Ex-monks tend to miss the cloister of their ex-monastery in Advent. We, who left the monastery together are connected – we talk with each other. We visit and call and remember the monastery years in our lives and we talk about why we went, and about why we left.
We all have our stories, themselves cloistered by the documents the monastery has us sign when we left – security against our story and to protect their image. Which is fine, I suppose. But we all, we ex-monks and ex-nuns seem to agree on one thing and that is how we loved being cloistered monks and nuns when Advent arrived. As it will in a few weeks. We, each of us, have found new ways to live the monastic life to which we were called, are called, without the structures of red brick and black cloth. Finding our authentic, inner monk was hard work. It’s easier, for a while at least, to simply get on the monk train and ride it. Making one’s own Rule of Life and then trying (and so often failing) to live buy it, can be a challenge.
As I finish this new book on life inside one’s own Rule, I am faced with finishing it just as Advent begins. Being in a monastery during Advent was like being inside a cozy New England Inn during a terrible nor’easter – a terrible, loud, windy, snowy storm. Sitting by a fire with spiced, hot wine during a gale-force-winds-storm is how it felt to sing and pray by candle-light in a habit while the world around us rushed around shopping and buying and cooking and trying to get the holidays “right” under the bright lights of ads for everything. The eastern star of the computer screen and television, announcing “Behold, stuff.”
Catalogues arrive and the internet is flooded with autumnal images inviting purchases of many kinds. New Thanksgiving platters, new napkins, new kitchen tools for roasting a turkey, new Martha Stewart magazines suggesting a pathway to “success” this holiday all begin to make one feel less like we are to enjoy Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s and more like we need to jump them like hurdles on a marathon race track.
What would it be like for you and me, now, before this madness begins, to write one paragraph about how we want this upcoming holiday season to be different and with whom we want to spend it? What if we wrote a love-letter to our Advent selves and said “Sweet One. Don’t do this. Don’t race around trying to get meals and gifts and vacations right this year. My beloved self-friend, don’t do this. Live in the monastery of God’s gentle spirit. Tell your family you don’t want any inedible gifts – nothing for which you will need to find a shelf or a drawer or a bin. Tell your friends that this year there is no party but instead, a pot luck of crock-pots – three main ingredients like chicken thighs, apples and leeks – prep time of about 10 minutes and conversation about our friendships – an dhow they feed our souls. Tell your spouses and close friends that you do not want them to shop for you, but rather to write you a letter to tell you what good they see in you and perhaps one thing they might see that you may not see. And ask them to write about how they see Jesus in you. And then write to them and make those your gifts this year. Not ten boxes with ribbons and bows. Not ten items on your credit card receipt. Not ten things. But ten letters – large on big cotton stationary with rich blue cobalt ink and the loops of your own handwriting – letters of peace like the ones we read in church – letters of encouragement in a hard life from Paul and others. What if we wrote new letters to fit between Acts and Revelation?
Some need monasteries in which to be holy with their monk-mystique branding – and that’s just fine. We need them around – always have. They hold lovely souls and some broken ones which protect us in their healthy confinement there. But for the rest of us, who are not monks and nuns, what if we made an Advent monastery for ourselves by the choices we make these next few weeks? What if the new monasticism is not much more than people being simple, gentle and kind while slowing down and watching, watching, watching for a star in the East, in the dark, in the silence, on a hill with some sheep and a good cup of coffee?
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.