Saturday, July 5, 2008

Letter to Fr. James Orthmann, O.S.C.O

Fr. James Orthmann
Holy Cross Abbey
901 Cool Spring Ln.
Berryville, VA



5 July, 2008

Dear Fr. James,

Hello! It has been a number of years since I last wrote; I hope you will forgive the prolonged absence in communication.

I always find it hard to start a letter in cases like this, because I always forget where I left off. I am still living in Philadelphia and finishing my last year at Villanova; I will hopefully have my M.A. in Theology by the end of the Spring. I had been dating a woman for the past year and a half, but we recently parted about a month ago. While we were really compatible in a lot of ways, we both came to realize that we might not be the best match for a future together. We still talk, however, and remain good friends.

I’m always left to wonder why situations like this occur, whether it is happenstance or whether God has some hand in it. I was engaged to be married five years ago, but a severe manic episode that landed me in the hospital was the straw that broke the camel’s back in that relationship. I’m glad it didn’t work out, but at the time I was sure getting married was what I was supposed to do. My manic-depression was also a strain on my most recent relationship, but the breakup had more to do with this woman’s inability to deal with the demands such an illness puts on a person, especially someone who likes to have fun and be carefree. I must be full of cares! I’m not upset about this, but again, I had every intention of proposing to this woman, as I saw a good life together. As is the case most of the time, however, fate seems to have had other ideas for my future.

I was taken aback when I began to feel the familiar tug and pull of monastic life very soon after Jeannie and I broke up. Of course this could have been a reactionary response. Nevertheless, I was reminded of my conversion, and my entrance into the Church. I felt on many occasions that my seeking God had led me to the Church, and that in turn was the necessary prerequisite for becoming a monk, which I felt very strongly was my destiny. That calling has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, but it has never really gone away; if anything, it seems to have been lying dormant for a while, and has just violently woken up from a long slumber.

Having visited different monasteries and orders (Capuchins, Benedictines (active and contemplative), Cistercian), I have found again and again that the biggest resistance comes from my aversion to community life. I have always valued my freedom—that superficial freedom that allows me to do what I want, when I want, without having to answer to anyone—above all things, and the prospect of giving it up for the sake of the Gospel weighs on me. And yet I still feel called to do just that.

Jesus’ words to Peter in John 21 are haunting, because I have always felt, ever since I read this passage and took it in, that he was speaking to me:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."

He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

I have always felt a strong connection to Peter—his great desire, and his terrible weaknesses. To feel called to follow in his footsteps is a lot to take in, but really, this is the invitation that is extended to all of us. I just can’t get it out of my head. I trust that anything that falls from the lips of the Savior is good. But if I take this passage to heart, it is like walking along a level paved road and hitting the base of a mountain. Two roads stretch out ahead: one winding up and around the mountain, the other skirting it. If there are two roads leading to the same place, wouldn’t you take the easier one? Why do I feel like God is calling me to take the mountain road?

This is the absurdity of Abraham and Isaac that Soren Kierkegaard was also obsessed with: We are expected to follow God’s command, even when it defies reason and puts our lives at stake. In a sense monastic life is an equally absurd endeavor, eschewing the luxuries, pleasures, and freedom life in the world affords. But I do know that monastics would not choose such a life if it did not promise something greater that what the world can offer. You get what you pay for—heavy costs, invested in God, promise big returns. But like I said, those shares are not cheap.

I recognize that the constrictions in monastic life are for the benefit of a greater freedom. In that way I look to it as freeing, and in tune with that strong desire in me to be free—free from desire, free from sin, free from everything that keeps me from giving God my undivided attention. I know what He has to say is worth hearing. But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t know how I feel about being part of a community. This is at the heart of being led “where I do not want to go.” I value my solitude very highly, and have difficulty with community. Even when I joined the Church, I wished I could go to Mass and be alone with God, rather than standing in a crowd of people. Even now, I go to Mass more for the Sacrament than for any desire for community. Some people really want and need community, and I have just never felt that way. It’s troubling with regards to this call to monastic life, because I know community is at the heart of cennobitic life, and St. Benedict talks of those detestable monks who “follow their own law.” That is me. I am afraid I would not be a good monk.

I had been interested in the Carthusians and their solitary life for a number of years, but had never considered their order when thinking about my prospects for monastic life. But again, not long after Jeannie and I broke up, I felt a strong call to revisit that desire and at least visit to see if this is the life God might be calling me to. The Carthusians’ asceticism is intimidating and to be honest, when I think about the prospect of a one month residency, I get a knot in my stomach, the kind of knot you get before shipping off to boot camp, or before facing off in a wrestling meet: “I don’t want to go.” And yet these are the exact words Jesus used when foretelling Peter’s future crucifixion.

I feel that monastic life would be a very painful crucifixion of my will. Anyone in the world would tell me that having my own will is a good thing, but they don’t understand that I have vowed it to God; it no longer belongs to me. Even though I clutch and retain it when I can—and end up in the familiar pit of sin as a result—I have told God with all the sincerity in my heart, “I will follow you wherever you go.” God has taken me at my word, and still believes that I desire to give myself over to Him completely. But my assurance in that commitment is shaky, as giving myself over to anyone completely threatens the false autonomy I have been cultivating for so long. I want to do what I want, when I want, and I don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can’t do. This juvenile attitude is, obviously, inconsistent with the monastic ideal, but it is how I feel nonetheless.

I need help in discerning what this means. I don’t want to be like the rich young man. But then again, if I am honest with myself, I do. The Christian life lived fully and deliberately as a monk demands a lot, and I don’t know if I can cut it. But I still feel called. What does this mean? Is it not the right time, or are these indicators that I am not cut out for monastic life at all? Even if I did become a monk, I don’t know how I feel about a life lived in community. Maybe it is something that just takes getting used to? But I have always had an aversion to it.

It would be great to hear back from you. Hopefully at some point in the next year I might be able to come down to visit. I can tell you all about my 10-day Vipassanna silent meditation retreat that I did in Thailand last Fall. It was another boot-camp calling and while it was difficult, it was very much worth it.

In Xto,

Rob Marco

7/6 P.S.: I have decided not to visit the Carthusians at this time. I received affirmation in Adoration that it was not the right time. I do have a tendency to try to make things happen when they are not supposed to, and have come to learn it is better to listen when my instinct say otherwise. I think the world still needs me.

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