This Is What Monks Know About Better Living
How a monk can help you improve your life
May 9th, 2020 | 13 min read

When I awoke the birds outside were in full song. There’s a mocking bird who is a regular. He’s been busy trying to attract a mate, often singing and dancing atop a nearby street light.The fountain in our courtyardPainted rocks of encouragement along the footpath

The house finches and verdins chirp and flit about in the courtyard as I leash my two dogs for our morning walk. The hummingbirds zoom around my wife’s citrus garden, but also frequent the red feeder outside our kitchen. I call it their local pub.

It’s early, but the fountain in our courtyard is on. The trickling of water is soothing, as I take in the sweet scent from our blooming lemon tree. It’s very peaceful.

“The final wisdom of life requires not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.” -Reinhold Niebuhr

Some measure of isolation

We live in the desert of southern Nevada, in a Dell Webb type development. There are palm trees and rolling golf courses that bring greenery to the desert landscape.

Our sunrises and sunsets can be quite spectacular. Around dusk, my wife and I sit out by our pool and watch the bats as they fly erratically, eating tiny gnats and dipping into our pool for a sip of water.

Often we sit in silence, taking in the sights, sounds, and calm grandeur. There’s quietness, too, when I walk the dogs. We stroll to the rhythm of our footsteps. A dashing rabbit here and there might quicken the pace and cause tails to wag, but overall, there’s a kind of stillness with our walks.

Sometimes I see passers-by listening to music or podcasts on their smartphones. I prefer to turn my phone off or leave it at home. I don’t want technology to intrude on the solitude.

“Mechanization best serves mediocrity.” -Frank Lloyd Wright

The dog walks remind me to slow down and enjoy the outdoors. I notice little details every day. Like the painted rocks that someone is leaving along footpaths, to encourage others during this time of pandemic.

I rather prefer some measure of isolation and solitude to the frenetic pace of modern life. Even on my dog walks, I tend to avoid people. I select obscure routes less likely to encounter others.

It’s not that I’m anti-social. I enjoyed the limited social engagements I had before the pandemic upended our lives. But since retirement in 2017, I’ve largely retreated to my art studio/office, to read, write and create art.

“Be a loner. That gives you time to wonder, to search for the truth. Have holy curiosity. Make your life worth living.” -Albert Einstein

Maybe this preference for solitude and quiet is a corrective following years of a very public life serving as a police chief. Back then, my schedule was an ocean of daily appointments, phone calls, meetings, and relentless emails. I was oversocialized, and always had to be “on.”

Since retirement, I’ve transitioned to becoming a full-time writer and artist. I’m blessed to able to work from home and embrace a quieter life.

Where many seem to be struggling with the pandemic quarantine, I’ve found home isolation, and the lack of social commitments, freeing. It’s allowed me to become more contemplative, and connected to the rhythms of family life.

As a result, I’ve thought a lot about the lifestyle choices we make, and the consequences of them.

It’s not the answer

Why are so many people addicted to busyness? Why do we find it so hard to be alone with ourselves? Why do we get uncomfortable with silence, and feel the urge to interrupt it with talking? Are we looking in the wrong places to find happiness?

“There are times when good words are to be left unsaid.” -The Rule of St. Benedict

Power, sex, and money seem to drive a great deal of modern life. While it’s true that people need to make a living and provide for their families, there’s more going on that just that. A lot of people want to be rich, beautiful, and famous. What is it inside themselves they are trying to ameliorate?

Contemporary media and the entertainment industry fuel these aspirations for affluence, good looks, and celebrity. Technology, particularly social media, amplifies such goals.

The irony is that for the few who achieve it all, they often find themselves unfulfilled. As the actor Jim Carrey famously stated:

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

In my law enforcement career, I saw plenty of unhappy people. Officers in our police department regularly responded to apartments and modest homes to deal with domestic disturbances, addiction issues, infidelity, suicides, mental health problems, and broken people along the margins of society.

Interestingly, our officers dealt with the same issues and problems in the affluent side of town, too.

I remember responding with other officers to an attempted suicide call. The home was a spectacular, multi-million dollar property. We had to break into the house and a barricaded bedroom to find the nearly comatose women. She was young, attractive, and seemed to have everything one could wish for. Yet she was deeply unhappy.

