What monks and college students taught me about commitment
I had an existential headache. Having recently finished a graduate program in theology, I was trying to figure out what was next for my life. Looking for inspiration, I accepted an invitation for a weeklong retreat at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina.
My companions for the retreat were friends and neighbors with whom I had lived in community during school. The monks at the abbey had scheduled time to get to know us, leading us into an evening of privileged space to share thoughts and questions with one another. I posed questions about how I would use my theology degree. Others in our group discussed their relationships, the sustainability of their work, health diagnoses and the dynamics of living closely with one another in community. The monks responded with some of their own unknowns, too—in particular their dwindling numbers and rising ages.
I waited for these religious brothers to tell us about plans to attract potential novices. Instead, they were eager to tell us about opportunities where guests could, first and foremost, experience the smaller commitments of their life: silence, care for the land and prayer. The monks’ focus was firmly rooted in what they could continue to give, even in a time of their own need.
For a group of people who could so easily be labeled as stuck in place, in routine and in relationship, they modeled for us a rare aura of creativity and freedom. Tucked away in our conversation with the monks that night was a simple but profound message, one that has rung in my ears ever since: “We love our life here together, and we want to share it with others.”
They modeled for us a rare aura of creativity and freedom.
Several years later, I now work as a theology teacher at a Catholic high school and am well aware of the shortage we have in religious vocations. As the global church faces this daunting reality, Catholic schools have their own, unique thread of history. When American Catholic schools really began to expand around the beginning of the 20th century, classrooms were largely staffed by religious sisters, priests and brothers. This is now far from the norm. During the time I have worked at my school, we have had an ongoing conversation about what is distinctly Catholic about the education we offer.
In the past, when schools were run by religious orders, they brought their charisms and spiritualities with them. Their commitments to the faith informed our own. In their absence, opportunities remain for us to remember their legacy, but also to become aware of both the gifts and deficits of this new chapter in our history.
When a co-worker and I found ourselves tasked with designing a new trip for students interested in theological studies, we immediately thought of Mepkin Abbey. Both of us already had a relationship with this community, making it a natural choice. What had started as a somewhat whimsical decision, though, turned out to be much more: a seed in reimagining this relationship between Catholic schools and those in vowed religious life.
I knew the trip would appeal to those who want more religious vocations and more opportunities for students to explore these callings. As much as I want students to have the opportunity to consider such things, this is not what excited me most about the trip. I wanted my students to have the same opportunity I had—to look into the eyes of religious men whose life was marked by both commitment and uncertainty and hear them say, with frankness and sincerity, “I love my life.”
An Essential Examination
The religious vocation crisis points to something so much deeper than its surface-level questions. To be sure, it is important to encourage young adults to be open to the call to priesthood and religious life, and to consider whether a vowed celibate life is right for them. But starting here deprives us of an essential examination. To me, this crisis begs us to consider if we really believe life is meant to be loved, and if commitment is a plausible tool in seeking that desired state. In other words, is a vocation to the priesthood or religious life a trusted pathway to help us love our lives?
When I say love, I mean it in the fullest sense of the word—a love that holds both joy and sacrifice, blissful hope and morbid practicality, piercing meaning and debilitating confusion; a love that has the potential to bind us, or “contain” us. A love that can help us grow in holiness and depth.
They want to see people who have found the wisdom to dismantle the overwhelming nature of commitment to its smaller yet sustaining pieces.
This generation of students does not want to be pressured to do things they have watched adults around them be resentful of, or even hate. When we look at the divorce rate or the numbers of religious leaders who have abused their power and betrayed the very foundation of their calling (let alone those who are simply unhappy in their vocations of any kind, single, married or vowed), it is easy to see why many young people have questions. Our students want hope that there are people out there who genuinely find this depth of love every day in their lives. They want to see people who have found the wisdom to dismantle the overwhelming nature of commitment to its smaller yet sustaining pieces. The week I spent with the students on this retreat was hopeful to this end, to say the least.
Even before arriving, it was clear that many of our students were drawn to the trip mostly out of curiosity. Having shown them a schedule of the prayer periods the monks attended each day, we had quite a few students wonder aloud why anyone would choose to have this much structure. Our students almost sounded sympathetic, assuming these monks must feel enchained by their life. The absurdity of it all at least had opened wide the ears of our cohort. They were eager to understand and, to my surprise, eager to experiment with what they were learning.
