Real and Unreal: Cultivating the Inner Monk or Nun

The Pokemon Go craze has co-incided with my hunting through our photograph collection in search, not of monsters, but of characteristic shots of Bro Duncan PBGV; and it has made me think about images and the way we use them. The sight of so many people walking around, noses glued to their smartphones, is surreal. It suggests a parallel universe, a retreat from reality. The slimness of our photograph collection suggests the reverse. Monastic life is about living in the present, becoming more and more attuned to reality, not retreating from it or evading its demands. Those who have never lived it may find that statement puzzling. Don’t monks and nuns have a charmed existence, occupying themselves with a little prayer and reading now and then, enjoying a world where there is very little to worry or vex them? Ask me at the wrong minute, and I’m likely to say Pokemon Go can produce nothing as nasty as the enemy of the moment in the cloister, while the work required to sustain the liturgy, keep house and grounds up and provide a welcome to visitors, online and off, can be taxing. The important thing, however, is that it is real. Monastic life is about becoming more and more real, experiencing everything more and more deeply.

To experience something means to immerse oneself, to be engaged, not separate. My brother-in-law, a very gifted photographer, might disagree, but for me, to photograph something means standing aside, observing, not engaging — and that is contrary to the purpose of monastic life, which is all about engagement. Monks and nuns tend to notice detail, sometimes maddeningly so. We are taught to read slowly, carefully; to work patiently; to listen intently; to look closely; to speak seldom. The monastery is designed to allow very few ways of escape from reality. We can’t bury ourselves in drink, drugs, TV or internet games — they are not life-giving. Even the time-table, which orders every hour of every day, is meant to free us from the preoccupation of choosing for ourselves how we shall spend our time.

I am not suggesting that everyone should rush off to join a monastery, but perhaps in each of us there should be an inner monk or nun: a little part of us that is the lonely place where Christ prays unceasingly to the Father and we can learn what it is to become real. It’s more demanding than Pokemon Go but ultimately, I trust, much more rewarding.

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9 thoughts on “Real and Unreal: Cultivating the Inner Monk or Nun”

  1. I can see some parallels with the Mary and Martha story, in that contemplation can lead to action which is hopefully of good effect. As a keen photographer I tend to take images that I can use in Military history talks, but the ones I have probably gone overboard on are the ones of our pets. Sadly, because of film technology, I have a lot fewer of my earliest precious pets but many of our last two. Unfortunately this means that I must exercise more and not less moderation – as choosing the best of many is a lot more difficult than the best of few. I do hope you can find some good ones of BroDuncan PBGV to remember him by.

  2. Brilliant!! This is very timely for me as I’m giving up much of worldly stuff (!!) to embrace and explore what you name a ‘real’ life. It’s been daunting to do but the freedom I’m feeling is immense. However, the life of prayer is exhausting at times that many don’t understand, perhaps through lack of knowing more than anything. But God calls us all in different ways which is the beauty of his creation! Thank you for your words of wisdom, insight and courage – I enjoy reading each morning.

  3. Once again you are right on target. I find it one of the odd contradictions of modern life that we spend so much time in ‘busy-ness’ or escaping into a cyberworld of our own choosing, then we then spend a lot of time talking about spirituality – which for a lot of people means posting platitudes on their Facebook page. For me, true prayer requires sustained effort, and nowadays, (to borrow an expression from my aikido teacher), ‘people want instant coffee’. And without sustained effort, nothing lasting is achieved.
    My respects to you ladies, as always – and I was so sorry to hear about Bro Duncan.

  4. Dear Sister…I have been trying to find a monastery since several years…but they all say that at 76, I’m too old. My spiritual director Father Bruce Byrolly here in Maryland thinks that I should at least be able to find a community to join from the outside for daily Mass and devotions, and volunteer work….if I were to find a small affordable place for which I pay myself. If you have any ideas, please let me know asap. Thanks for this excellent commentary.
    Bless you,
    Francis

  5. I’m afraid I have been missing for the last ten days due to illness and a time in hospital. So I am just catching up. I am sad to hear of the passing of Br Duncan.

    Your posts as always give me food for thought.

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