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Monk life: the simplistic spring break

By , Opinions Editor  |  Monday, April 7, 2014 12:27 AM
(Alex Goering/TommieMedia)

(Alex Goering/TommieMedia)

Spring break has already come and gone, and for me that is chilling.

While the most popular choice for our mid-semester breather is and probably always will be spending time with friends (preferably somewhere warm with a view of the beach), I went out of my comfort zone for my last hurrah and experienced a completely different way of life: the life of a monk.

Yes, you can laugh a little at the concept of trading beer and sun for prayer and solitude, but I also came back from the experience rejuvenated for the rest of the semester and hopefully much longer.

I’ve been on a VISION trip before, and yet again, the program threw me straight into the deep end of a truly unique experience.

With eight other companions, I traveled across the country to the Christ in the Desert Monastery—the most isolated monastery in the Western Hemisphere.

After almost three days of travel, I found myself off the beaten path in a beautifully remote canyon in northern New Mexico. While I was completely surrounded by nature, there was one presence that surrounded and encompassed everything: the presence of silence.

Silence has always been something I’ve struggled with. In our crowded and connected society, it is most certainly an uncomfortable and unattainable thing.

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Think about this; how often can you really encounter absolute silence? Sure, maybe you can find a spot down by the river or locked away in your room, but even those places are tainted with the subtle sounds of humanity. The faint noise of traffic from afar, the creaks and white noise from our houses; it’s inescapable.

Even as I’m writing, the sounds of my roommate’s acoustic guitar and birds chirping surround me. It’s not a bad thing, but I can only imagine the focus and clarity I would have with nothing but this Word document.

The monks I stayed with made the decision to enter a life of silence for just these purposes: intentionality and focus on the things that matter. Most often this means focusing on prayer, studies and work, but what it really boils down to is a better understanding of every moment they encounter.

One of the most interesting examples of this was the mealtime experience with the monks. One of the most basic human elements of communication is the idea of sharing a meal. No matter where you go on this planet, you will find people sitting down together to eat, sharing ideas and experiences. It is comforting, and it personally connects you to whomever is across the table.

These monks do it very differently. When entering the refectory, you sit down at narrow tables in silence facing the center of the room, rather than having another person across from you. You receive your meal and are left to it. While this might seem really awkward at first, it was actually pretty enjoyable. Learning to be comfortable in my own zone and focusing on the meal in front of me is something that would never happen in typical society.

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I’m not trying to be too outlandish, but when you have only a meal in front of you to focus on, you really appreciate it a lot more.

In our scrambling lives, we rarely get simplistic moments. We bounce from task to task, sometimes juggling multiple things just to get everything done. While often this is necessary, I think it is also necessary to take a step back and ask ourselves why we do these things. Is it because we are trying to reach a goal? Is it because we truly love to do them?

When you take that step back and focus on the task at hand, you see it in a different light. For me, uncovering rose bushes at the monastery went from being a chore to seeing the importance of the task. Uncovering the budding plants allows them to bloom and others to appreciate this beauty. It sure makes gardening a lot sweeter.

The simplistic intentionality of these monks is something to be coveted, and although we all cannot go into desert solitude, we can certainly take something from it.

We’ve all been told to “focus on the little things” and “live in the moment” a million times, and while I’ve enjoyed the sentiment, I really never followed through.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand, and while that makes the beer and sun with friends so much sweeter, it also means so much more.

Alex Goering can be reached at goer8777@stthomas.edu.

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