I finished An Infinity of Little Hours this afternoon. At the beginning of the book, there were five men who entered the Carthusians believing that they had a vocation. At the end, only one remained in the Order. One out five. What are the chances?
This book was a powerful read for me. It helped me to understand how strenuous the religious life and all of the demands that it makes on a person. The demands are not only spiritual, but also physical and psychological.
Among the Carthusians, it is common to interrupt one’s sleep so as to say Matins and Lauds. It is also common, or it used to be, to sleep in a cold and damp room most of the time without any heat or a small burning fire. I understand the reasons why the Carthusians sacrifice so much. It is to focus on God and on Him alone. Yet I know for myself that the Carthusians are not for me. For all of the familiarity and sympathy that I felt for their ceremonies, I know that I cannot live as a hermit.
Although I spend a lot of my time alone in prayer and when I’m doing other things around the house, I also need the companionship of others. Whether it be a parent or a friend, I need someone to talk to in order to clarify what I’m experiencing. In the Carthusian life, I wouldn’t be able to stand it for one day. I’m sure I would hop the fence of the monastery at the first opportunity. I cannot be alone. It’s not my style.
The Benedictine life appeals to me because it balances work and contemplation. Like the Carmelites and Carthusians, the Benedictine monk spends most of his days in prayer. The work of God (Divine Office) is his main work, but there are also other things that consume his time. He may work in a bakery or library, teach in a seminary, or work in the larger community. Whatever he does, however, he returns to the monastery and his brethren.
It is a life that is reasonable and practical. In fact, I was very surprised when I read the Rule of St. Benedict for the first time. I originally thought that it would be a long laundry list of “Thou shalt and thou shalt nots.” What I found was one of the most rational and gentle rules. St. Benedict wrote from his heart and it is something that is clear on every single page. He wrote from experience and he knew what worked.
It’s interesting that the Benedictine way of life has survived for as long as it has. Yet the reason for its survival is that the Rule can be adapted to any period of time and circumstances. While the world changes around the monks, the Rule changes with them. Yet its character always remains the same. The two core values of work and prayer are like two marble stones. They do not move, but they are always there.
In discerning a vocation to the Benedictines/Cistercians/Trappists, I’ve read a great deal about St. Benedict himself. I don’t find him to be a scary ascetic with a perpetual scowl on his face. Although he was severe, he was also gentle. He knew how to get through to people and to explain to them that what they were doing was wrong. He wasn’t afraid to discipline them either, but the gentleness was always there.
For months now, I know that my place is in a Benedictine abbey. I know this with a certainty that I never had with the other Orders that I looked at except the Franciscans. It is a conviction that grows every day.
Even if I do not become a brother, I will be happy to be an Oblate. Yet I leave all of this up to God. His will be done not mine.