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The Life, Monastic

THE MONK’S WALK / Paul Laurence Dunbar

In this somber garden close
What has come and passed, who knows?
What red passion, what white pain
Haunted this dim walk in vain?

Underneath the ivied wall,
Where the silent shadows fall,
Lies the pathway chill and damp
Where the world-quit dreamers tramp.

Just across, where sunlight burns,
Smiling at the mourning ferns,
Stand the roses, side by side,
Nodding in their useless pride.

Ferns and roses, who shall say
What you witness day by day?
Covert smile or dropping eye,
As the monks go pacing by.

Has the novice come to-day
Here beneath the wall to pray?
Has the young monk, lately chidden,
Sung his lyric, sweet, forbidden?

Tell me, roses, did you note
That pale father’s throbbing throat?
Did you hear him murmur “Love!”
As he kissed a faded glove?

Mourning ferns, pray tell me why
Shook you with the passing sigh?
Is it that you chanced to spy
Something in the Abbot’s eye?

Here no dream, nor thought of sin,
Where no worlding enters in;
Here no longing, no desire,
Heat nor flame of earthly fire.

Branches waving green above,
Whisper naught of life nor love;
Softened winds that seem a breath,
Perfumed, bring no fear of death.

Is it living thus to live?
Has life nothing more to give?
Ah, no more of smile or sigh
Life, the world, and love, good-bye.

Gray, and passionless, and dim,
Echoing of the solemn hymn,
Lies the walk, ‘twixt fern and rose,
Here within the garden close.

ABSTRACT: I am writing this abstract to telescope the point of this post, and to focus my conjecture as to what might motivate a man to take up the monk’s life. Like the entire essay, this is merely my opinion–maybe well informed, and maybe not.

Before a man seeks to enter a Roman Catholic monastery, he may have thought: “Stop the world. I want to get off.” Having entered the monastery, he drops out ** (from the world). The next two steps are to turn on and tune in **. Tune in to what?–a relationship with Christ by means of prayer, the cloistered life, and living by the holy rule. The man is retreating from the world for the remainder of his mortal life (that is the plan, if he can persevere) so that might inherit the Kingdom.
Matthew 25:31-34 King James Version”31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

The monk choses to be set on the right hand of the Son of Man, even if he is compared to the sheep. Oh well, so what. Christ Himself was called the Lamb of God.

(** Thanks, Timothy Leary, for the meme.)


From the 19th to the 22nd of October 2018, I took retreat at Christ in the Desert, Forest Rd 151, Abiquiu, NM 87510. I wanted to embed with the monks—not literally, of course,  for they live in the cloister. I was only permitted accommodation in the guest house and took meals in the refectory with the monks, and listened, as they did, to inspirational readings during the meal during lunch and dinner.

I must say that I was greeted and treated very kindly, and had good conversations with some of the brothers.

I went there because I wanted to see up close what would draw men to leave the world? What could be the psyche of one who willingly commits himself to a confined and maybe tense (in my estimation) life of conformity to rules, obligations, authoritative counsel, and warnings to avoid sin —life as contract, promise, vow, and accountability under the eyes of religious superiors, and also maybe under the caring eyes of a fellow monk. The Rule of St. Benedict Chapter 64: 13 counsels the abbot: “He is to distrust his own frailty and remember “not to crush the bruised reed (Isaiah 42: 3) “Let hims strive to be loved rather than feared.” Chapter 64: 15.

Is to be a monk to put one’s self in a psychic straight jacket? Is to aspire to passion for the love of God also to toy with neurosis? Maybe, considering this warning in Chapter 7 of the Rule: “12 While he guards himself at every moment from sins and vices of thought or tongue, of hand or foot, of self-will or bodily desire, 13 let him recall that he is always seen by God in heaven, that his actions everywhere are in God’s sight and are reported by angels at every hour.” Though this kind of perspective may induce features of paranoia, there is relief because the search for God ultimately means the following: “the Benedictine life, like that of all Christians, first and foremost is a response to God’s astonishing love for humankind, a love expressed in the free gift of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Part of this response is to take up a life of prayer, stability, stewardship, hospitality, community, justice, peace and the Benedictine Conversatio morum, that is “change behavior”. (see below*).”

