Confused Monk Seeking Unknown (Time for a New Lay Order?)

Once again I feel the calling. The force inside that must spill out, that must be given voice. I know that force intimately, even as it remains unfathomable. Living with a force of nature all your life lends an odd familiarity with ever-changing wildness. I know that the malaise, the sense of aimlessness I have lately felt is a reflection of this force not being given what it needs to grow, to thrive, to thrum at its preferred frequency. And so I search.

I look again at lay orders: communities of people out in the world who have dedicated themselves to a relationship with monastic orders. It is a way to live a life of deep faith, of structured daily commitment to contemplation and compassion, with a family and worldly commitments too. It has always been alluring to me. And yet… again I read and again I know none of these communities are for me.

I search this resistance to established lay orders and I wonder, is it an obstacle I should push past? Is it a hindrance, or a gift? Is it disobedience? Is the problem that I need to commit more? I seek this connection in part because I know I don’t have all the answers, even to the questions of what my path should be. I’m looking for guidance. And so, to move forward, do I need to humble myself, in the sense that I should let go of some of these answers I’ve been clinging to? It’s so hard to know what human groups to trust with my faith journey, and past betrayals don’t ease the difficulty.

Deep down I know, that this isn’t just a matter of disobedience. Yes, I crave a commitment to something larger than me, to something that will give more structure to my spiritual life and something that will give shape to what I can give back. But each of these communities I look at – lay orders of Benedictines, Franciscans, etc. – are all firmly rooted in classical theology. They are born of a theological worldview that feels incomplete to me personally. They have profound wisdom to offer, but they are missing critical pieces that I know in my heart are a part of my path.

I know that my life is missing some structure to support my devotion to God. I know that I crave a deeper commitment to contemplation, to prayer, for its own sake. I know that I want that contemplation to guide my action in the world, and that I don’t just want to insert a habit of contemplation underneath activism that I have chosen without appropriate discernment.

I know that I want to cultivate a deep relationship with many traditional Christian virtues: compassion, faithfulness, honesty, kindness, gentleness, purity of heart, courage, conversion, service, respect for personal conscience/agency, conscientiousness, mutuality, peace… and yes, even appropriate obedience, humility, penance, and anger. All have strong Christian roots. I also know that I want my relationship to virtue to include an understanding of structures of oppression, and God’s answer to those structures. So, to that list of Christian virtues add resistance, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, dismantling colonialism and appropriately supporting healing from it, full affirmation and blessing of gender diversity, body positivity, undoing privilege and practicing resurrection. These also have long Christian roots. I want integration, but not in the style of a systematic theology. What I want is structure to support a thriving way of living… the trellis that supports the climbing rose.

Just like when contemplation undergirds and drives service, I think this deeper integrated foundation of lifestyle is what reaches beyond us to others. I know I’ve written a handful of small, personal Rules of Life before, often incredibly specific to encourage living out the goals (like naming a number of hours of reading each week). I kept them to myself, and they would serve me for small spans of time. But I am craving something deeper and broader, to connect me to others.

I know my seminary training, my ordination, and my ministry in chaplaincy was because of this underlying drive, and I know they ultimately did not fit my calling. I don’t regret any of it. But I know I was seeking some very different religious calling in pursuing them than what my career came to be. This awareness of my own experience makes me wonder if there is a dearth of possibilities for the devoted religious life that others have felt too. How many more monks and oblates would there be if there were more ways to embody this deep commitment? What if acknowledged charisms – or gifts of the Spirit – were a much longer list? What if, besides Dominican preaching and Ignatian prayer, there were also devoted Christian communities providing service in sexuality education or lived embodiments of genderqueerness? What gifts those would be to the world.

I have recently joined the Abbey of the Arts community, and I expect to find some comfort, wisdom and kinship there. I hope it to be a shelter as I prepare and plan, a kind of training up in further virtuous practices. But I also suspect that I will find it incomplete, and that I am looking for something more.

I don’t know what form this will all take. But I know I want to pursue this. I know I want to build not just another few habits for myself, but something larger. While freedom of conscience is critical to me, so is accountability. This accountability can be hard to find for atomized monks making their way in online community. But I can’t help but think that there are new ways we can be accountable to each other. Perhaps in following my own conscience, and linking what is particular to me to what makes for solidarity with others, I can find this calling of mine.

Perhaps it resonates with something in you too. If it does, let us keep in touch.

Published in: on August 24, 2014 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment