a simple lesson

Two weeks ago I returned from California. The pit of my stomach clenched in anxiety and dread nearly the entire trip home. I got back to the monastery about 6pm and went straight to my room and closed the door. I didn’t want to see anyone, because I thought I might burst into tears.

It was an unusual experience for me. Never before have I felt sad to return home.

My brief time in California I could only describe as profound. Gradually, and then suddenly, over the course of the week, I felt the bottom dropping out of my life until I was free-falling in joyful and terrifying abandon. The image that came to me was of having taken off the parking break and realizing–oh!–that was what was holding me back. My spiritual director told me the word for that feeling is “alive.”

Yes, over the course of that week, I felt alive in a way I’m not used to.

How easy it is to go back to sleep. I’ve been home two weeks now. Gradually, and then suddenly, the dailyness of my routines have taken hold, and it’s been harder to remember to be alive.

It’s easy to blame the schedule or the institution or the demands of work and home. But as any good spiritual teacher will tell you, whenever you think the trouble is out there, it’s always in here.

Some of my disappointment in the monastic life has been to realize that not even the tolling of our bells or the vows we make will draw me into the heart of God. No one can live the spiritual life for me. To live it, I have to choose, every single day, to do so. And eventually, I have to realize that even I can’t choose that life. All I can do is to surrender to God choosing that life for and within me.

That surrender is the fearsome bit. The experience of finding myself gradually and then suddenly alive was one of unself-consciousness and freedom. It was an experience–finally–of surrender. Temporary though it was, it really has changed everything.

In describing the ripples of this aliveness to my spiritual director, the tears filled my eyes. I told her that I could now see how safely I’ve been living. For all my engagement in the spiritual life, I’ve essentially been trying everything I can to keep this “me”–whoever that is–going. As Jesus says so clearly, if I really want to live, then I have to let the “me” go. That’s the risk.

The good news is that it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Every day, every moment, provides me with opportunities to choose to live fully in God or to go to sleep. I honestly choose sleep a lot of the time. I find it encouraging that more often than used to be true, though, I am uncomfortable with that choice. In the end, of course, I must also let go the “me” that chooses sleep or wakefulness. But that’s a lesson for another day.

9 Replies to “a simple lesson”

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing this, Aiden! Every bit of what you wrote resonates me with me, and I will be pondering this a great deal in the coming days. You have given me much to think about and to sit before God with as I reflect on how I choose apparent safety over surrender, when surrender is the only way to real life. Thank you. I’m so glad you are writing again.


  2. Thank you, Aiden! Reading your words has that effect of making me feel alive…you always give me something to think about. I was grieving the loss of our son on Sunday and in a deep hole. UNTIL…I got a text from a friend who invited me to watch petanque…a new sport she’s involved in. I hopped in the car and joined “the living.” I’m so glad I made the choice and am able to choose aliveness to yank me out of the ruts that I get in. For me, a shake up in any routine, be it prayer or just daily living, wakes me up enough to grab God’s hand and say, “C’mon, let’s go!”


    1. Thanks for this reflection, Karen. It’s great to be reminded of the ways that God does try to pull me out of myself and say, “C’mon, let’s go!”

      Do you know Marie Howe’s poem “What the Living Do?” I recommend it!


  3. Thank you. Would be interested to read more about what your Cal. sojourn gave you that life in the monastery doesn’t.


    1. Thanks for this prompt, Steve. I wouldn’t say that the time in SoCal gave me something the monastery doesn’t. I’d say it was more the break that I needed. I’ll write more for next Tuesday, though, because you got my thoughts churning.


  4. Thank you for sharing. It’s definitely thought provoking that the structure of monastic life that I think many of us outside it imagine as supportive can feel this way. Maybe that’s a parallel for what I experience as a tension in my own life as a scientist where often the routine of the many things that academic life and the research community rely on seem to stand in the way of deep thought and study that I think science should be about. Also, the fact that we’ve all been deprived of much of what breaks up the routine must be taking a toll on all of us. It will be really interesting to read your further writings on this.

    Do you think there will be more online retreats? I didn’t realise until a few months ago that they had been happening…


    1. I think you’re so right, Anna. It isn’t that monastic life isn’t supportive. It is. But it doesn’t fix everything in a monk’s life, and it creates all sorts of so-called obstacles that are really gateways to greater freedom. No life is without it’s challenges!


  5. Aidan,
    On reading this from my parked car, something let go in my gut . . an increment of surrendering to God?
    This is hopeful . .
    I am wishing that I had opened to giving thanks at this morning’s service.
    So gratitude for these, your words


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