The Point of Being Pointless

Occasionally, I am asked questions that I spend my whole life trying to answer. For example, someone recently emailed asking me to explain the monastic vision and how it differs from any other kind of vision. I still haven’t replied, because this blog and what we say on our main website are probably the best answer I can give; but the fact that something is hard or would take a lifetime to articulate fully is no excuse for not trying to say something. Tomorrow, Candlemas or, more formally, the Presentation of the Lord, is the high-point of the Year of Consecrated Life, the World Day of Prayer; so here is an attempt, brief and of necessity incomplete, to try to express one nun’s understanding of what it means to be a Benedictine engaged in the monastic search for God.

My starting-point is the Gospel and the Rule of St Benedict, the one illumining the other. We are engaged on a journey back to God from whom we have strayed. For most people the path marked out will be the ordinary one of marriage/partnership and family life, or the less usual one of singleness. For the monk or nun, however, there is an essential solitariness (cf monos) that goes beyond being single. The only way I can begin to describe it is as an emptiness only God can fill: a stripping away of self-will, of ownership of anything or anyone, a complete and utter dispossession. From most people’s point of view, that is nonsense: it is natural to surround ourselves with people and things, to make a home in the world. I would be the first to agree that there is nothing wrong with that and much that is right, provided we don’t become obsessive about acquiring more and more. But the monk or nun isn’t called to make a home in the world, nor are we called to live lives that make sense in a way others understand. We are simultaneously on the edge of society, like John the Baptist, and at its heart, like Thérèse of Lisieux. What we do (or don’t do), how we spend our time, the great cycle of public and private prayer that determines the shape of our days is, from a worldly perspective, entirely pointless. We may incidentally become great scholars, artists, educators, champagne-makers or what-have-you, but that is not what we are aiming at; it is not the point of our lives.

For a monk or nun there is only one aim: to be conformed as completely as possible to Christ. Many people are able to achieve that through a normal family life; we can’t, and it is because we can’t that we are drawn to monastic life. From the outside, there is much that seems contradictory. We talk about being possessionless, yet monasteries tend to acquire property over time, some of it very expensive property; we stress obedience, yet there are those whose concept of obedience is, shall we say, at best elastic; we are very conscious of failure, both individual and corporate. From the inside, the contradictions are fewer. It is possible to live lives of real austerity in the midst of plenty; to go on, day after day, cheerfully fulfilling tasks for which we feel no attraction; to fall and get up again. Little by little, that constant exposure to scripture and prayer, that daily experience of imperfect human nature under an imperfect superior in an imperfect community, does its work. In old monks and nuns one often sees a beauty and a holiness that, for me at least, convince me it is all worthwhile. The point of being pointless, so to say, can never be expressed in utilitarian terms because, in the end, it is all about love — love given and received, love made visible in Jesus Christ.

On Candlemas Day, please pray for all who are trying to live religious life as well as we can.

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7 thoughts on “The Point of Being Pointless”

  1. An interesting and insightful piece and clarifies the great fortune of those whose calling is so clear to them. As one who may have been called to such a life (maybe certainty is the key) but felt not strong enough to rise to the challenge, and so took the more usual path, I feel as I suspect many others do caught somewhere in the middle with a corresponding degree of dissatisfaction.

    On those occasions when I can find solitude I too find the emptiness that only God can fill, so for me its a question of finding a way of doing that within a more normal lifestyle. So I wonder if vocation is not so much the insight of how to find God but more the passion and opportunity to do so.

    • I have to disagree with what you say in your first paragraph. There are no ‘missed vocations’. We may not respond to an invitation when offered; we may have misread or misinterpreted what God asks (faith doesn’t imply certainty) but remember, God doesn’t give us just one chance. The life you now lead (unless you are steeped in sin, which I don’t believe for a moment!) is the vocation God wills for you. Living it as well as you can is what matters. I think too many people talk about vocation as though it were a kind of measles, something one either has or doesn’t have. It would be much truer to say each of us is a vocation, uniquely called and loved by God.

  2. So beautifully and succinctly put. Thank you for making the effort to explain. You and yours were certainly very much in my prayers today.

  3. Thank you for sharing a most profound and in depth description of what makes the monastic life so different to most other human lives.

    I have to say that the stripping away of everything of self, property and possessions and the solitary life in community holds great appeal, but for those of us, who have all the trappings of human existence, particularly a family, this seems an impossible ask. Yet, Jesus called the Apostles to leave everything, including family and possessions to follow him. When I read those words again, I wonder in awe at the sacrifices that the Apostles made. Whether I would be capable of that I’m unsure, but it also appeals in strange, ways, that make me feel quite guilty – which shows me that I am not called in that particular direction, at least not at the moment.

    I’m interested in your view that a Vocation is never lost, rather that it might be mistaken or misdirected. This is plainly true. I felt strongly called to Ordained Ministry, and expended an enormous amount of time and energy to go down that route, only to be disappointed when the Church in it’s wisdom decided that I wasn’t suitable.

    But, that cleared the way for a wholesale change in everything and now in a new place, with a supportive Parish Priest and congregation, I have commenced training for Licensed Lay Ministry, which is more about outside the church than inside and is strongly indicated towards ministry with the elderly, lonely , bereaved and vulnerable. There is a long way to go (3 years training) but it’s a recognised need in the parish and wider community, and I’m already able to see and work with opportunities to build that future ministry.

    The vocation wasn’t wasted. The formation of the journey towards Ordained Ministry, is strongly relevant to the future ministry that I’m now being prepared for. God does work in the gaps and fills them with his spirit to gently guide us, with some diversions on the way.

    This isn’t a lonely, solitary life style, but one of sharing with those who are in those circumstances and would prefer not to be. Sharing their journeys is already a privilege, and being there to share more in the future will hopefully help to build the Kingdom in their lives as well. Thanks be to God.

  4. … to apprehend
    The point of intersection of the timeless
    With time, is an occupation for the saint —
    No occupation either, but something given
    And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
    Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
    For most of us, there is only the unattended
    Moment, the moment in and out of time,
    The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
    The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
    Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
    That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
    While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
    Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
    Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
    The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

    (I have just heard Jeremy Irons reading this on Radio 4.)

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