Monastic Life: A Life Without Choices?

Thou waitest for the spark from heaven! And we,
   Light half-believers of our casual creeds,
           Who never deeply felt, nor clearly willed

   Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,
       Whose vague resolves never have been fulfill’d;
           For whom each year we see

   Breeds new beginnings, disappointments new;
       Who hesitate and falter life away,
        And lose to-morrow the ground won today –

   Ah! Do not we, wanderer! await it too?
            —“The Scholar-Gipsy,” Matthew Arnold

Recently my wife and I have been looking to buy a house our first. Constrained as we are by a limited budget, and young and full of dreams as we are, none of the houses that we have yet seen have measured up to our visions, with the result that we have spent a considerable amount of time with our realtor (bless her heart) in search of “the one.” As will happen, professional barriers have begun to be replaced with a more casual acquaintance, until recently we found ourselves standing on the driveway of a house we had viewed (not “the one”, alas!) discussing, as will also happen, religion.

At some point I had mentioned that I was going to spend a few days over Easter at a traditional monastery, and this seemed to pique Cindy’s curiosity. Cindy is a fallen-away Catholic, jaded by the chaos of the sixties and seventies, and the scandals that were brewed in their midst, and expressed her skepticism about the monastic project. “You will probably disagree with me,” she said, “but it seems to me that the life of a monk is a life without choices.” But I did not disagree, pointing out that the lack of choices is precisely the point – that a monk gives up his right to choose in order that he may be able to focus, without distraction, on the one thing that matters.

But of course, Cindy’s complaint wasn’t really that monks are not able (or, perhaps, are unwilling) to choose. This was simply her way of saying that in her view the life of a monk is a dull one, without responsibility, comfort, freedom or happiness. I realized this at the time, and I tried to head off these objections by explaining that many of the priests, monks, and nuns that I know are some of the happiest people I know – far happier, I said, than myself or her. “Are they?” Cindy answered. “I am glad to hear that.”

But I don’t think she believed me. And I don’t blame her. Of what, after all, does the life of a monk consist?

Routine, mostly.

Continue reading at Crisis Magazine….

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A few (very peaceful) days at Clearcreek Monastery

Over Easter I spent a few very peaceful days at Clearcreek monastery in Oklahoma.

Low mass in the church crypt. Low mass happens at 7:00 am. Ten monks say mass simultaneously, making use of the 8 side altars in the crypt, as well as the high altar, and the tabernacle altar.

Clearcreek is one of the only (the only?) traditional Benedictine monasteries in the United States. They are an offshoot of the Solesmes congregation, which was founded in France following the devastation wrought on the monasteries by the French revolution.

Another picture of low mass in the morning. A very peaceful experience.

The Solemnes congregation has specialized in resurrecting Gregorian chant, and the monks at Clearcreek participate in that tradition to the fullest. Daily mass at the monastery lasted a full hour and a half because of the intricate and rich chant (This was Easter week, and so I can’t be entirely sure such an elaborate mass was entirely normal. I have been to the monastery twice before, but both of those times was during Christmas week, when you would also expect elaborate liturgies).

And one more of low mass.

The monastery was founded in the early 90s and has come a long way. I counted 39 monks while I was there, though there may be more. They say their goal is to reach 60, at which point they will found another monastery. The most remarkable thing about the monk is how young they are: there appear to be several monks in their early to mid 20s, and plenty who can’t be into their mid 30s. Just another sign of the “springtime” JPII spoke about.

A picture of the crypt of the church.

This is monastic life at its richest, and its most authentic. The Benedictines are an entirely contemplative order, meaning their primary purpose in life is simply to pray. Silence rules their life: they speak only when necessary, or during times of recreation. They strive towards self-sufficiency by raising their own cattle and sheep, growing their own produce, and by mastering various crafts, including cheesemaking and iron work, the products of which they sell in their book store.

The monks go out for their daily walk during recreation. This picture was taken from my cell.

All of their liturgies are in Latin, and they say the 1962 missal (i.e. tridentine or extraordinary rite). They get up around 4:45 for lauds, and then matins, terce, sext, none, vespers and compline, all of which are chanted with exquisite purity.

A picture of the interior of the main church (sorry it's so dim)

During my time there I was able to get a tour of their cheese-making operation. It’s a humble thing, with an incredibly humble monk at its helm: and the cheese they make (a gouda from their own milk) is utterly delicious. In order to get this private tour I had to ask permission, and had to get it from the abbott: they are very jealous of their privacy, as pretty much any authentically contemplative order is.

Another picture of the main church (also too dim).

I will tell you more about the cheese-making later (and my own experiments trying to make cheese). I am also working on an article about monastic life, which I should be done relatively soon. In the meantime enjoy the pictures.

Another shot from the hill - you can just see the top of the monastery peeking through the trees.