Sermon: The Archetype of the Monk

This sermon is the third in our Lenten series called “Fully Alive: Living as Warrior, Mystic, Monk.” It is followed by a reflection by David Wieand, a member of our congregation, on identifying with the monk archetype.

Luke 10:38-42

Are you, like Martha, distracted by many things? Do you feel fragmented, pulled in many directions? Does it seem as though you too often spend your days tending to the trivial, while those things you really care about, those things your heart beats loudly for languish for another day? Do you wish for more balance in your life, more simplicity? Do you long, like Mary, to choose the “one – or two or three things – necessary” and consistently order your life around those things? 

Do you long to be more present to your life? Would you like to slow down and savor your life more? Do you wish you could experience the feeling you have while on retreat, or vacation or over the weekend in the week-dailiness of your life — – as you’re spreading butter on the toast for our kids, as you’re tackling your morning email inbox, as you head into your 4th meeting or class of the day?  It’s in the here and now, in the ordinariness of our lives — not in some special, set-aside times like weekends or vacations —  that we long for wholeness. It’s in the here and now that we long for an undivided heart: to be wholly present to this moment.  

These longings are the longings of the monk in us. The word monk comes from the Greek word monakhos, meaning solitary or single. It means less that a monk is someone who lives a solitary life and more that the monk is someone who longs and strives for singleness of heart – to seek what is most important and then order their life and energies around that.

Not surprisingly, it turns out to be easier to do this in community than alone. I find myself envious of monks and nuns every time I enter their community life, which I’ve done several times in several different monastic communities over the years.Their day is blessedly ordered and balanced. They know when they wake up, when they will pray, when they will eat, work, study, serve, relax. They know when they will go to sleep. Most of the tasks with which we concern ourselves on a daily basis – preparing food, cleaning, paying the bills, fixing things – are spread throughout the community, so that no one has to be the sacrificial Martha.

And even when they do the things many of us may find “trivial” — like rote household tasks — they try to bring an attentiveness to it that imbues it with meaning. St. Benedict – the founder of western monasticism – says that his monks should treat the everyday household objects of the monasteries – the pots and pans, chairs and tables – as they would the chalice and cup used for eucharist – with great reverence and care.  As vessels that are holding Divine Presence. I remember once sitting at a beautiful wood dining table at St. John’s monastery in Minnesota. The abbot, John Klaassen (who, yes, was from Mennonite background) told us the table had been fashioned by their resident furniture  maker, who had used a huge old oak tree that had fallen in the woods to make it — an oak beloved by many in the community.  The furniture making monk had died a few years before. And so every time they sat down to eat, John said he thought of him and he thought of the forest just outside the monastery grounds. Both were gifts from God, he said. 

Many monks are not as separate from the world as you might think – a few years ago when I was on retreat at Christ of the Desert monastery in New Mexico, I saw a young monk using the same computer guests used to surf the Web and check email. But there are clearer limits around this usage. (For instance, I’ve never seen a monk with a smart phone!) They are not constantly tempted, as we are, by the “world of multiplicity” that pulls our attention and consciousness in so many different directions. Because of these community-held guardrails, their attention is more free to attend to what is most necessary and not be consumed in distraction.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people have been organizing themselves in monastic-like communities for a very long time. Hindu ashrams existed by 600 BCE. Buddhism very quickly adopted monasticism as one of its principle ways of structuring religious life. Judaism provides the earliest known order of monks in the middle east – the Essenes, which likely first opted out of Jewish society in the 2nd century BCE. There is some thought that John the Baptist and Jesus were influenced by these monks. And very early in Christian history – around the 4th century – groups of hermits fleeing the corruption of Christianity under the Roman empire begin to organize themselves in desert monasteries. It’s under St. Benedict – a monk of the 6th century — that western monasticism reaches its full flowering. In fact, it’s not too strong a statement to say that monks preserved the best parts of western culture after the invasions of “barbarian” tribes (from which I am a descendant!) —  preserving libraries, culture, methods of agriculture, and civic life.

And our own tradition is thoroughly monkish.  Anabaptism is considered a lay monastic movement of the 16th century. Some of the founding Anabaptists were former monks. Early Anabaptism embraced monastic notions of intentional community, simplicity of life, taking vows together, living life together. In fact, Anabaptists believed that living a disciplined and ordered religious life focussed around simplicity, community and service were not intended just for a set-apart monastic class within the church but for all Christians, without exception. It’s not too much to say that for Anabaptists, the monk is the archetype of the Christian life. In fact, they were accused of this by the other Protestants reformers. Luther said that Anabaptists had a “monkish life and doctrine” – and he did not mean this as a compliment. 

Maybe this is why, of all the three archetypes we’ve been looking at, I think we have the most fully developed and intuitive understanding of this one. Someone from this church told me the last time we did this series: “I go to other places to get my mystic and warrior needs met. But I come here to meet the needs of my monk.”  Our covenant that we sign every year could easily be the covenant of a lay monastic community. 