If power, sex, and money don’t reliably bring happiness or personal fulfillment, what does?

The answer might come from an unlikely source: Benedictine monks.

All these superficial pleasures in life

Father Christopher Jamison is the former Abbot of Worth, a Benedictine monastery in Sussex, England (he has since been appointed Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation).

Father Jamison is the author of “Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life.”

In 2005 Father Jamison and several other monks participated in a United Kingdom TV series titled “The Monastery.” It chronicled the experience of several men of varying backgrounds selected to spend forty days and nights in the monastery.

The men had to embrace the 1500-year-old Benedictine practice of silence, obedience, and humility. They attended midnight masses for hours, as well as hard work during the days.

One of the participants, Tony Burke, used to work in the world of advertising and production of television trailers for sex chat lines. Of all the participants, Burke experienced the most profound personal changes.

After the completion of the series, Burke quit working in the sex industry and continued to make frequent visits to the monastery.

As Father Jamison said at the beginning of the TV series:

“We find that people say to us that they’ve got more and more of all these superficial pleasures in life, and yet at a deeper level they’re not happy. We believe that what we’re offering is in fact the answer to that dissatisfaction with life.”

A pause in a relentless continuum

In his book Finding Sanctuary, Father Jamison explains that the word sanctuary “has two meanings: the primary meaning comes from the Latin root Sanctus, meaning ‘holy.’ So the first meaning is ‘a sacred space,’ and deriving from this comes the secondary meaning: ‘a place of refuge,’ a place where someone on the run can escape to.”

Busy people often talk about “getting away on vacation.” They long for an escape from their busy lives. The problem is that vacations may be temporary places of refuge, but they are generally not sacred spaces. Sacred spaces are something more. They connect us to the deeper things in life.

As one woman in Father Jamison’s book said:

“I have started to understand that sanctuary is not just time out, a pause in a relentless continuum, but an opportunity to do some intense listening, made oddly unique through the company of others.”

In other words, the starting point for finding sanctuary in your life is the “quality of your day-to-day dealing with other people.” As Father Jamison notes:

“You cannot mistreat people one moment and then find sanctuary the next. Finding sacred space begins with the recognition of the sacred in your daily living.”

Whether one is religious or not, Father Jamison unveils a Benedictine approach to finding sanctuary in your life. He likens it to building a house, which begins with the door. And the door signifies “virtue.”

According to Father Jamison:

“Virtue is the recognition of the sacred in daily life. As we open the door of virtue in our personal and working lives, we will open the way into a sanctuary of peace for ourselves and for others. We are enabled to lead a unified life with the same values at home and at work, a life that is transparent and has nothing to hide.”

The seven monastic steps

Once we walk through the door of virtue, we step on the floor, which equates with the first monastic step for everyday life: Silence.

Benedictine monks know that outside silence fosters inner silence.Distractions inside your head are often noises inside your heart. By laying down a carpet of contemplation, prayer, and meditation, you can inch closer to that sacred place inside yourself.

“Silence is a true friend who never betrays.” -Confucius

Getting comfortable with silence takes time. At first, busy thoughts will intrude. Father Jamison says that fostering silence is like gardening. The weeds are your mental distractions. You pull them out, but they return. It’s frustrating, but you have to keep weeding if you want the flowers (voice of God, sacred thoughts, or deeper meanings).

The second monastic step is contemplation, which reflects the walls of the house we are building for our sanctuary. The great aim of Benedictines is to pray constantly. In other words, keeping the memory of God alive in their hearts.

“Slow down and live in the moment. Take the time to reflect on what you have done and where you are headed.”- Jil Ashton-Leigh

Benedictine monks view reading as part of contemplation and meditation. In the Christian tradition, this involves reading of sacred texts like the Bible. However, non-religious individuals can benefit greatly from contemplation and meditation as well.

Choosing a quiet space each day, learning to breathe rhythmically, clearing your mind, and slowly reading meaningful texts can calm your spirit, and bring you closer to an inner sanctuary.

The third monastic step in building the roof of our sanctuary house is obedience. This is not meant to be blind obedience. It’s all about listening. The word obedience derives from the Latin word “oboedire” which means not only to obey but also to listen.

