Yesterday one of the older monks had to pick up a printing job, and so he needed a ride into town to the print shop. He could have asked a novice or a monastic guest to drive him in, but he chose me. I was delighted at the thought of spending an hour with this monk, whose loving personality and palpable holiness I have admired for a long time. It turned out to be almost two hours — the print shop was further away that I realized. Little did I know how the conversation would go. I’m not sure if he planned on this or not. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
After a bit of small-talk chatting, we got onto the subject of the challenges facing monasticism, between declining vocations, aging communities, and the difficulties of adapting to the economic realities of the postmodern world. A frequent theme for this monk was his concern over the decline in contemplative practice, even among those who have given their lives to the cloister. As a layman, I supposed myself to be beyond his astute critique. But I was mistaken.
Before I fully realized what was happening, my companion had stopped talking about monks and monasticism, and began a litany of complaint against the many authors and teachers of contemplation and Christian spirituality who, in his opinion, do not live the life they are teaching. I won’t name names here, but everyone he spoke of he knew personally, and more than one person he mentioned was someone whose work I admired. Slowly the noose was tightening around me, and still I hadn’t caught on.
The monk spoke about how writers and teachers get so caught up in their message, and their audience, and the “business” end of the work they are doing, that they either stop praying altogether or maybe only give ten minutes a day to their practice. As he said this, I grimaced a little, for I caught a glimmer of recognition there. Then, finally, he sprung the trap.
“I think a mature contemplative needs to be devoting two hours a day to their practice. And while normally lay people simply cannot embrace such a discipline given the challenges of work and family, I would think that anyone who is writing about the contemplative life probably needs that level of commitment, whether inside or outside of the cloister.”
“Well, father, I’m nowhere near that level of practice.”
“I know,” he said gently. “Carl, you are very sincere, and I admire that about you. And you’ve written a wonderful book. But now you face a difficult question. Are you going to live the life, or are you just going to talk and write about it?”
“I don’t know that I have two hours a day to give, father.”
“Maybe you need to be reading fewer books.”
Ouch again. He knew right where to poke, didn’t he? By now I made no pretense of hiding my defensiveness. “But I love the reading I do. Are you saying I need to give all that up?”
“Of course you’re going to read. The question is, how much? Are you so committed to staying ‘current’ that your contemplative life gets sacrificed? What good does that do — you, or anyone else? Which comes first, reading or prayer?”
As we pulled back onto the monastery grounds, he paid me a wonderful compliment, especially since he is one of the brothers who has already read my book. “Carl, you have written your masterpiece. Don’t throw away your spiritual life trying to write another one.”
Back in the store, I needed to call my wife to make plans for the evening, and I told her about this conversation. As I expected, she just laughed, and said she would have to be sure to give this particular monk a hug the next time she saw him. “But honey, how can we devote two hours a day to prayer?” I said, hoping desperately that she would commiserate with me. But no such luck. “Yes, I know we’re not there yet,” she replied, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be working toward it.”
At one point during the conversation the monk defined contemplation as “wasting time with God.” If I am bluntly honest with myself, I know I waste a good two hours a day, between reading silly stuff online (do I really need to know about iPhone prototypes that get lost in California bars?), watching TV (I don’t do a lot of that, but I do some), playing games on my iPhone (ditto), shopping for books online (just because I have a house full of the things doesn’t mean I don’t want more), and — dare I say it? — Facebook. Okay, okay. If I can waste time all these other ways, why not waste more time with God?
I’m not suggesting to my readers that everyone needs to be suddenly devoting two hours a day to contemplation, just because that’s how my monastic friend challenged me. In fact, I believe most people probably shouldn’t attempt more than an hour a day, without competent spiritual guidance. And if you’re not meditating/contemplating an hour a day, twenty minutes or even ten minutes a day is better than nothing. But perhaps all of us can consider how much time we waste every day, doing stuff for no other reason than it’s silly or fun. I don’t think we have to eliminate silly or fun from our lives, but that’s like saying we don’t have to eliminate chocolate or potato chips, either. A healthy diet means lots of fruits and vegetables and only the occasional candy bar. Likewise, a healthy contemplative life means more silence and less Facebook. I have a long way to go on this one myself, so I offer these words not in a spirit of judgment, but rather with an open-ended sense of possibility: if we want to waste time with God, just how far can we take it?