I have been focusing more on short bursts of silence today. Ten minutes here and there, where I resist the urge to fill silence. Don’t turn on music, don’t look at your phone out of habit, don’t try to fill this moment of peace with something. Just take your ten minutes of silence and listen.
A friend from seminary is on a retreat in Spain, and I just received a message that said “Food for your soul…” and a lot of photographs of chapels and so on followed. Beautiful. He knows I’m a ridiculous nerd over all the aesthetics. It kind of was food for the soul. Not so much the photographs themselves, although they are stunning, but just you know that way when someone was thinking of you. He looked at a fresco and thought ‘I know who’d like that.’ Simple, but it does makes the lonely feeling kind of less lonely.
I watched the first of three episodes of ‘The Monastery’ today. It is the TV documentary that prompted the writing of the Finding Sanctuary book. I’m halfway through the book, and he has been referring a little more to the show, so I thought I’d have a look. It’s a documentary about five laymen who volunteered to spend 40 days living with the monks and following their rules, lifestyle etc.
It was first aired in 2005 - and oh my goodness, how has it aged that much already? It looks so old! In fashion, in production value, everything.
But I enjoyed it, I’ll certainly watch the other two episodes and see how it goes.
The Abbot has started to talk about obedience in the book now, and he has been talking a lot about how we often think that freedom means being able to do whatever we want whenever we want. But he talks about our human impulses, and how sometimes we can be slaves to these impulses. He spoke about how he’s spoken to so many people who feel like they are ‘free agents’, but they hide themselves, or hide their souls, behind a mask. He spoke about men who hide behind… money, status, physical appearance, and their sexuality, but what they are trying to hide is their authentic self. So, he thinks we are at a point as a society where on the surface it looks like we’re willing to put everything out there - like with oversharing on social media, reality tv, sending nudes or hooking up or whatever - but at the same time what we’re ‘putting out there’ is fake. It’s surface. It’s front. It’s a mask. We’re free to do any of that, follow any of our impulses, we’re freer than ever. But are we happy? Does it make us happy?
You are free to follow your impulses. Or you can acknowledge that impulse, and make the choice not to listen to it. For example - I can be guilty of this, and I know a lot of people can be - I often feel the impulse to be looking at my phone. Sometimes there will be a reason I can’t, maybe I’m taking mass or I’m driving or something, so obviously I don’t. I choose not to. Then there will be times like… between meetings, waiting on someone, just sitting alone and feeling bored, or publicly somewhere and feeling awkward that I’m alone… then the impulse wins. But do I choose to follow the impulse? Is that my own free will? Or, as I’m starting to consider more likely, am I being controlled by my impulses, and ignoring them would actually be more of a conscious choice? Saying to myself, I feel that impulse, I’m going to ignore it for ten minutes and see if it goes away - that’s tricky. And it suggests that perhaps we aren’t as free as we think we are, and that we are being controlled by our impulses and we are not making as many free choices as we might imagine, and that makes us deeply unhappy.
Of course, in the show, this naturally led on to the conversation about celibacy. One of the laymen asked about it, and the Abbot said “well, I mean it’s not a selling point…” (I laughed). The laymen then tried to ask, “are most of the monks… before they were monks… or is that too personal…?” and the Abbot joked, “depends what was meant to be in the gaps,” and then followed up with, “To be honest, I don’t know, it’s not something we really talk about.”
Which seemed amusing for about 0.5seconds, and then I suddenly thought - hang on, why don’t we talk about this?? We are talking about natural impulses, and how we make a conscious choice to ignore them, but I’m far from the only priest in the world who must find it a struggle at some point or another. Why aren’t we talking about this? Surely that would be helpful? Are we all just too ‘polite’ or embarrassed or are we doing exactly what he says - putting on a mask and pretending that it’s all very easy because we are naturally so very virtuous and never had a lustful thought in our entire life. When that is clearly not true.
We talk a lot about humility, and how it’s important to acknowledge areas of struggle, not to get too complacent, not to get an ego.... and you know, I hear people acknowledge their shortcomings and struggles in other areas, so I think it really is just an embarrassment or maybe even a shame. Like what if you put it out there and everyone else goes ‘what? no! celibacy is a wonderful gift! What lustful thoughts?!” and it’s just incredibly awkward.
But I highly doubt it. And I wonder if all this shame and secrecy and pushing it down can possibly be healthy. I wonder much darker things than that to be honest, about what the repression might lead to, but that’s a whole other discussion.