"Hey, you gotta see this!" a friend of mine informed me a few months ago. She handed me an article from one of the national news weeklies proclaiming, "Get thee to a nunnery!" The article reported that the fastest growing sector of the B&B industry may well be (of all things!) monasteries. Suddenly, there seems to be a groundswell of people booking retreats at monasteries, convents, and retreat houses worldwide, and a spate of new guidebooks steering people in their direction.
I was aware of the trend from personal experience at my "home community," New Camaldoli Hermitage at Big Sur, California, where I've been an oblate for a decade. To spend Christmas or Holy Week with the Benedictine hermit monks of this little enclave high above the Pacific Ocean requires booking a year in advance, and even less pressured times normally entail several months' wait.
The waiting list is even longer for those wanting to attend the popular Centering Prayer intensive retreats at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, where a year to 18 months is the normal minimum lead time. Part of the lure, of course, is that monastic communities still offer bargain accommodations in gorgeous locations (where else can you get a private room with bath, three home-cooked meals, and a million-dollar view for $45 a day?), but I personally have yet to meet a single pilgrim at either of these monasteries who came for the view. The food they seek is deeper.
Add to this booming retreat business the success of Kathleen Norris' best-selling book "The Cloister Walk," which recounts her sabbatical year at St John's Abbey in central Minnesota--and the still more remarkable phenomenon a few years back of a CD of Gregorian chant from an obscure Spanish monastery hitting the top of the charts, and you begin to get the larger picture. As an editor friend of mine put it, "Benedictine is hot!"
Kathleen Norris' book was for me a kind of déjà vu. Like her, but a dozen years earlier, I spent a year as an ecumenical fellow at St. John's, working on a book while absorbing the rich ambience of this monastic university community. I was drawn by the beauty of the massive, stark abbey church where black-robed monks gathered four times a day for Mass and the daily office. The subtle, timeless rhythm of the chanted psalmody, the more temporal rhythms of the passing seasons, and the daily rounds of university life became interwoven in a vast tapestry of what T.S. Eliot calls "the intersection of the timeless and time." That counterpoint struck a profound resonance in me. From there I moved on to sojourn with the hermit monks of New Camaldoli at Big Sur, where for the first time I experienced the raw immensity of pure solitude, and then on to St. Benedict's monastery in Colorado, where for seven years I rose in the deep black of night--sometimes to blizzards, sometimes to shooting stars--to join the monks in chanting vigils, the night office. The monastic way of living slowly carves out a crater in your heart. And I can say without doubt that what I understand about the Christian contemplative life was formed in the center of this crater.
People may say that this Benedictine mini-revival is just nostalgia or monk wannabees. I don't think so. Judging from the caliber of people drawn to this path and the depth of their yearning, I see something else. I see a hunger for a way into the heart and soul of the Christian mystical life. In a religious landscape still dominated by theological gamesmanship and moral clichés, people are hungering for a genuine, integrated practice of Christian life that transforms things from (and to) the core. For better or worse, the Benedictine tradition, 1,500 years old, is still the direct heir and repository (particularly in Western Christendom) of the Christian inner tradition: the praxis, or path, implicit in Christ's challenge, "If you would be perfect ... come, follow me."
How does one become perfect (which in the language of Christ's time meant whole, truly and fully alive)? Not by theologies or theories, but by an actual spiritual practice that teaches you "how to get from here to there." This is the missing link people are really hungering for, and it's the wisdom the Benedictine tradition still has to offer. Embedded in the time-honored Benedictine motto of Ora et Labora
--"prayer and work"--is a balanced path to conscious selfhood; a template that, once learned, can be applied to the conditions of daily life to transform any life situation--single or married, fast track or slow lane--into "a school for the Lord's service" (in St. Benedict's words).
The Benedictine life is indeed a rare old wine waiting to be poured into the empty wineskins of our stressed-out, over-committed culture in the hopes of restoring sanity, balance, and a more human way of being alive. And yes, to carve a crater at the center of one's heart into which the mystical life of Christ may flow.
Two of the three core elements in this path, contemplative prayer (meditation) and conscious work, are common to all the world's great spiritual paths. But unique to the Benedictine template is a practice known as the Divine Office, or Opus Dei (Work of God): the singing of the psalms at regular intervals during the day as a tool for inner transformation. Many people drawn to a Benedictine way of life assume that this is an arcane (or at least highly specialized) art that can only be performed in a monastery. But in fact, it's far easier than it looks to transpose this practice into daily life. All it takes is the ability to make a sound (even in a monotone) and the willingness to give it a try. In my columns, I'll be looking not just at the how-to's but, more important, at the whys and wherefors. As both Kathleen Norris and those monks at that obscure Spanish monastery have intuitively recognized, singing the psalms somehow holds the key to the whole Benedictine template.