The first night we watched a documentary, called “In Pursuit of Silence.” Our students took this film as an introduction to something that, perhaps, felt like meeting a new friend, one whom the monks knew quite well. It gave us language to explore why silence was so hard to find and so undervalued and, as a result, so scary. It also gave us examples of people who were intentionally creating space to find stillness, quiet, rest—and greater depth in their lives.
Days later, as we drove home, one student confessed that, in response to the film, she had gone through the majority of the week without listening to music. As she put her AirPods back into her ears, she smiled and said, “Somehow it sounds better now.” She had regained an ability to relate to music as music and not merely noise.
One day we heard a monk give a talk on contemplative prayer. We then had an opportunity to practice it with him. When our students and chaperones gathered for an evening reflection later on, a student courageously pulled one of us aside to suggest that we begin with five minutes of shared silence. Words cannot describe the sacred space we found in those short minutes that followed. We sat still, listening to the crackling fire, the wind rippling off the waters, trees swaying—God’s presence was palpable. We all laughed a bit at how awkward, but worthwhile, taking these moments to pause and listen together could be.
What Do I Do With My Life?
For our last night there, I asked if the monks would be willing to join us for a time of conversation. I hoped our students would walk away with some of the same wisdom I had heard just a few years ago in a similar setting. The monks agreed, and once again, I watched a group of people choose to bravely face their unique, yet similar, unknowns together. As our trip was open only to junior and senior students, all of them had their noses pressed to the glass, wondering what awaited them beyond their time in high school. Although they found so many different ways to say it, they all seemed to be asking the same thing: How do you know what to do with your life?
The monks received each question graciously, and often with a chuckle.
The monks received each question graciously, and often with a chuckle. In one set of responses, we heard a monk recount a continuous steadiness in all of his discernments. His voice sounded warm and humble and left many of us wishing we could share the sentiment. When there was a pause, another monk proudly exclaimed, “and on a different note, I wonder if I should leave this place about every other day!” Laughter erupted. This monk smiled, not showing an ounce of regret mixed in with this admission. His understanding of how daunting a commitment can be, from my vantage point, only invigorated the zeal he found in saying yes to his vocation each day.
Ultimately, the range of certainty the monks held toward their own life choice seemed to calm our students. They showed our young people that navigating uncertainty might be just as or even more important than always having clarity or the “right answer.” Simultaneously, it was clear to me that, in looking at these young faces, the monks found a renewed contentment in the calling they had followed into the monastery.
As the conversation continued, one of the monks spoke about his discernment to leave his life as a parish priest in order to enter the monastery. As he narrated his decision to leave one calling for another, he said, “I needed a container to grow deeper in.” For him, that container was the community of brothers at Mepkin.
Commitment is good; I believe that wholeheartedly. Yet, as I listen to the wisdom of those in my life who are older, I often hear laments that they lacked the personal formation to know when, how and to whom to commit. Many in our younger generations, myself included, have watched those ahead of us, at times, choose these “containers” hastily or with no attempt at creativity. Usually it has been through no fault of their own. It is hard to blame my generation for being noncommittal when we want something markedly different from what we have seen go before us. The abuses of power and constant pressure that undermine vocational life continue. We need to develop a way of intentionally forming people to understand and nurture the patience and fortitude essential in the daily process of choosing each of these paths.
This monk’s story about leaving parish life spoke so powerfully to us because it emphasized a healthy way of navigating the disruptions that any future promises. His story brought to life a nuance that I was eager to hear, and I think many others long for as well—a belief in the beauty of commitment with a deep trust and care in the ongoing discernment process that can lead to a major change in one’s life.
I have to hope our process of formation for young people can mirror this twofold wisdom. First, that we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit to form people who trust their conscience, a person’s most secret core(Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1776). And second, that we all might have the courage to seek out “containers” that will make us fully human, fully who God created us to be, fully aware of the gift of our life.
Perhaps it is in these communal spaces, where an 18-year-old student and a 67-year-old monk can experience friendship, that we can be reminded that God chooses and calls each one of us to help bring his kingdom closer. Discernment is not a matter of suppressing parts of who we are to fit an abstract notion of “God’s will.” It is an invitation to a place where we can say, with frankness and sincerity, “I love my life.”