Some time ago I had a back injury and was at the Chiropractor’s office getting a treatment. I was standing at the reception desk checking in and the Chiropractor’s 12 year old daughter was sitting nearby. I knew the receptionist and we were having the sort of conversation that you have when someone you know is checking you in. She asked about some of the things that were going on at the Monastery, and as the conversation progressed I could see the girl getting intrigued. Finally she sidled up to both of us, looked at me and said: “Hey, are you a monk?” “Yes,” I said somewhat reluctantly because I know what can come after that question. “Cool!” she said, and went back to what she was doing.
Before that day no one had ever said “Cool!” when they found out I was a monk. I’ve had all kinds of reactions, mostly ranging from incomprehension to curiosity to downright hostility. But never had I had that total positive acceptance that teenagers specialize in. “Something,” I thought, “is definitely changing.”
Part of this is where we live. If I remind you that we live 20 miles from Woodstock, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that this area is full of monasteries – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, you name it. We are thicker on the ground here than most places in the USA. And part of it comes from her mother, who is a very open and deeply spiritual person. But I am used to having to work for my acceptance.
Twenty years ago, when I was actively involved with the work of the Youth Department of the Diocese of Kansas, I had that kind of immediate acceptance from the kids, but I had to work for it. At first they were as suspicious of me as they were of most unknown adults and it took a couple of years to work my way into their world. I had to spend time talking to some of them late at night about the puzzles of life and I had to hold some of them when a crisis hit and I had to be silly at the lunch table. Most of all I had to prove that I was genuinely interested in who they are and that my loving wasn’t phony. And I later found out that the last real barrier came down one afternoon when I was going into one of their cabins at Camp and tripped on the threshold and let out a ripe series of profanities. “That’s when we decided we could trust you” one of the guys said to me later.
And then they took me and my life for granted. Of course I was a monk. Of course that was cool. When their friends laughed at the monks who appear in commercials on TV they would say: “Oh no, monks aren’t anything like that. Let me tell you………..” They brought their friends for comfort and understanding. I knew their wishes and their fears and they knew what my version of a monastery was like. Some of the guys even went into bars in Wichita recruiting for Church Camp. (we had an interesting bunch of guys). So I’m not unused to having the monastic life thought of as a cool possibility by young people.
But it didn’t come naturally to people raised in our society, and to many, many people it still doesn’t. When I talked to the rector of a congregation in Connecticut that has been bringing groups here for years about why so many people in his congregation who would benefit from a weekend retreat at Holy Cross won’t even consider the possibility of coming here, he was quite clear that the chief reason is fear. they know quite clearly (they think) what this place is like – we never talk, the food is sparse and bad, the buildings are stone and cold and the people are unfriendly. You can spend all the time you want telling them that everything is the opposite of that and they won’t believe it. That particular set of projections is solid and well-established and is reinforced by the movies they see and by the TV they watch. They don’t want any part of it. And so again, we work for our acceptance and for the privilege of simply being who we are.
But things are changing. It isn’t only one kid saying “Cool” that makes me think so. I am going down this path today because this week we had a bunch of seminarians from Princeton here. Princeton Seminary sends a group every January. It varies in size from 20 to 35 (this year was one of the larger ones). They stay for several days and they thrive here. The loosely structured retreat we plan for them is balm for their souls. The quiet, the prayer, the good food (and more than anything the time to take advantage of all of these things) is something they almost invariably receive as a wonderful gift. Most of them find that when they enter here they are entering a world of unknown possibilities – they have never really encountered monastic spirituality before and they are intrigued and drawn in. They don’t know what to expect they find a place of opportunity for inner freedom and exploration. Some of them even begin by saying: “Cool!” Almost all of them are saying it by the time they leave.
They are young, extremely intelligent, very curious, and quite open: that’s part of it. They have grown up in a world where diversity and acceptance are big values: that’s another part of it. They are willing to accept possibilities that they haven’t encountered before, and they really value authenticity. When they find out that we are really committed to Christ and to this life we spend in Christ’s service, their hearts open.
And of course they change us. Their high-energy, bouncy, inquisitive searching never ends. They want to talk about deep questions day and night. They are willing to be silent and to explore silence, and their exploration is very intense. Having them here is a great privilege and, at least for me, extremely rewarding. It also demands as much energy from us as they put into it and that, to put it mildly, is something of a challenge to an almost-70-year-old. And it is also evidence that things are changing. It is actually thinkable now that someone can look at monastic life lived in the 1500 year old tradition of St Benedict and say: “Cool!” What we have to give to this world is meeting a new kind of audience. We’ll have to be ready for that.