When I was a young monk, it did not take me long to see how some of my perspectives were going to get me in trouble. Not with others, but with myself.
In 1971 there were 70 monks in the community (Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, GA). Most of them were in their early 50’s, with a few in their 80’s. They were good men, some of them veterans from the Second World War. I soon found out that they did things differently than what I was used to, and I was the one who had to adapt.
Since many of them had been in monastic life a long time, their ideas of hygiene for instance was not I would say ‘modern.’ I soon learned that it was best not to look too closely at how food was prepared, or if some of the older monks went along with modern understandings of cleanliness. What helped me out was the fact that they were a healthy lot, and seemed to live to very old age. So I changed, survived, and saved myself a great deal of frustration.
I also observed my elders and saw how some of them only increased their sufferings by the way that they interpreted the monastic life. I doubt that they considered their perspective a perspective at all, but the simple truth. Some of my elders were more liberal-minded, others had a more towards a more fixed understanding of monastic life. It was a time of change, radical change, and I was amazed at how well the men lived together despite differences of opinion. Yet, a few suffered deeply.
I have come to understand that the majority of my difficulties come from my outlook as well. When I do not question my perspective on things, I can take on an infallible stance. However, when there is room for only one way of looking at life, there is bound to be trouble.
For example, I have perspectives on how I think liturgy should be conducted. Some in the community laugh at me about this, and rightly so since I do believe that I can go a little too far in one direction. So over the years, I had to make a choice to change my perspective. One thing I learned that made it easier for me to do this is realizing my perspective in only an opinion. We all have them, and in the long run, they don’t mean much. However the liturgy is an important part of our life, and the changing of my stance, has made it easier for me to pray with the community, and I’m very happy I did.
What about my perspective towards members of the community. Do I question myself on my ‘ judgments’ on my brothers? Do I understand that my take on them can easily be wrong? Do I take responsibility when I treat one of the brothers unjustly and seek to make amends? Or do I think I am right and they need to change and come to me? Do I appreciate what my brothers do for me, or do I perhaps on an unconscious level look upon them as servants? They are there to cook my meals, do the dishes, and make sure that I get car keys when I need them. Am I careless in how I respond to their request for help, as well as for doing my part to make their responsibilities run more smoothly? Do I understand that the perspective I take for truth is just an opinion, clouded by past experiences with others, as well as my family history? Do I appreciate or take advantage of community members? Do I show appreciation?
Years ago, one community member, a good man, now deceased complained to me that the brothers did not show appreciation towards one another. So I asked him if he did that for the brothers. He looked at me strangely and said ‘no.’ It was not a big deal, and he was a good monk but never got my point.
Life is made up of little things. Seeming inconsequential acts that can be done without much thought, but can have in reality lasting repercussions not only in community but also in the depths of our souls. Our little choices can become deeply ingrained habits that can over time bring forth either good or rotten fruit. We are either growing into loving, compassionate, human beings or slowly, over time, without noticing, increasingly self-centered, and demanding.
In a community, in a religious community, there is a danger of becoming so used to services being done for me that I can feel ‘entitled.’ If I repeat one small act of self-centeredness over a long period of time, it becomes ingrained, and it will take away from me the ability to see the bigger picture of what it means to live in community.
I believe that goes for any community, not just a religious one. Instead of becoming a servant to others, I will over time make my brothers in the community my servants, becoming demanding that everything goes according to my desires, but in the end, could lead me to not even consider the desires or rights of those around me. I suppose it could be the anteroom of hell.
For years there is a priest in the community who out of love and concern for the brothers would every morning do some cleaning in our breakfast room, and before that before would do it in our old refectory. He worked quietly and perhaps was not noticed, but that little service made life here more pleasant because he kept a small corner of the Monastery neat and orderly. One small ‘wipe’ at a time, over many years. I do believe that the love and concern that led him to do that had a big impact on his inner life, as well as on mine, and I believe in others.
On Saturday of this week, a note was left on our upstairs board that expressed some deep frustration about the car keys situation. It was strongly worded, and I thought it was appropriate and glad my brother had the courage to state how difficult it made his job when keys were not turned in.
I am not judging the monk who forgot to return the keys, but it happens constantly and not from the same monk. I have forgotten to turn in keys myself. In fact, last week I did just that. I came home, put on my habit, and placed the key on the counter so I would not forget to turn it in, and well, I forgot. So a note had to go up. I was embarrassed by it and made my apologies. I did this for two reasons. One to let the brother know that I probably caused him some frustration, and secondly, so in the future, I would be more thoughtful. It is good to own up, that way it makes a deep impression on one’s mind.
Taking care of the car keys may for some monks seem to be a simple job, but it is not. While it is not labor-intensive, when someone takes a key without signing out for it, or keeps a key, intentionally or not, causes frustration, even anger.
I do believe that we should all try to make the lives of our brothers easier and not more difficult. I have also discovered that those who are most demanding that everything run smooth, or the ones who can be very disruptive in how they follow protocols. Community life can help us grow in self-knowledge on many levels. Our everyday give–and–take can be one such teacher if we can learn to reflect on how we affect others.
One thing that I have found helpful in my own monastic life is to appreciate the services that monks give to the community and to let them know. To take each other for granted never bears good fruit. In doing that we can reduce each other to a mere function. It is not done consciously, but isn’t our monastic life set up to make us more mindful of our calling to serve one another, and not to be served?
It is just life, it happens, but we can work on making it a rarer event than it seems to be now. So be mindful, turn in your keys, change the roll of paper, if you spill sugar, clean it up, flush the toilet when finished, and well, just be considerate of one another and not boorish. You will benefit more than you think you will
A community that cherishes the little details of love, whose members care for one another and create an open and evangelizing environment is a place where the risen Lord is present, sanctifying it in accordance with the Father’s plan.—Pope Francis