Monday, January 17, 2022

Heading North On the Trail Seeking God

 By Brother Luke 

Friday, January 7, 2022. Whoosh, out the door go my three dogs. Ready as always to play outside, hoping to head off into the woods. Today it is snowing, and that just adds to the excitement.

          I have been spending some time working on a new hiking trail up the northernmost peak of Two Top mountain, usually with my dogs and sometimes even with volunteers. Mostly it's just me and the dogs and the woods. We have a large property, over 470 acres, much of it mountainous. The brothers tried farming in their early years here, only to discover that this terrain is not ideal for that endeavor. Our work with dogs, both training and breeding, is much more confined. However, the woods are ideal for hiking, and this is a great outlet for our dogs as well as for guests and our neighbors. Our hiking trails are open to the public.

Fuller and Amira at the beginning of the new trail up Two Top Mountain 

On the new trail heading northwest

I enjoy working on the trails, and I feel blessed to live where getting out into nature only requires walking outside and choosing a path to take. The need to exercise the dogs is the welcome excuse to head off into the woods. But is something more going on here? I know that early on in my monastic life at New Skete I often felt that itch to head off into the woods, sometimes on the trails and sometimes just off in a new and unexplored direction. Was I getting away from something or heading toward something?

          Monastic life brings us face to face with ourselves. We can turn away or we can engage with the opportunity. Entering monastic life may not necessarily begin at that place. The reasons why we come to monastic life and why we stay can be very different. It is not unusual to be attracted to monastic life because of a romantic ideal possibly gleaned from classic literature about the desert fathers and mothers or other religious personalities we admire. We might also be seeking community and the relationships that can be developed living with a group of like-minded people. For a younger person, seeking a sense of identity might lead to monastic life, especially if that identity includes traditional outward signs such as traditional clothing and grooming. For someone looking for a "second vocation," service in the church as a monastic could be attractive. One might also imagine that the right monastic community will offer security that can be elusive in our 21st-century world of rapid change and dislocation.

          None of these reasons in and of themselves are wrong, but they are only a starting point in this life. Not far down that vocational road, we begin to bump into potholes, ruts, walls, diversions, and other barriers that can easily trip us up or derail us. Monastic life is a calling to go deeper into a relationship with God. Monastic practices born of community living provoke in us many psychological and spiritual challenges.

          The routine, while feeling secure and comfortable in the beginning, may become humdrum or boring. Community worship may start out as something new and exciting, but its regularity, complexity, and musical demands can begin to feel unrelenting and confining. Designing our own routine feels empowering;  ultimately fitting it into a pre-existing routine may feel oppressive. Our work with dogs, or any monastic work, can begin as a challenge, may be accompanied by fear or a feeling of inadequacy. We can grow into it and be pulled along by the achievement of learning and mastering a new skill or art. But over time, as one's responsibilities in an area of work grow, the spark of excitement can become a raging fire of stress and frustrations where one loses sight of the initial joy of accomplishing exciting new goals.

          As a guest, meeting the members of a community is like entering a new world of exploration. It is an opening to learn the story of the monastery, the journey each member has lived here, what brought them here and how this life changed them. How relationships grew over the years. However, once inside and living the life, the very human reality of each person emerges, and one sees both the light and the dark. The achievements and the struggles. The strengths and the weaknesses.

          If all of this sounds like something one can experience in any walk of life: It is! Monastic life is not an escape from life, but rather a plunge more deeply into life in a way that is uncommon. This is because monastic life rests on a foundation of faith that constantly brings us back to Christ's teachings in the Gospel. The Word of God is always before us, challenging us to examine ourselves, our motives, and our reactions to people and incidents that we experience every day.

          This morning at scripture sharing we used a text from Jeremiah (17:5-10) as the basis for our discussion. The prophet used images of the desert and flowing water to distinguish between being rooted near the flowing stream of the Lord or blowing like a tumbleweed in the scorching desert. Not a bad image to ponder during these days of Theophany, the feast of the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. But the prophet also gets to the heart of the matter without any delusions. "The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9 NRSV) And this is what is going on when life challenges us and we react against the challenge rather than meeting it head on.

          Patience, perseverance, compassion, humility, forgiveness, and honesty are called for in life if we are not to defeat ourselves; all qualities Christ exhibited throughout his life. And scripture reminds us of where to look for strength to live these qualities. "Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD." (Jeremiah 17:5 NRSV)

          In monastic life the Gospel message is brought before us daily. The source is scripture, which is amplified in worship, prayer, meditation, spiritual direction, and dialogue with our brothers and sisters. The extent to which we are able to bring those qualities into our daily lived experiences is the measure of our progress in this life. The most important resident in the monastery is the God of love. The God Jesus called father. The monastery is intended to be the living presence of God by the way we treat each other and each person who comes to us. "Blessed are those who trust in the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream." (Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV) The images are from nature, the foundation of God's creation. We are called to trust in the Lord and plant roots near water—that is, near God: the water of life.

          Our monastery is located in nature and draws its spiritual sustenance from the Lord, through its various monastic practices. It is like the tree planted near water. So, when I head off into the woods to hike our trails, even if my initial motive may be a burning desire to get away from some fleeting stress that is looming large at the moment, I find myself in nature, the ultimate place of God's embrace. I can reflect with a fresh perspective on the trial of the moment. I can be taught by the beauty of my surroundings and the example of delight expressed by my dogs that the turmoil most likely stirred up by my ego is taking me away from the lesson God wants me to learn. So the answer to my opening question is both/and. I am both getting away from something and heading toward something. The reflection afforded by that time in nature circles me back to all the other monastic practices that deepen that reflection: prayer, worship, meditation, spiritual reading, and dialogue with brothers and sisters. When this happens, we will feel God's love guiding us back to who we really are and where we really are supposed to be.  "I, GOD, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be.” (Jeremiah 17:10 The Message)

Looking north from the top of Two Top Mountain

Looking south from Two Top Mountain

Looking west across Two Top Mountain

The beginning of the path down from Two Top Mountain

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