Over the years, retreat masters, abbots, and those who I went to for spiritual-direction would often bring up this question: “What have you come for.” This quote has been used so often that it can become a mere cliché, yet, clichés are often used because they do carry a deep truth. Over the years, that question takes on more urgency for me.
People will often ask me what I do here, so I tell them, about being ‘guest-master,’ or in the past, that I worked in our infirmary, or even earlier on, the bakery. Our jobs can take up a great deal of our time, but I did not come here for any of the above reasons. I can say to people that I came here to lead a life of prayer, yet it can roll off of my lips all too easily. Living it is another questions.
For me at least, it has been a slow journey to gradually being brought to my true-north, though I am not quite there yet. The time we spend with another person, or at some tasks, often flows from the love we have for our friends, as well as the tasks we give ourselves to. The fruit of our giving ourselves to others or service of the community can bring positive results that are experienced daily. Hence, you could say, although good, they can also be a hindrance. For our relationship with God, and our prayer life, are often rooted in a life of discipline.
There have been periods in my monastic life that this ‘fear of nothingness’ grabbed me by the neck and shook me violently. I felt bereft, empty, abandoned by God, yet by God’s gentle grace I was slowly brought back to begin again, my calling. The times of wandering blindly in the desert is also an important aspect of the journey towards God. The deeper we enter into our journey the joys we once experienced seeking escape, will become empty, nothing. So peace can only be found by taking root in our relationship with Christ Jesus. All else fades away and dies.
Love is proven over time. With friends, because relationships grow through a crisis since for people to grow closer, a purification has to take place. So our relationship with God is not that different: we are called to become other orientated.
Truly self-centered people are incapable of deep friendship since it entails sacrifice and at times the pain. You could say that in living out our relationship with God, our spiritual lives follow the same path as our human relationships, but on a deeper level. We are often coaxed along early on in our journey towards God, but just like the people of Israel, we are led into the desert. It can be a long journey, or a short one; it depends on our response to grace, our trust in God’s love for us, and a holy stubbornness that will not allow despair to take root.
There are other factors of course. Our past has a profound effect on us, which needs to be healed, often through our deep suffering. It often takes a long time for inner healing to take place, as well as growth in freedom, a freedom that does not fear the pain involved in all healing. I have found that the more I move away from ‘the reason why I came,’ the more I suffer without joy or hope.
When I get off the path, I wander as demons do in vast arid places looking for something to quench my thirst. The living water flows upward from the depths of our souls when we deepen our love and trust in the Infinite revealed to us as ‘Agape.’
One reason I do not mind aging, is that the question (What am I here for?) becomes more central to my life. At 70, with the knowledge of how fast time goes by, and with the loss of three siblings in the past few years, drives home the reality of how short and precious our lives are. If the reason for our being here is lost, I do believe that it is a great tragedy both for the individual as well as for the community.
Each of us has a few friends who know of our struggles, so some of you know how slow the journey has been for me, and for what reasons. It has taken me many years to come to the understanding that I don’t have to understand ‘why’ I am the way I am. However, I am called to live through it every day in a deepening love and trust in God. I went on a retreat to try to face one of my greatest obstacles to my monastic life. It is my fear of ‘nothingness.’
The experience that one is living in a void, a numb place. It is there to protect me from the inner journey towards a deeper trust and love of God. For my ego will cling to what is known, no matter how painful, or self-destructive, it can be. When it hits, I am often helpless. Over time, slowly, with God’s grace, this is lessening. So on retreat, by myself this month, in a quiet, large house, I had to deal with that without seeking distraction. It was fruitful, but also tricky.
For a few days before my retreat was to start, I felt some anxiety about going, and there was a fear of failure…..yet failure is also part of the journey. So hopefully, for the last 15 or 20 years of my life, I may commence on a real beginning, seeking to live out the question: “What am I here for.” Or as Br., Cassian said, “Be aware.”