Fr. James Orthmann, O.S.C.O.
Holy Cross Abbey
901 Cool Springs Ln.
Hello. I just wanted to shoot you off a quick letter. I don't remember where we last left off, but I have moved out of my apartment and (almost) into my converted school bus-hermitage. Construction has actually taken longer than I anticipated and when move out day came things were not yet done, so I have been staying with my parents for a few days. After that I will be staying with a friend for a couple weeks while I try to finish the bus. I have a friend who has a lot I can park in in the city, but he is away until the 18th, at which point it should be semi-livable. I think what I may do is treat it more as a retreat hermitage, spending three days a week there, and the remaining four days at a friend's house. Really, having constructed it in the first place was my main goal, and I consider that to have been accomplished for the most part.
This is a major change in my life, and it has been stressful, and with stress comes depression (for me at least). The day I moved out (Oct. 1) marked a kind of self-imposed metanoia, a time for me to shape up and get on with it--that is, starting on the path to holiness. I have given up those things that stand in the way of that: smoking, drinking, drugs, sexual impropriety. I have given away most of my possessions, and have sold the rest, as was commanded for one seeking perfection: "Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor..." This was a pragmatic as well as theological decision: my bus can only hold so much of my shit.
With the purge comes through the withdrawal. It is inevitable but, of course, not pleasant. What sustains me is the anticipation of those things that are in store for those who love God. And how is love expressed? Through obedience, as was written: "if you love me, keep my commandments." And with regard to true life: "if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." I feel I am on the right track and in need of much grace to keep on it, tenuous as it is since salvation is "impossible for man, but with God all things are possible."
Really, this period is only a precursor to what I hope will be a permanent commitment to the ways of holiness, leaving behind the lukewarm fickleness so deserving of condemnation. I am committed to the area until May, when I am slated to graduate with my Masters in Theology. Many of my friends are getting married, some having children, committing themselves to this or that. It forces me to consider my own prospects for commitment, and more and more I am feeling that married life is not for me; it is not enough. My desire is too great to be contained in a package that size.
I have spoken with my spiritual director about pursuing an eremetic life, but I think I am more dependent on social interaction than I would like to admit. Community life has always been hard for me, but it makes me think I have not found the right community to commit myself to. But when considering my options (if I am serious about monasticism as a way of life) the Benedictine community of Christ in the Desert seem to stand out.
From my first introduction I have been drawn to the Benedictines. The community at M.C.D. is also young and diverse, with monks from Mexico, Vietnam, and elsewhere. The setting itself is condusive to contemplation. I liked the time I had spent there. At a time when many communities are finding they are not able to sustain themselves, this monastery seems to have a future, and, I hope, a potential future for me. And the possibilities for eremeticism is there as well (I know they have at least one resident hermit), should that be where God leads me.
The next eight months of quasi-monasticism will be a good litmus test, I think. Really I am just trying to find what will make me the most happy. I have no misconceptions or rosy ideas of monastic life. I realize that it can be mundane, ordinary, a source of friction...just like a marriage. I wonder how my independent and strong-willed streak will fare in community; I imagine it will be the subject of many penitential prayers.
I am comforted by the fact that when it comes down to it, married life and monastic life are not too dissimilar. One thing I do know is that I do not want to spend my life living for myself, or end up like one of those despicable monks St. Benedict talks about who make their own desires a law unto itself. There is no happiness there.
I wanted to write to see if you had anything to say about my plans and desires. Of course you know this is not new for me. It amazes me to think that for ten years this nagging thought, this perpetual desire and restlessness, has not left me. It is my suspicion that it never will unless it is addressed. I am excited and nervous about the prospect. Of course nothing will be happening until the spring. But it's at that time I hope I will be able to give a full 'yes': to God, to community, and to the monastic way of life. Write soon.