I had it all planned out: a stay at a Trappist monastery planned for my summer sabbatical from pastoral ministry. I put down the deposit to secure a room. I steeled myself with intention to make it to 3:30am vigils prayer. I looked forward to the rhythm of Psalm chanting, participating in lectio divina, intensifying my commitment to silence, chewing on small passages of mystical texts, dialoguing with monks in their daily conferences.
Then, to my surprise, I received a wonderful gift: an offer to stay in a cottage on the beach for a week.
I chose the beach.
I couldn’t do both, given the demands of other travel commitments and family. The monastic chapel, chant, and silence called but the waves, sand, and silence lured me. A lightness and joy began to circulate in me as I imagined myself on the beach: seated and with feet covered in sand, reclining in a chair, a book folded over my leg, closing my eyes, receiving the sun. The weeklong stay at a monastery, which I’ve been longing to do for quite some time, felt like what I should do as a contemplative-seeker. The stay at the beach felt what my soul desired.
For some reason, the choice felt archetypal: the monastery or the beach?
Of course both are luxurious gifts.
At the same time, the either-or nature of the choice I faced required me to recognize what I perceive as my own unique spiritual longing, which is to experience the holy as deeply as I am able in as much of the world as possible.
The world is one, and monasteries—in spite of centuries of effort to the contrary—are in the world. At the same time, they are at best boundary markers of world, delineating the frenetic, power-hungry, violent world from a soulful, holy, and devoted existence. Indeed, monasteries are keepers of contemplative tradition. Faithful monks have nurtured contemplation’s light when it flickered out in other places, including monasteries themselves!At the same time, as I’ve written about here, we’re in a unique moment in which contemplative depth is available to all who are thirsty and in whatever world in which one dwells, whether in a monastery or on a beach, as a busy parent and a dedicated professional person.
This excites me.
The monk, pioneering inter-spiritual scholar Raimon Panikkar taught, is not only a specific vocation. It is an archetype. He wrote, “Inasmuch as we try to unify our lives around the center, all of us have something of the monk in us.” To access the monastic archetype, in whatever place or station we find ourselves, brings unlimited freedom and possibility to life.
I hope to visit the monastery sometime soon, but this summer I’ll be an ordinary mystic sitting on the beach.