I get that for monks everyday, secular life in the world, even be it well lived, does not compare to the spiritual sweetness of Conversatio morum. This should not be taken to mean the laity are second class citizens. As you’ll notice just below, the monks aver that the laity are no less called to spiritual aspirations, even in the midst of worldly preoccupations and temptations. And monks are not less tempted than the laity, perhaps more so as seekers of the divine. Look at paintings of the temptations of St. Anthony of the Desert.

*Conversatio: The aim of life for Benedictines is the same as it is for all Christians—to be transformed in every part of one’s life so that God’s very image, in which each has been created, becomes palpable and transparent. The Benedictine word for this way of life is Conversatio, the process of letting go in day-to-day life of self-centered preoccupations and false securities so that the divine life at the core of one’s being becomes manifest in a trustworthy pattern of living. Conversatio is a commitment to engage in practices that over a lifetime bring about conversion into the likeness of Christ and, in particular, Christ’s giving of self for others. This transformation proceeds according to small steps; and it is tested in unexpected ways over a lifetime; to come to fruition Conversatio requires stability, discipline, faithfulness and resilience. SOURCE:


4:00 a.m. – Vigils (choral office in church) lasts about one hour.
5:30 a.m. – Lauds (in church) lasts about thirty minutes followed by Mass. (Breakfast for guests in the Guest Breakfast Room from 5:00 – 7:45 A.M.)
8:45 a.m. – Terce (in church) lasts about ten minutes.
9:00 a.m. – Work meeting for guests outside the Gift Shop. Work for All.
12:40 p.m. – End of work period.
1:00 p.m. – Sext (in church) lasts about ten minutes, followed by main meal in the monastic refectory.
2:00 p.m. – None (in church) lasts about ten minutes.
5:20 p.m. – Exposition and Eucharistic Adoration (in Church).
5:50 p.m. – Vespers (in church) lasts about thirty minutes.
6:20 p.m. – Light meal until 6:50 P.M. in the monastic refectory.
7:30 p.m. – Compline (in church) lasts about fifteen minutes, followed by nightly silence.

SOURCE: (Sunday slightly different.)

Monastic life is lived on schedule. Is there a difference from the schedule of people in the world? Oh yes. Monks live life by rote–(but hey, don’t we all when you think about it). One example is the Rule regarding the 73 Songs of King David. The psalms are portioned out to be chanted antiphonally at seven scheduled gatherings in chapel. By the last day of the week, all psalms have been meditated upon. That this repetition might bring on ennui is hinted at by a monk’s report (see below****).       

The meaning of vows of Benedictine life is captured in the following, published on the internet.

Vow of Conversatio Morum.
This vow has been translated over the centuries as “conversion of manners”, or “conversion of life”, each having its own particular meaning. Nowadays, this vow is understood as incorporating both meanings, that is, to continually strive for conversion in one’s own personal behavior and to faithfully persevere in living the monastic observance as it is lived within the monastery. The monk vows to never become complacent or slothful in his efforts to grow in holiness, or careless or lazy in performing his religious duties in community life. This vow contains the evangelical counsels of poverty and chastity. Voluntary poverty is embraced in response to Jesus’ invitation once made to the rich young man: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’ (Matthew 19:21).  SOURCE:

Poverty and chastity, but also a third vow– obedience to the Rule and to the directives of the abbot, a man who has been rigorously vetted for sanctity and honor of the highest order—and also for gentleness.

Regarding chastity– from St Mary’s Monastery: Chastity is also willingly embraced as part of our monastic vocation. As men constantly focused on “adherence to the Lord without distraction” (1 Corinthians 7:35), seeking a deeper relationship with Christ, and being ever available for service to the community, we give up marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12).

Monks consciously choose celibacy. They vow to abstain from marriage and sexual relations. To potentiate this resolve, my research led to the following: there is the counsel to avoid particular friendships with the brothers or, for that matter, any lay persons with whom they might have commerce outside the cloister. Notice and keep in check instincts of natural affinity, to say nothing about lubriciousness. Also do not obsess about antipathies. Cultivate a good and charitable will for everyone.

