Sunday, May 20, 2007

Room Enough

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park

There are all kinds of ways - both positive and negative - to describe the monastic life. In the time I've been a monk I've heard our life described as the ideal life for a human being and as a total waste of time. In classical spiritual literature this life is sometimes described as "an angelic life" (meaning that it's an imitation of the continuous praise that angels are said to give to God - not that the monks are angels). There are lots of concepts, both positive and negative, used to describe what we do.

One of the most interesting descriptions that comes from the Middle Ages is that the monastic life is a "life of leisure". When I mention this to people I most often see wry smiles and can see people thinking: "suspicions confirmed", while they imagine us passing our life gazing languidly over the Hudson Valley. Or perhaps, if the people I'm talking to know us rather better, I see stark disbelief, because they've been around us enough to see how hard the monks of this community have to work.

In fact, the medieval term that is still translated as "leisure" has almost nothing to do with the current sense of the word. It is not about lazing around because we have nothing much to do. Nor is it about free time - a concept that people would have had very little understanding of at the time that this term was in use. Rather, the Latin word "otium", which is still translated as "leisure" means, I am told, something more like "living your life so that there is room in it for everything you do."

Now that is a concept that grabs people, I find. People are fascinated to think of a life that has room in it, one that is not over-busy or crammed with too many things to be done. Life in our society at the present time seems to be a search for one more thing to pack into our time, one more opportunity to take advantage of. The amazing thing to me is how many people complain about all of the advantages that their life holds. They find the search for more and more activities and things to fill their lives to be ultimately problematical and the state of being "too busy" to be more frustrating than rewarding. But it seems as though no one knows how to stop. It doesn't feel too extreme to describe our search for more and more things to cram into our days as addictive.

So perhaps the monastic life does have something to offer here. It's not uncommon for people to say that they could never consider a life that seems as limited as the monastic life, but the concept of limitation does have something for us, even if that may seem strange at first glance. The analogy of my room may help. I live in a room that is 10 x 14. That's the space that is available to me. This community does not inspect our rooms or specify what we can have. We are free to fix them up as seems most comfortable to us, and there are as many different styles of rooms as there are members of the community. But there's only so much I can get in a 10 x 14 space. I want my room to be welcoming and to provide a sense of quiet and of relaxation, and I didn't have to be in it very long before I discovered that I had to exercise continuous vigilance if that's what I am actually going to have. Stuff piles up so fast. Books accumulate, magazines proliferate, small gifts that people give me pile higher and higher, small objects of art that are in themselves very lovely gather in piles. Unless I am watchful, it's amazing how quickly my room can resemble a junk yard rather than a place of serenity. If I want a space of quiet for my soul I have to practice limitation, and I have to practice it continuously.

And so with the rest of my life. 'Otium' - the old sense of leisure - turns out to have something very life-giving to offer me. I have to be watchful so that my life really does give me the space to be alive and thriving. Lack of opportunities is not a problem for me, any more than lack of things to put in my room. But unless I'm vigilant my life ends up being so packed with activities and things that I am more frustrated than alive. I have to do the unthinkable: I have to choose not to take advantage of some of those opportunities, even, at times, most of them. And this is, at base, a genuinely ascetical task.

Asceticism - denial - is not popular in current society. We're not into denying things to ourselves, and we find the very concept to be offputting. But I find it possible to consider that there is a real vital form of asceticism for the early 21st Century, and that is the denial involved in creating a life of 'leisure'. Crafting a life in which I choose my opportunities carefully and with attention to having enough time to live those opportunities deeply and to savor them, really does call to my soul. Maybe the Middle Ages had something to say that we need to heed.

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