Shortly after I entered the monastery a longtime friend wrote me with her concern that I was hiding from engagement with “real life.” How was my life as a monk going to contribute to what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam, the healing of all that is?
This friend was only expressing more directly what so many people think of monasticism, even our guests. We hear all the time from guests “This place is so peaceful. It must be wonderful to be here all the time.” While there is a degree of truth in that statement–we do work hard to maintain an atmosphere conducive to prayer–our lives as monastics are not a perpetual retreat. The fantasy that a monk spends his days in tranquility, whether expressed with admiration or disdain, relies on a flat and facile view of Christian vocation.
These are important questions to ask, particularly for those of us who live the monastic life. Monastic life, at its best, is a constant and engaged struggle for holiness. Holiness is the unity of a person with himself and God in Christ that leads him to pour out his life for the healing of the world. We monks are called, as St. Paul says, to become living epistles known and read by all. We are to convey in our very bodies the good news of God in Christ: that good conquers evil and that abundant life is already flowing into the universe, whether we see it or not, drawing all things to wholeness and completion in God.
We monks engage this life in particular ways, most obviously in our commitment to “die to our isolation and separateness as individuals so that we might live together in the strength and power of a spiritual community in which there is fullness and integrity of life, namely, the life of Jesus Christ our Lord,” as our Founder writes. We move toward holiness not only in our community life but also in our private and corporate prayer, our offering of spiritual direction, and our ministries of hospitality. As we learn to die to self and selfishness in our monastic lives, we have more true Self (grounded in Christ) to pour out in offering to the world.
But the monastic vocation is no different, in its fundamentals, from any Christian vocation. Marriage is not meant for the two married people alone. Rather, married life is meant to lead the couple to die to their isolation so that they might live together in Christ. With Christ’s life welling up within them in and through their married life, they have more of that life to give for the healing of the universe.
The distinction we so often make between personal holiness and the work for justice in the world is utterly false. Each one of us is an integral and essential part of the whole universe. Each person is a unique incarnation of the Word of God. Each one of us also has been wounded and hurt in unique ways and needs healing that is intimate and particular to our own histories. As we find and move toward healing in our individual lives, we will find that we have particular and individual gifts–flowing directly out of our individual wounds. And as we give ourselves more fully to the healing of the universe, our own individual healing deepens and deepens.
Our true vocation as Christians, simply put, is to live in and with Christ. As we live more fully into that vocation, in all its uniqueness and particularity, we cannot help but offer our lives for the healing of all that is. For then it is not we who live, but it is Christ living, healing, and loving in us and through us.
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