What could be going on within the monk’s psyche to have to “manage” human voluntary, and more troubling involuntary natural attraction tremors? What is it like to abstain from ordinary and extraordinary milk of human kindness? An answer may be that one can be greatly fortified by the power of the beginning resolve, which brought the man to the monastery in the first place, to commit to monastic adherence to the Lord without distraction, to a relationship with Christ for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. This commitment is the soothing ointment for the thorn in the flesh. The oblation of nuns is further sweetened. Due to their gender, their relationship with Christ is additionally blessed by their status as His betrothed.

But questions regarding celibacy don’t go away. John Horgan in his Why I Don’t Dig Buddhism doubts Buddhist monastic celibacy: “It seems legitimate to ask whether a path that turns away from aspects of life as essential as sexuality and parenthood is truly spiritual.”

________________________________ . ________________________________

The day proceeds by the rules of pious readings during meals in refectory, study, recreation, work and rest. Work, by its very nature, cannot be micromanaged. On-the-spot sensible inventiveness must be allowed to get the job done, but guided by the ever present rule.

“The Rule of St Benedict of Nursia (6th century) is the book of precepts written for monks living in community under the authority of an abbot. The spirit of St Benedict’s Rule is summed up in the motto of the Benedictine Confederation: pax (“peace”) and the traditional ora et labora (“pray and work”).” SOURCE:

“Keep the rule and the rule will keep you.”


To get an idea of how the monks see the efficacy and purpose of the scheduled life, here are Reflections from a Simply Professed Monk (he has not yet taken his final solemn vows). All reflections are anonymous, no doubt as an act of self-effacement.

I even heard a story recently of a few people who were greatly impressed with a man because he had persevered in monastic life for 40 years.  His response?  He smiled and said, ‘It’s a good start.’  Now, that is a real monk who is truly living the vow of conversion. . .For St. Benedict, however, conversion is primarily a constant and life-long process. . .
Many may be surprised by this. “How,” they might be thinking, “can someone live this relentless schedule, profess vows, chant the office, and not be changed by it?” The answer is surprisingly very simple:  external observances do not automatically cause interior growth.
****For example, I have often times gone through Vigils (upwards of an hour of constant chanting) without having actually prayed a word of it, due to allowing various distractions to gain a foothold in my mind and heart. This, of course, is exactly what the devil, the world, and the flesh desire:  no real conversion. SOURCE:


Back in the good old days, the 16th century, no less a personage than Father Martin Luther, himself once having been an Augustinian friar in good, though tortured, standing, was no stranger to the devil.

Since his childhood, Luther was pestered by devils, evil spirits, and deamons. He reported about such occurrences during his later life as well, these fears of being attacked increased especially during his time of seclusion at the Wartburg. Luther ascribed his depressions and mood swings to these ‘evil spirits.’ SOURCE:

In this, the 21st century, there is a large demographic (our monks, for example, in Abiquiu) who give credence to the existence of the devil, Satan, Lucifer, the prince of darkness, the adversary, and last but not least, that Old Deluder. Here is my October 20, 2018 diary entry during my visit:

Attended evening office. Blessed sacrament displayed in understated monstrance. Evening— the Psalms are full of dread, anxiety, fear and appeals for rescue from the unrighteous, the evil, the wicked, the enemy. Calls for ‘his’ destruction and crushing of those who know not the Lord, Creator, the Just Judge whose eyes are watching the good and the wicked (Prov. 15:3).

Did the idea of the devil going about the monastery, like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour, give me pause? Yes. Did I jump to the conclusion that wariness of the devil might bring on neurosis? Yes, I admit. Have I looked into the neurotic personality in the religious life? Yes, and I found a respected expert who had studied the matter–Father Thomas Merton.

