Archive for July, 2013


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Spiritual Calluses

There was a time where I romanticized joining a monastery, if only for the discipline provided from the Liturgy of the Hours and the attendant order imposed by communal living. At St. John’s University, where I went as an undergrad, monks and priests gather each day at 7am for morning prayer, once again at noonday, and vespers at 7pm. There is also a daily mass at 5pm, but not everyone is expected to be in attendance for that. Even though I have always been and still remain woefully ignorant about religious matters, I felt that if someone were forcing me to do something, I could impose order on my life from the outside. Then, I hoped, time would be a gift, not viewed with a sense of something lost, something slipping ineffably away. When I broached the topic of entering a monastery with a priest who is also a monk at St. John’s, I talked about my lack of discipline in getting up to greet the day, and he said, of course, he would pray for my ability to discern my vocation more clearly, but he also mentioned the idea of spiritual calluses. I felt like Maria in The Sound of Music, sensing that I would be rushing off to morning prayer begrudgingly, starting my day not with prayerfulness, but with a chip on my shoulder.

While I was at St. John’s, this same monk was deliberating carefully whether he should invest in a CD player. He was always very careful when making any sort of material decisions as if he were afraid of polluting himself with too much worldliness. There always has been, and remains, a sense of deliberateness to the lives of the monks and priests at my former school. Kathleen Norris, who wrote the very profound, “The Cloister Walk,” about her experiences as a lay person at St. John’s, but someone who committed herself to living out a monastic life as a married woman, said it best: “Benedictines often remind me of poets, who while they sometimes speak of the art of poetry in exalted terms also know that little things count, that in fact there are no things so ‘little’ as to be without significance in the making of a poem. Monastic life also requires paying attention to the nitty-gritty.”

In essence, a monastic life can be a poetic life. I crave a poetic life for myself, but realize it requires daily discipline and hard work. There’s the old adage, “Nothing worth doing comes easily.” I guess I need to just develop a few more spiritual calluses, the ability to forge ahead and find peace and grace in my days, even when it involves a bit more work on my part.

Retreat Home

Conscious living. . .A buzz word in our modern, hyper-fast, race-to-the-finish-line society. People, by nature, seem to seek what they don’t already have, and we have romanticized the notion of slowing down to enjoy the view, lest life pass us by, but so few of us actually achieve a sense of conscious living.

I feel torn, several times a week, by differing value systems. Some gay men worship the body electric, and put all their focus, time, and energy into working out. That, indeed, is but a subset of the whole population, but I’m self-centered and vain enough to want other’s approval, even if it’s only for being in great shape. Then, there’s the value system of the small town, village really, in which I live. There, the greatest emphasis is placed on being a good person where you’re also encouraged to fit in and not make too many waves, and this can sometimes mean not being disagreeable–being liked. In this community, many diverse people are tolerated, but you certainly don’t want to stick out for being too progressive or controversial. Yet another group whose approval I court are the intellectuals and writers and the writing community at Northwestern as well as throughout the Chicagoland area. There’s a subtle sort of competition among my fellow MFA students to see who is the most talented and who has the most potential to go far.

Last, there is the Christian and Catholic community to which I have just come home on a visit, twenty years after I graduated. I went to a small, private, liberal arts Catholic school, St. John’s University, in upper Minnesota, about an hour and a half north of the Twin Cities. I am, in effect, on a retreat home, a retreat to my spiritual home.

I have, in the course of my life, wandered far from my spiritual roots, starting way back when I was a sophomore, and my former Resident Assistant, Chris Agnew, the student who oversaw our development and encouraged us to come to him with any questions, suffered an epileptic seizure and died in the shower early one morning. I really couldn’t reconcile the kind of God who would take away such a caring, loving young man so early in life. I couldn’t even make myself go to this funeral, held in the big abbey church where his life was celebrated. I didn’t want to celebrate his life; I wanted him still in my life. It was a real crisis in faith, compounded by my grappling with my sexual identity.

I have wandered far, over the years, from my roots, but now I am back for a vacation, and I get to look at the campus with new eyes. There is, indeed, an undeniable spiritual energy to the place, nestled among 2,700 acres and Lake Sagatagan, with a vibrant community of Benedictine monks and priests. St. Benedict was celebrated for the virtue of hospitality, and it is this openness and welcoming attitude that has brought me home, the long way around. I notice an innocence, a lack of jadedness, in the eyes of the summer students, and indeed, among the mentors on campus.

A simpler life is not necessarily a simple life, but this retreat has shown me that it’s okay to embrace a God of my understanding, even if it doesn’t fit the traditional Christian model, and still not be considered a cast out. I have spent so much time and energy trying to fit in among various communities, and now I sense is my chance to take two days to ask myself, who am I, where are my roots, where have I come from, and where am I going.

Much peace to you. I seem to be finding a missing sense of quiet serenity and gratitude up here.