Think Like a Monk?

Last week, I came across an ad for a book called Think Like a Monk. The author spent time in a monastery and turned his experience into a list of ways to “empower yourself,” which sounds to me like a pretty standard self-help checklist: (not that there’s anything wrong with that)

-How to overcome negativity
-How to stop overthinking
-Why comparison kills love
-How to use your fear
-Why you can’t find happiness by looking for it
-How to learn from everyone you meet
-Why you are not your thoughts
-How to find your purpose
-Why kindness is crucial to success

People like lists. And monasticism has been trendy for a few decades now, both Christian and Buddhist. But the Western capitalist world has made it, like so many other things, into a product - something that can be sold. And something we can buy, possess, or put on a shelf to look at. Who wouldn’t want to buy some peace, purpose, and holiness? Who wouldn’t want a book to teach us all that? But can it?

The thing is, when monks talk about “how to think like a monk,” they say things like:

What is a monk? A monk is someone who every day asks: “What is a monk?” attributed to Dom Andre Louf (1929-2010)

When asked, “What do you do in the monastery?” the abbot replied: “We fall and get up. Fall and get up. Fall and get up.”

My hunch is that most monks and nuns would say: “Don’t try to think like me! Be yourself.” (Thomas Merton actually said stuff almost exactly like this.) For many years, I had a close relationship with a Benedictine women’s monastery, and the eldest nun there, Sr. Joanne, used to always say things like this to us: “Oh, I don’t know anything. Don’t ask me! What do YOU think the answer is?”

When I started to felt a call to solitude, it felt distant and exotic. I wondered if I should take some kind of vows with my bishop one day. I daydreamed about buying a tiny house in some remote place. I wondered if I should dress a certain way or pray for at least 30 minutes a day, to qualify as a true solitary. I wondered what books a real hermit would read, or whether all true hermits were vegetarians.

But reading Merton, alongside many others, and talking to my spiritual director, I realized that solitude, prayer, and contemplation are in fact very ordinary, mundane things. They require no fanfare, vows, or accessories. They can be part of my ordinary life. They shouldn’t be worn like a cloak or a nun’s habit — or possessed or paraded. They just have to be lived. They are just part of who I am and how I live my life, as I can.

Whatever you feel called to do or to be, whatever your deep desires in this life, it may be simpler than you think. Not to say it won’t be hard, or require something from you. But mostly, I think we are called to be ourselves. And to accept that all human beings are called to be themselves, too, even if we think they should be something different. That’s the best New Year’s resolution I can think of.

But finally, to quote a wise old monk: I don’t know anything. Don’t ask me! What do YOU think the answer is?

Happy New Year, solitaries and friends.

Some Articles I Published Last Month

The prophetic power of a candle in the window - One November night on a cross-country drive, I fell in love with the tradition of setting candles in windows…

We should all be a little eccentric. - I want to be an eccentric when I grow up. My role models? A bevy of beloved church members I have known over the course of my life. 

Epiphany is the ultimate bad-guy story - A small boy asked me the same question on each page, pointing to someone and asking me, “Is that a bad guy?”

(All three were for The Christian Century’s “Living by the Word” column this season)

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