“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Since I was in college, I have always wanted to be a monk. The Benedictines who staffed our Catholic community gave me my first exposure to monasticism and filled me with the desire to commit myself to God in a radical way. I visited the Archabbey where the monks lived a number of times and became more and more drawn to the simple, vibrant rhythm of Benedictine work and prayer.
I discerned this call for more than ten years, visiting monasteries across the country and abroad. I even made a two week retreat at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, and was struck by how similar their daily routine was to the monks’ back home. I dated, partied, and traveled, but when I reflected on my path of discipleship, it always led back to the monastery.
In 2008, as I was heading into my final semester of graduate school, I decided it was time to make a commitment to what I felt was my calling. I wrote to the abbot of a contemplative Benedictine monastery in New Mexico that I had visited a few years before and asked to be considered as a postulant. The abbot wrote back cordially and said I was an ideal candidate, aside from one thing: my diagnosis of manic-depression.
After conferring with other communities, he told me that ninety-nine percent of monasteries would not accept someone with bi-polar disorder. He said that personally, he did not like to rule anyone out on this basis alone, and that they had in fact admitted a man with bi polar disorder recently. It was not, however, a positive experience for either party, and the man left before professing his simple vows. It seems the experience of living with a manic depressive had left a bad taste in all the monks’ mouths. As the old saying goes, “one bad apple spoils the barrel.”
I was devastated. While the abbot insisted that this did not rule me out for consideration all together, my diagnosis made him cautious when considering my application. And rightfully so. The abbot was not ignorant of the fact that stress is a major trigger for people with bi polar disorder, and living in community had plenty of stress to offer.
Manic depression is a kind of “original sin.” It is something you are born with, it is often inherited, and its reputation tends to proceeds you. It does not prevent one from being mentally balanced, but by nature it makes it that much more difficult.
When I was told I may not be able to become a monk on account of my condition, I felt like a gentile, excluded from a community which was promised salvation. It felt unfair, but I knew that St. Benedict and all the Desert Fathers held obedience as one of the highest virtues without which no monk could expect to get far up the ladder of divine ascent. I submitted, trusting that when God closes one door, he opens another. What the abbot said about stress was true, at least in my own life. I know there are certain jobs that would preclude me on account of my mental condition. It didn’t take long in teaching 7th grade for me to crumble under the stress that teaching demands.
I had long entertained the idea of marriage, even while I explored my monastic vocation, and was in fact, at one point, engaged. This, too, was a great source of stress and while I don’t rule out being married all together, I know that the stress of living in this kind of two person community is not to be taken lightly.
It takes humility to accept the fact that we will not always be able to live the kinds of lives we wish to live. If you wear glasses, you will probably never be an Air Force fighter pilot. If you are five foot four, a career in the NBA may not be in the cards for you. Being what we want to be is not something a Christian should aspire to. Being what God wants us to be, however, is the mark of a true disciple. The best part is that when we aspire to be what God wants us to be, He opens all the doors for us. I may never be a monk. But there is nothing standing in the way of my being a saint but myself…manic depressive or otherwise.