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The Monastic Life, A Choice of Virtue | KFP Articles
The Monastic Life, A Choice of Virtue PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 04 May 2012 23:26

My friend David forwarded me an excellent article - after all that's what he does - about the monastic life and the title and emphasis of the story brought something out about monasticism that I had not previously given much thought. Its not easy to place oneself in the shoes of a monk and imagine what it would be like to life that life, to make the decision to live that life until death.  At best, most of us have chosen to spend a week or so in a monastery but how many have faced the possibility of never stepping outside those walls except on extraordinary occasions.  We are drawn by many aspects of what the monks are doing, sometimes in terms of how it impacts our own life, but there is also a part of us that wishes we could be in their shoes.  But before I go any further here's a quote from John Jalsevac's post Monastic Life: A Life Without Choices:

At some point I had mentioned that I was going to spend a few days over Easter at a traditional monastery, and this seemed to pique Cindy’s curiosity. Cindy, our realtor,  is a fallen-away Catholic, jaded by the chaos of the sixties and seventies, and the scandals that were brewed in their midst, and expressed her skepticism about the monastic project. “You will probably disagree with me,” she said, “but it seems to me that the life of a monk is a life without choices.” But I did not disagree, pointing out that the lack of choices is precisely the point – that a monk gives up his right to choose in order that he may be able to focus, without distraction, on the one thing that matters.


I find this perspective very enlightening, after all the ethos of American culture says that life is all about choices.  Folks from both the left and right will make the freedom to choose a center piece of their political philosophy as if choices are what brings happiness.  Think about it, the freedom to choose is a power of the will, a means to obtaining freedom but not freedom itself.  So, the counter cultural dimension of the article is interesting but the basic point about freedom is what interests me.  We find our freedom when we live our religious sense, when we act with virtue as a goal.  Sure, a free society that allows the type of choices that enable the free exercise of religion such as the life of monks, family farms and homeschooling is important but the freedom from constraint is only an instrument to a life that brings true freedom in a life set apart for God.  Jalsevac asks, if the monks life is without choices, full of hard work and has the appearance of being dull to us, why do we envy their life?

we envy the monks for the same reason the narrator in Matthew Arnold’s poem envies the scholar-gipsy: we envy them because they are men who have found their purpose in life, and who have dropped every extraneous striving in order to, as Arnold writes, devote themselves entirely to this “one aim, one business, one desire.” They are the men who patiently wait for “the spark from heaven” to fall, and whose faculties are utterly collected and utterly devoted to the search for that spark: while we, we men of the world, move ceaselessly from “change to change,” our energies dissipated by a variety of pursuits, jostled about by the “repeated shocks” of life, which “exhaust the strongest souls.” Just like the scholar-gipsy, these monks have left the world “early,” “with powers / Fresh, undiverted to the world without / Firm to their mark, not spent on other things”: while we “fluctuate idly without term or scope / Of whom each strives, nor knows for what he strives, / And each half lives a hundred different lives.”  Unlike us, a monk never doubts “for what he strives.” He strives for God, and only God, because he has learned the great truth that God is everything, and in possessing God, he possesses everything.

John Jalsevac, Monastic Life: A Life Without Choices



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