Monday, March 24, 2008

Almost a Monk, Pt. 2

In general, icons are a difficult thing for Protestants. It all goes back to the Iconoclast controversy in the 8th and 9th century. One side condemned icons as idols that people inappropriately venerated -- and they had a point. The other side laid out theological arguments advocating the paintings as mere wnidows or tools to help the worshiper to focus on the true realities of God behind or beyond the image -- they had a point, too.

While I avoid venerating objects, I have no problem honoring works of art which help people reflect or express their devotion to God. I use songs and hymns in the same way. We Protestants just come from a tradtion that is very weary of the arts, and that's too bad. It is said that the first Reformed churches often had blank white walls in their sanctuaries with only the pulpit and the proclamation of the Gospel as decoration. That sounds nice, but also boring. And I personally don't think that Gospel is boring. Therefore, as long as one utilizes the icon/image for appropriate purposes and keeps Christ at his rightful place of Lordship, I see no problem in enjoying works of art for what they are -- paintings and sculptures expressing the mysterious attributes God.

Here are several examples at the modest monastery I stayed at:

A really tiny depiction of the Lord's Supper hung in my room.

This was a wood carving hanging in the library.

This is a well known icon that I personally love.

Brother Francis mentioned this small statue as portraying that the monk's life is centered around the Word of God.

Of course, this is where Protestants get fussy -- Mary and the Pope. Sure, I obviously disagree with some of their doctrines (Ex Cathedra, Mary as Co-Redemptrix, etc.), but I don't think the Pope is the anti-Christ and I think Scripture portrays Mary as an extraordinary woman.

I liked the colors on this one.

Not really an icon, but come on, these are totally cute. They're like ascetic Cabbage Patch dolls.

This statue of Mary was just hanging out in the middle of the woods.


This was another statue of Mary outside the Abbey.

These little cherubs were on the base of the statue.

It had just rained, but I thought this was pretty.

There you go. My trip to the monastery proved more than just bland silence and solitude. The monks also gave me some colorful stuff to look at while I walked around. Coming walk through the woods.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Almost a Monk, Pt. 1

So, I returned to Assumption Abbey for the third time. My first two experiences can be seen here: first time, and second time. This time, I think I'll break up the experience into smaller bite-size blogs as opposed to my usual overview experience. Today, we'll take a look at the main purpose of the trip -- connecting with God through solitude/silence.

This is Bro. Francis. I've introduced him in my previous two blogs, but I have to bring him up again because he is so vital to my experience at the monastery. He' s a monk of 38 years, and unlike most stereotypes he has quite the pesonality. Clever and humorous, he tells stories of his life in multiple monastic settings including the monastery where he was in active ministry as an athlectic director of a school while coaching baseball, basketball, and the like. He told this great story of a monastery he started out at where everyone observed silence to the extreme. This led to some rather unique ways of communicating -- primarily invented sign language. One night, the monastery caught fire. Bro. Francis told us how the monks then ran around trying to communicate by holding their fingers up like candles and blowing on them frantically. Finally, an elder monk just yelled "Fire!" Despite the seriousness of the situation, everyone was scandalized by the monk's break of silence. Everyone had a good laugh. Bro. Francis proves that even monks have found we can't take ourselves too seriously.

He also talked to us about how silence is not just of the mouth, but we should seek silence of the mind. This proved extremely difficult. If you never have tried it, just imagine not talking for 30 hours and see what your brain will start doing. Bro. Francis calls solitude and silence a mirror for your soul and I found this to be true. A person's thoughts will reveal anger and resentment, their obsession with being in control, or even their deep-rooted fear of being alone. The goal is simple: don't run away. Face those thoughts, own them, learn to be accept the ugliness that we often hide under our busy lives. Only then can we surrender them to God. Brennan Manning says that in order to be free, we must be able to name our cage.

Historically, monasteries and nunnaries call their rooms "cells". And there is this old saying that Bro. Francis told us. Apparently, the olden monastics would encourage the younger monks: "Stay in your cells, and your cell will teach you all things." The wisdom of this is to doggedly face the solitude and silence and not to try and relieve yourself by walking around and distracting yourself. I tried to face this more on this trip, even though I still made it out for a long walk on Saturday.

I brought 5 books with me: my Bible, my journal, John Stott's Basic Christianity, Thomas A Kempis' The Imatation of Christ, and Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island. While I read from all of them, I primarily spent time in the Psalms (Bible) and portions of No Man is an Island. I didn't know this before, but Thomas Merton is actually a Trappist monk, which is the same tradition of Assumption Abbey. Merton is sort of the celebrity in their camp. So I read a bunch about the difference between doing and being. As an American and a Pentecostal, I tend to focus on doing. In fact, if I'm not careful I can allow what I do to define me. "I am what I accomplish" sort of nonsense. God does not think this way. Thomas Merton says, "We are warmed by fire, not by the smoke of the fire...So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in our outward reflection in our own acts." So, this discipline of silence and solitude sort of force me down an uncomfortable path: 1) by sitting and reflecting on God and his love, I can no longer define myself by what I do, 2) I begin to wonder who I am underneath all of my striving and attempts to impress people, 3) I realize I have no clue who I am without distorting my self-image with pride or fear, 4) and finally, I am forced to ask God who I am. And I get back to the purpose, letting God define me. I am who I am supposed to be in Christ, a message that usually gets drowned out in our bustling world of technology and information overload. And who am I? I am broken, yet I am loved. I wander away, yet I still am his child.

I mostly sat in this chair, sipped on tea with honey, and thought about Jesus. Honestly, I slipped into naps quite often (but this is also due to the many services I attended including Vigils at 3:30 am). But for the first time I felt completely guiltless for falling asleep. Sleeping is good for me. I'm not just a brain or a spirit, but I have a body. And there is something quite spiritual about falling asleep while I think about the Psalms or my identity in Christ.

In the end, my time was wonderful. I feel rejuvinated and closer to God. Keep an eye open for my upcoming posts. I will be posting about my walk out in the woods and also the use of images/icons around the monastery and my thoughts on that.