About 30 years ago, I was very much in the grip of the monk archetype. It’s the one I identify with the most.  I would have fantasies about escaping to a monastery and living the rest of my life there. I read biographies of Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths and Pema Chodron. The poem “Instructions” on your insert written out of that deep engagement with the monk in me, that yearning for singleness of heart and for simplicity. I eventually did become an oblate — or an associate – of a Benedictine monastic community. But as I delved deeper into the way of the monk, I came to realize that this was what I already had found within my own tradition, within this community.

I wonder what it might mean for us to more fully live into this archetype together? For instance, what would it mean for us to adopt a rule of life together, or for some for us to develop a personal rule of life and then ask others to hold us accountable to it? A rule of life is the primary way by which monasteries structures their lives around what is most important, and achieve balance between prayer and work, study and service, recreation and rest. Maybe a group of us who identify strongly with the monk archetype and its longings or want to strengthen our inner monk could get together to talk about what might be helpful. 

According to our definition, a monk is “A person who lives a life of ordered devotion to God, focusing especially on community, service and hospitality.” It’s certainly easier doing this in a monastery. But our calling is to be monks in our station of life, where we live, to choose the “one thing necessary” even as we dwell in the world of multiplicity. And as we do this — what a powerful witness to a distracted, fragmented world.  

So, let us now, together, with great intention, become the monks we were created to be. The ones we so deeply long to be. Amen.

Reflection from David Wieand

Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise. If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart. 

My name is David and I have an inner monk. In a world that keeps me busy and distracted, a world that lures me to indulge, I long for simplicity. I long for expansiveness of time, and I long to be in the presence of God. I know that I have been put on the earth to praise God. I feel this singleness of purpose in my bones. 

The first time I stepped into a monastery, I felt as if I had come home. The daily rhythm of prayer and work, set in the midst of community, opened me to hear God’s voice. When I am fortunate to spend time in a monastery, or in extended silence, all distractions fade away and time, that thing which is so elusive in the world, is in ample supply. In these settings, I can hear with near ears. 

I am fed by silence and solitude; they allow me to listen with the ears of my heart. I seek out structure and order; they call out the best in me and save me from my constant desire to dissipate through distraction. I am incomplete without community; I need people who know me intimately and can call me to my highest self. The chapter on the monk in our training manual says it well, “As our lives in community deepen, we begin to live more intentionally within the rhythm of God’s created order and our understanding of the importance of community to the life we are seeking increases.” 

When struck, a tuning fork vibrates at its natural frequency. If placed on a sounding block the fork’s vibrations flow into the sounding block and the sounding block begins to resonate with the same vibrational motion and energy. The sound which was quiet gets amplified and becomes audible. The sounding block cannot keep from singing. Imagine I am the tuning fork and you are the sounding blocks. Imagine you are the tuning fork, and I am the sounding block. In community we cannot keep from singing each others’ songs. 

I pray by living. My work as people leader, my life with Benjamin, my service to this community; these are my media. Each interaction I have is an opportunity to offer hospitality to another, to offer the God within me. I can see the face and light of God in others. I believe that we all have the same heart. Underneath all the layers, the entrapments of the world, and the vice, we all long for that thing which will make us whole. We long to be reunited with our maker. 

I have been trying for years to develop a daily practice. My nature gets in the way. In the monastery it’s easy, the structure and rhythm of each day frees me to pray without ceasing. In the world, the structure and rhythm of each day requires me to run at a pace which is counter to my nature and I’m left with a feeling of scarcity; there is a scarcity of time…and then I begin to hoard it, I hoard time to be alone with myself as if it were the only thing that was going to keep me alive. In the monastery there is enough time. In the monastery I can move beyond hoarding to abundance…and from this abundance, my heart begins to open….and a generosity of spirit emerges. I turn from moving inward. I begin to notice a spaciousness…a swelling in my chest….an expansiveness of heart that must be shared. Going in turns to reaching out. And in my reaching out, I begin to resonate with the people around me. I catch the frequency of others….others catch my frequency…and my body…our bodies begin to resonate, to resonate with the notes and energy of each other. And our living becomes a song of praise to God. 

God has told me that I am to live my life in the world. Infusing my work with presence, bringing patience and joy to my relationships, caring for or rehousing my possessions, taking daily walks and savoring the beauty around me…these are my practices. When I’m successful, the rhythm of these practices become like breathing and it’s if I can pray without ceasing. On good days, the busyness can still be infused with spaciousness and rest, and I can turn from hoarding space and time for me… to reaching out. And I am freer to live out my calling. 

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.

May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace, Amen.
May God’s help remain with us always, and with our brothers and sisters who are away.