“Blind obedience is a sign of weakness. Faithful obedience is a sign of strength.”-Bob Lonsberry, A Various Language

A lot of us think we are free but fail to recognize ways we are not. We dress in ways that follow popular fashion. We parrot political views from news networks we follow. We are often held hostage by the popular culture instead of our own hearts.

Obedience means learning to listen to other people and not just yourself. It’s about learning to set aside your desires in order to consider the desires of others and then finding a community to accommodate one another.

Through obedience, we develop a conscience and learn to consider the wider world of other people’s feelings. If we only follow our feelings in life, we can run into problems.

The fourth monastic step is building the ladder of humility, which takes us to the roof and shelter. It comes from the Latin word “humus” which means earth or soil. It’s about being realistic, honest, and truthful. It’s what we mean when we say someone is “down to earth.”

From a Biblical viewpoint, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit because of their egos. They defied God, instead of being humble and human. Similarly, people today often act out of pride rather than humility.

“With pride, there are many curses. With humility, there come many blessings.” -Ezra Taft Benson

We struggle with temptation and wanting to be the center of the universe. We find it hard to be down to earth. In Christian theology, humility involves avoiding the seven deadly sins of pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, and wrath.

How much more sanctuary would you have in your world if you embraced humility and resisted these seven deadly sins?

The fifth monastic step is building community. It means more than just being around other people. Groups are not communities.

The word community is used all the time these days. “She’s part of our school community,” or “He’s part of our local community.” The problem is that true community involves a deeper, reciprocal arrangement.

“The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.” -Pearl S. Buck

True community focuses on individuality more than individualism. Individualism is about doing your own thing in your own way, whereas individuality brings your contributions to the community, and vice-versa.The later is about fostering good communication. There’s an honest back and forth, and nobody is left behind.

Ideally, communion with other people should be like communion with nature. We should focus on the sacred. The humanity in others, and their unique gifts and contributions.

As we nearly complete our sanctuary house, we must consider the inner furnishings. These reflect the sixth monastic step, which is spirituality.

There are many modern spiritual movements. Some people find spirituality in nature. Spirituality allows us to move past the superficial things in life. To ask deeper questions about life’s purpose and meaning.

“Spirituality is a brave search for the truth about existence, fearlessly peering into the mysterious nature of life.” -Elizabeth Lesser, The New American Spirituality

In classic religions like Christianity, it’s about being set free from the idolatry of people, objects, and techniques. It’s about freedom from, what Father Jamison calls “the constantly shifting sands of human desire. In classic religion, you do not pick and choose, you learn a whole way of life.”

Practicing a particular faith tradition, or seeking your own spirituality, helps connect you to deeper meaning, faith, and purpose.

The seventh and final monastic step in finding sanctuary is hope. Hope is often in short supply, especially in this time of a pandemic that has taken the lives of many and sickened others. Not the mention the economic hardship that people are facing around the world.

Yet, hope is possible. The demanding work of building your own sanctuary is how you achieve hope. Because a sturdy inner sanctuary will hold the wolves at bay. You’ll have a sense of order in your life. A peaceful retreat in your heart, which invites the serenity that hope always brings.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

And our life goes on

You don’t have to become a monk to live a better life. But if sculpting your abs, buying more things, chasing more likes on social media, and focusing only on yourself have not brought you peace, then maybe a few monastic steps could help?

When asked once if he was happy, Father Jamison answered, “I’m not unhappy.” From all of the videos I’ve watched and accounts I’ve read about monks, none of them seem to be unhappy. In fact, they radiate a kind of inner peace infrequently seen in the rest of society.

Watch this affecting music video showing the lives and faces of Carthusian monks, who live strict lives of prayer, contemplation, work, and worship. As the lyrics in the video state: “Our life goes on.”

Your life will go on, too. Try to look past the superficial pleasures in life. Build that door of virtue, and then work through the seven monastic steps of silence, contemplation, obedience humility, community, spirituality, and hope.

Do this, and chances are you’ll live a better, more fulfilling life.

(Originally published here)

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get my free weekly newsletter here.

This article was written by John Weiss.
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