Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about monks. What a strange life it would be to be cooped up in a monastery, practicing silence daily, and having little to no contact with the outside world. Although the simplicity does sound appealing, I wonder if the redundant lifestyle would begin to mess with your head after a while? Or would you be too enveloped and overwhelmed by God’s peace to think about the human desires for which you lack satisfaction?
Now before I continue with my thoughts, let’s take a look at the basic monastic function and the daily life of a Benedictine monk…
A monk was a layman who sought to live a Christian life by entering a monastery and leaving the ordinary world behind. Monks took a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience; they were set apart from the rest of the world, even from the secular clergy, and were in theory at least among the most holy and venerated in medieval society.
The reality, in this as in the other elements of medieval society, was far more complex than this, and far more interesting…
Each day was divided into phases of work and prayer. The work included tending gardens, overseeing the business of the monastery, doing various housekeeping and maintenance chores, and other types of ordinary work. In addition, during the early Middle Ages, monks began to take on other activities, the most notable of which was the copying of books. Working in the scriptorium became an important part of monastic labor.”
Knox, E.L. Skip. “Medieval Society”. History of Western Civilization. 2006. Boise State University. Web. 26 Apr 2011.
Well, there you have it folks! The 411 on monks. However, imagine if you received the inside scoop on what life was really like in a monastery. I really like that line about the reality being much more complex and interesting than the description. Life couldn’t have been as prim and perfect as textbook accounts claim it to be. People aren’t perfect; it’s as simple as that. Think of Maria in the Sound of Music. She wasn’t exactly the archetype of the abbey. There had to be some troublemakers around, or at least some people who had God-given, exceptionally strong personalities that just couldn’t be extinguished! At least I believe there were.
On that note, let’s think back to the daily routine of the monks. The scriptorium. Often people picture monks as generic figures in brown robes sitting in large rooms at candlelit desks copying books. Can you imagine copying word after word after word after word, hour after hour after hour after? … you get the point. So let’s put these two ideas together: monastic troublemakers with strong personalities+ hours of copying words down on parchment= …
Over at the far desk in the corner is young Deodonatus. He is only a few years into his monastic life and although he occasionally has trouble keeping quiet, he generally has excelled as a humble servant of God. Today, he is copying down the fourth book of St. Augustine’s “Confessions”. He has been copying “Confessions” for weeks and decides that if he has to copy down one more word of this slow-paced (yet brilliant) book, he is going to quit and become a heathen! Okay maybe not that extreme, but to say the least, he is very frustrated. He prays to God for patience and looks down at the next line: “My heart was utterly darkened by this sorrow and everywhere I looked I saw death.”
Suddenly, an idea dawns on him. “What if I were to change a word… just one word?” He contemplates the idea, goes through the pros and cons, and finally decides that changing one word in that one copy would do no harm. He begins to write. “My heart was utterly darkened by this sorrow and everywhere I looked I saw… baboons!”
Honestly, I bet it happened. Some monk couldn’t help himself but to have a little fun and change things up a bit! At least once. And if not on purpose, then at least on accident. But I think that if I were a monk, that would be me. Just change one word in that one copy. Nothing so extreme that the timeless originality of the text would be diminished, just a little something to put a kick in my job and the reader’s attention span. Everyone needs to humor one’s self every once in while anyway. And I bet you God would be laughing right along with me!
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting - a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I love the intrigue of the indescribable. Sometimes I laugh at words because I know that there is so much more than what they are. Sometimes, though, the exclusions of articulation are not a laughing matter. Everyday, I see and hear words such as “religion,” “spiritual,” and “belief” used in generalized ways to describe a huge variety of ideas. Whether it be in class, on TV, or on the Internet, these usages often make me cringe and want to run for cover. These conventional and casual words, which are so commonly exploited, hardly have any meaning anymore and quite possibly never did. But why then are they such frequently used words in the media, in stories, and especially in those deep conversations about life that everyone loves so much? I am not saying that people are completely in the wrong to be using these words (I as much as anyone else am a culprit of this offense), but it seems to me that these words are a cover for what cannot be expressed by the human being and what simply cannot be said with words. It is a shame that there are so many diverse connotations to these words, since the heart of the matter is unchanging, but the concept also excites me in a way. Isn’t it amazing that us humans, who are so limited and insufficient, can know the limitlessness and supremacy of God even if we cannot express it?! And that is where the one word that I actually DO like comes in: truth. Truth describes just that. The eternal, unfluctuating reality of God. No matter what suggestions may accompany certain words that people associate with God, the truth always remains static and authentic. No one can take the truth away from what words cannot express.