This summer I invited the 12 members of the Wisdom Council to each write a reflection on being a monk in the world. They were so well-received by the Abbey community, I decided to continue the series this fall by asking some fellow authors and bloggers I know to also write about living contemplatively in daily life.
I am delighted to have such a lovely line up for you, beginning with Tara Owens, who I got to know initially through Spiritual Directors International and have grown to love her spirit and perspective on things. So I bring you some of her wisdom:
To Be A Monk Is To Laugh
by Tara M. Owens
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. A contemplative order of monks, the Cistercians dedicate themselves to the Rule of St. Benedict, living, as they say, “a monastic way of life in solitude and silence, in assiduous prayer and joyful penitence… rending to the divine majesty a service that is at once humble and noble.”
My heart always thrills and settles to be among brothers and sisters, and this, my first visit to the Monastery, was no exception. We arrived in the morning, and spent some time exploring their stunning exhibit on the history of monasticism—a rich history layered down a blue hallway thick with silence and almost-but-not-quiet audible holy laughter.
So many things caught my eye or my heart, spoke an affirming “yes” or a “this will come to you, daughter, just rest” as I read and was reminded of this history and practices of monasticism. I myself have been living as a monk in the world, an artist of the Divine, for only a handful of years (I pause and count, realizing that this is the year of seven for me, a year of completion, and I smile at God’s synchronicities), and these monks have dedicated their whole lives to the way. I am humbled by how much I still have to learn, happy to be reminded once again that there are so many others dancing on the path ahead of me, calling me deeper into the movement of the Spirit.
The Monastery of the Holy Spirit is a daughter house to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, which was home to Father Thomas Merton, and the monks called here to Georgia came as they lived—in holy silence that was broken only by the calling of their names in service to this new house. For a time, the 20 monks lived in a barn in the sweltering Southern heat. A panel offers one monk’s cheeky and wholly disruptive response to this hardship: “If it was good enough for our Lord, it was good enough for us.”
This is the lesson, the reminder, the whisper of God for me in this visit and in this season of my life as a monk in the world—to live in the disruptive, holy laughter of God.
I move on in the exhibit, and the monks talk through the walls of this barn about rising for morning prayer. The obedience, stability and conversion in the process of getting up at 4 am to be together in the dark morning, praying Lauds. The voices speak of the difficulty, the humor of those tired hours, how it doesn’t get easier, and they quote Benedict with wry tones on why it is good to rise together, “let them gently encourage one another on account of the excuses of the drowsy.”
What catches my companion on this visit to the Order is the history of the chapel itself. Cistercians, also called Trappists, are called to simplicity, and their places of worship are unadorned, almost stark, usually with clear glass windows. At the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, the chapel is made of the simplest of substances: concrete. What is holy about this ordinary material is that the monks built the soaring arches without machinery. Each load of cement mixed by hand, each taken in a wheelbarrow and poured in prayer into the flying columns that surround and support their daily prayers today.
This is the lesson of radical presence that my past years as a monk in the world have been about—I have learned through the practices, through the falling down and the getting up again, the grace and the awareness of the Holy in every day life, to be exactly where I am, as I am. I don’t claim perfection in this path, but it is something that I know about myself, something that I see pouring out of me when I am in partnership with God in my practice of spiritual direction. I am present where I am, as each monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit was present to his wheelbarrow of cement, to the heat of the Georgia summers, to the gift of living simply in a barn together.
I walk through the world that insists that I be elsewhere—distracted by technology, consumed by the list of things to be done (the wheelbarrows of cement yet to be poured), the responsibilities to be heavily worn. In this world, I insist that I am here—sitting in front of this computer screen in the early morning light in Colorado Springs, listening to the green leaves of the tree before my desk whisper that they are already in the process of turning yellow, well before I can see it with my physical eyes. I am here, hopeful that these words will reach out to someone who needs them, touching the keyboard tenderly, and I would your hand, if we were sitting together across a cup of tea.