The Neurotic Personality in the Monastic Life by Thomas Merton
It is a matter of experience that many of the problems that most deeply affect souls in the cloister are psychological rather than ascetic. Since an increasing number of religious are more or less affected with neurotic anxiety without being subject to a serious neurosis, it is important to realize what the neurotic character is, know how to recognize it, as well as how to help this character in the solution of problems. It goes without saying that, if a director or a superior can, by rightly understanding these characters, help them to keep and develop a genuine religious vocation, a great work will be done for God. Not only the individual religious but the whole community must suffer if an unbalanced character is allowed to become worse. The presence of neurotics in the community adds to the burdens of community life and especially to the problems and difficulties of superiors. There is also a danger of a seriously neurotic person eventually becoming psychotic.
Souls affected with a serious neurosis should not be encouraged to remain in religion. Hysterical episodes, or evidence of a deep-seated obsessive-compulsive neurosis, are a sign that the subject does not belong in the cloister. Hypochondria in a serious form, the prolonged and general fatigue which is evidence of chronic neurasthenia, may also be interpreted as counter-indications of a vocation if they are constant and cannot be remedied. A fortiori, subjects who show signs of schizophrenic withdrawal or, above all, of paranoid delusions or persecution obsessions, are to be excluded immediately from the religious life. Neurotic depressive reactions, if they are not serious, may perhaps not debar a person from the religious life, but a depressive character will nevertheless suffer much more acutely in religion than out of it, particularly in the contemplative life where the suppressed hostility, which is the root of the trouble, will be aggravated by the lack of normal communication with others.” SOURCE: 3-19.pdf p5.

Again, the Buddhist doubting John Horgan joins the fray with a vengance. “Instead of becoming a saint-like Bodhisattva, brimming with love for all things, the mystic may become a sociopathic nihilist.”


What of recreation. How does the rule direct in this matter?

There is wisdom in avoiding the prudery which is shocked and scandalized by everything; when we are good, the peace and innocence of childhood, its moral naïveté, return to us. Still it remains true that there are certain subjects, a certain coarseness, a certain worldly tone, which should never enter our conversation. These things are not such as to stir wholesome laughter; there are matters which one should not touch, which it is wholesome to avoid. Our own delicacy of feeling and the thought of Our Lord will save us from all imprudence.
But as for buffoonery or silly words, such as move to laughter, we utterly condemn them in every place, nor do we allow the disciple to open his mouth in such discourse.’” (Rule, Chapter 6) SOURCE: Dom Paul Delatter, The Rule of Saint Benedict, A Commentary (New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1921), 97.

To this might be added another text of Saint Benedict, where he bids his monks, ‘Not to love much or excessive laughter.’ (Rule, Chap. 4, Instr. 55.) If the monk is directly to avoid excessive laughter, there must have been allowance for its moderate use.” SOURCE:

So there you have it regarding laughter. Keep it simple, I guess is the meaning.

If disorder manifests in the cloister, all can be righted. Somewhere in the mists of my memory there is a quote of St. Jane Francis de Chantal. She advised that the surest way to reform a monastery is to direct the brothers and sisters to the practice of silence and decrease frivolous chatter.


“Silence after compline (the seventh hour)” and last of the Divine Office…

…on leaving compline, no one will be permitted to speak further. If anyone is found to transgress this rule of silence, he must be subjected to severe punishment, except on occasions when guest requires attention or the abbot wishes to give someone a command, but even this is to be done with utmost seriousness and proper restraint. SOURCE: The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 42


A monk awakens after sleep like everyone. He undertakes to move through his day engaged in meaningful work, study and prayerful attention to righteous and even (?) mystical thought.

Why does a man enter the cloister? Read on.

It is a fallen world because the first man and woman fell from grace and were banished from the Garden of Eden. Why? They succumbed to a temptation of the devil, which took on the shape of a snake (later a horned, hooved creature). The monk is the man who is painfully aware of his banishment from the garden and is seeking to return.

After rebuking the man and the woman, God rebukes the snake, but promises salvation.

14 ‘So the Lord God said to the serpent,
Because you have done this,
Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
15 ‘And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.’ ” SOURCE:

Commentators used to see in the words, “thou shalt bruise his heel,” a prediction of the sufferings and crucifixion of our Lord, as “the seed” of the woman; and in the words, “it shall bruise thy head,” the victory of the Crucified and Risen Son of Man over the forces of sin and death. SOURCE:

The Rich Man and the Kingdom of God:

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

The persevering monk does not go away. He is the man who stays. Celibate he is, and the word “monk” is Greek monakhos ‘solitary’, from monos ‘alone’. But he is not entirely alone. He is alone with his Beloved Alone.


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