan seminarian in the middle of a dreary internship, engulfed by the triple-isolation of "Made in China" sentimentality of the American Catholic parish, of being a conservative celibate Christian freak in a secular individualized society, and of layers upon layers of insecurity, inversion, bitterness and escapism--not to mention intellectual pride and emotional immaturity.

St. Meinrad glowed like heaven itself. I can scarcely say more, except that I was at least mature enough to know that it would be foolish to make that reckless switch.

In December of 2007, I returned to St. Meinrad surrounded by a different world. In the span of a year, I had quit the seminary; had a three-month relationship with a single mother; been hired as a high school theology teacher; moved to the city; acquired my first ever apartment, credit card, and cat; and even though I was working unhealthy hours and felt more alone than ever, I had an indomitable optimism.

St. Meinrad then seemed more distant. Though still, as always, a place of welcome and peace, the sacrifices demanded by the monastic call seemed steeper than before. I had only just begun to live life. Even on a teacher's wage, the basic secular comforts loomed large in my mind, not least of which because they were the only comforts I had.

Now I stand in a new position. I am teaching again this year and I have pushed hard to make myself a valuable member of this community. The process that began last year continues to unfold, and I am mostly accomodated to the identity of a college-educated lay Catholic professional rather than a liminal clergyman. As my footholds become steadier, I am slowly reaching out and building an identity around my faith--which, incidentally, is not easy in a large, secularized city. I owe the lion's share of my maturing to Katlin, who I met in April and who has been my strongest link to reality ever since. As I once again learn to be comfortable in my own skin in a new world (as happened in Illinois, and as happened in Belgium, and as happened in California, and as happened in high school), I am able to start looking at where I am relative to where I ultimately want to be, without as much fear that I am being strung along by fears.

I never ultimately wanted to be a high school teacher, and frankly I still do not. In this work I get wrapped up in caring about my students--all of them. I love them. I want them to be successful and happy. But I've known the happiness that only faith can offer, and so I struggle to drag these students beyond the "spirit of the age", which is powerfully dragging them into a cynical, amoral adulthood where everything is gray. There is a stark difference between the peers I knew as a high schooler and the students in my care. The passion for renewing society and creating a just social order--what I was formed in--is now so cold and damp, replaced by a tepid individualism. The rebellion itself is so passive that it doesn't even provide the fuel for sustained striving that often leads to a profound conversion. The Holy Spirit shows through the glowing embers, but the landscape seems already burnt out at the age of 17. The spectre of discouragement hovers.

But I am not discouraged, and the long view tells me that there are good things happening here, and that good things are happening in my own life. I will be 27 in two months, no longer at the very beginning of life, and perhaps on the cusp of finally answering God's call, once I can discover what it is.

The problem is that I remain deadlocked between marriage and monastery. I have already eliminated two possible vocations definitively--the diocesan priesthood and lay single life. It is not good for me to be alone. This means that I choose to relinquish the vast license I now have to spend my time as I wish. So be it--I am not a good steward of time. But who do I give my time to?

Whenever I mention the monastery to Katlin, she tells me to be careful--yes, I know that I would probably be happy in the monastery, but it is a known happiness. I do not yet know the happiness that married love may bring. It is unknown. And I should not choose one happiness over the other, simply because it is familiar. That would be to shrink from the challenge of maturing that I have pursued since leaving seminary. I have been a serial dater since then as well, the fruit of which has been disappointment. Even if I fell in love, how well-suited am I to be a leader, a caretaker of a family?

The answer is prayer, that bugbear of mine. I have always trusted that God will not lead me astray, and so far he has not. But though I feel a divine hand protecting me in a long period of discernment, that hand does not beckon with clarity. The things I love and need most, and the gifts that I offer, seem equally present down either path--loving companionship, permanence and stability, growth in God, a chance to transform the world (beginning at home).


Matt of CG said...
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Matt of CG said...

My virginity is in relation to the latter excerpt not the former. Oops.

Matt of CG said...

I've also got remind myself that Church should be a place from which I can more aptly engage the world, not hide from it. And if I want to become a priest or a husband I should always remember, "I made this choice because I want more than anything else to be constantly taken advantage of." (Matthew 8:20),(Luke 9:58)

Br. Thomas said...

It will be nice to see you again.

There is grace in the vocation; those called to marriage and fatherhood receive the grace to live their vocation fruitfully. The same with the monastery.

I'm not sure how well "known" the monastic vocation is, and it seems that we all know much more about marriage than anything else.

The graces and difficulties of marriage, however knowable they may be theoretically, remain unknown until concretely lived until death. Even when we know them, we don't know them. There is always another dimension.

(My elective on marriage counseling has lots to say about the dynamics of marriage, and it truly becomes the vehicle of grace, growth, challenge, salvation; the same is true of religious life.)

Religious life, I think, also has many 'unknowns,' no matter how well prepared we may be when we enter into it. It is constantly changing, as we are constantly changing too.

Don't we all know what we really want, and that this deep desire is God's Spirit groaning within us?

Jeff said...

Dear Matt,

I appreciate your candor, though some of the things you mentioned I would rather not be published in my own blog comments.

Have you ever considered creating your own blog?