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.