These are the things that I know, that I live into the world in my own monkish ways. But the lesson of the Monastery for me, the one that God is giggling in my ears even now, is to be a monk who laughs, who delights in the foolishness of God, the surprising joy of the Holy in the world.
This, this is hard for me. I take things so seriously. I am still on the path. I am only a novitiate. I begin again, as Benedict says.
I walk silently alongside my friend to the chapel for midday prayer. Knowing the history of this place, being reminded of the journey that I have already walked so far, I am present to the midday sun, the sound of our footsteps, the awe I feel in the presence of a building so large yet built by hands so small. I read in the history of this place that a small concession was made to the Trappist insistence on simplicity: because of the cement and the intensity of the summer heat, the windows of the chapel were permitted to be colored, just this once, in order to make the interior hospitable. The patterns were to be simple, and only one color so as not to disturb the stark white-grey of the walls.
I enter this house of prayer, and the laughter that I heard but didn’t hear in the hallways erupts within my soul. I struggle not to laugh out loud and disrupt my fellow worshippers. This vaulted, holy place is filled with light, the midday sun pouring in. Bubbles of joy tickle my throat and I smile. The whole chapel, this place of presence and prayer, is washed in color (my very favorite color): blue.
I kneel, giggling inside. I am a monk in the world, and my God is leading me in the way of laughter.
Tara M. Owens, CSD is a monk in the world and an artist of the Divine. She is a spiritual director and supervisor with Anam Cara Ministries where she speaks, curates retreats and teaches. She is writing a book on spirituality and the body that will be published by InterVarsity Press in early 2014. She is also the Senior Editor of a spiritual formation publication called Conversations Journal. She lives in Colorado with her husband Bryan and their rescue dog, Hullabaloo.
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My husband noticed that when I pray, I frown, as if straining after God so that He will hear and act. He said I should smile when I pray so that I embody expectant confidence in His abundance of mercy and grace…so now I smile when I pray and I imagine this makes God laugh a little.
I lived in Atlanta for 18 years and visited the Monastery in Conyers many times. Your description of it and the wonderful photos – especially all the blue light, which I, too loved – made me homesick, as I live now in far-away NC. Thanks for taking me on this meaningful walk through the silence and beauty.
I just returned from this monastery where I was privileged to have offered a weekend retreat. It is stunningly beautiful. The monastic center and the gift shop are a real treat, and the community of monks offer a simple yet warm southern hospitality. Many of the monks are artists, and their work is beautiful. They also have a bonzi garden where one can pause and meditate. It was a real treat. If you can, make a stop and take in the wonder!
Thankyou for this lovely blog. I love the idea of holy laughter. Do you know these lines from ‘The Everlasting Mercy’ by John Masefield?
O Christ who holds the open gate,
O Christ who drives the furrow straight,
O Christ, the plough, O Christ, the laughter
Of holy white birds flying after,
Lo, all my heart’s field red and torn, 65
And Thou wilt bring the young green corn,
The young green corn divinely springing,
The young green corn forever singing;
And when the field is fresh and fair
Thy blessèd feet shall glitter there, 70
And we will walk the weeded field,
And tell the golden harvest’s yield,
The corn that makes the holy bread
By which the soul of man is fed,
The holy bread, the food unpriced, 75
Thy everlasting mercy, Christ.
I also love the thought of laughter as spiritual…. God laughing ……Yes …I have experienced God as she laughs with and at me ..and it makes me smile with joy.
Tara, good girl! Nice to “see” you here. My inner monk-artist rejoices with you.
I love the thought of laughter as spiritual, and happy monks. I always tend to think of monks as serious. (Which means I probably need to find a happier version of my ‘inner monk’). Love this.
Loved the blog God is so much like laughter and joy colour peace and the moments when She touches our hearts.
I’m stunned by the beauty of the chapel! Reading your description of concrete construction, I was expecting something utilitarian and drab. I love it! I’ve visited Cistercian monasteries here in France and I love them. So simple and elegant and peaceful. Fascinating that you relate to that holiness through laughter…I can totally relate to that as well!