Monastic Strategies: Expressing Our Lives in Words

Monastic Strategies: Expressing Our Lives in Words January 24, 2019

Expressing Our Lives in Words

Many of us have two distinct images of monks and monastic life.

When we think of or spend time with monks it is often in periods of time without words. Some of us take silent retreats at monasteries when we might not talk to anyone for days at a time. The experiences we have of monastic life are full of quiet, calm people with whom we do not share small talk.

Our second image of monastic life is more traditional or historical than from our own experience. We think of monks hundreds of years ago practicing calligraphy and illuminating manuscripts. Though they might not spend time speaking, monks are often communicating through words.

Their words are carefully chosen and reveal their reflection and contemplation. We may know monks today who have written or are writing new books. Some of us read books by contemporary monastic authors.

My sense is people in monastic life have a perspective on words significantly different from the rest of us. The conversations I have with monks seem to resonate more deeply than my typical everyday exchanges.

It is not that monks value words more than the rest of us. I know people who are in love with words.

I think it more that those of us in monastic life put more emphasis on preparing our words. The monks I know do not tend to speak off the top of their heads. Their words, both spoken and written, grow from their contemplation and reflection.

When monks communicate it helps to listen to the words and the stillness between them. When we read monastic writing we read the words and the spaces on the pages.

Monks do not talk because they enjoy the sounds of their own voices. Monastic words are intended to express their lives in words.

Our Stories Are Our Lives in Words

I was talking with someone recently about something particularly painful and difficult they had experienced. At one of the more challenging parts of their story they paused and said, “Saying it out loud makes it more real.”

We believe the stories we tell ourselves. They help us grasp and understand our lives and the world around us. The people closest to us, who we trust the most, are those who listen to our words. We say things out loud and our words become more real. We hold onto our stories, protecting them from efforts to change them.

Our stories are important to us; they express who we see ourselves to be. They can be painful and difficult, or sharing them can be an extremely joyful experience. Each time we share part of our own true story it becomes more real to us.

Whenever I tell my story out loud I understand the experience of living it in new ways. Speaking it into the lives of other people helps me recognize and appreciate who I am more deeply. Telling my story, and finding people who will listen, builds community and deepens my sense of who I am.

Our stories are how we express our lives in words.

You tell me your story and I listen. Together we explore our deeper selves, working things to the surface and making them more real. As we explore our core values we transform them into our actions. We turn our memories of the past and our hopes for the future into something we experience in the present moment.

Some of us live lives of poetry and some live epic novels. We choose how we tell our stories, even when it feels like our stories have chosen us.

Painting the Pictures of Our Lives in Words

We may feel words are too limiting, too small to do our stories justice. It may be we are not sure expressing our lives in words will communicate everything we want to share.

Some of us are not sure we can find enough words to fill a page. We may not be certain anyone else wants to hear our story. Our perceptions of our lives in words are shaped by our fears, anxiety, or feelings of inadequacy.

It may be we find communicating our lives in words in black and white is too stark, too dualistic. We experience our lives in color, in photographs and paintings and video, in three dimensions. Telling the stories of our lives in words on a page feels too flat to satisfy us.

The beauty and joy of words is they are more than ink on a page or sounds in the air. In addition to the markings and the white space, the sound and the stillness, words carry meaning.

Our ability to paint the pictures of our lives in words is limited only by our imaginations. We have so many words from which to choose.

Finding Ways to Express Our Lives in Words

There are times when we feel our options for expressing our lives in words are shrinking. Some of us grieve for the words we have lost as the world becomes encircled by texting. We are comfortable using smaller and smaller ways to communicate.

The fact is, words we feel we have lost continue to sustain us. We reflect, choosing our words carefully, contemplating how we will express our lives in words. Each sentence, each word, is an expression of our own unique lives and the life we share.

The monks I know understand the value of words. They spend long periods of time in stillness listening to the words within them. When they speak and when they write they express their lives in words. They create sacred spaces for the rest of us to find rest from the torrent of words within us and around us.

Words we remember and repeat shape us and we take on their power. We are working together to build our lives in words.

How are we expressing our lives in words today?

When will we expand the ways we express our lives in words this week?

[Image by Steve A Johnson]

Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is, and his email address is

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