“All I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—‘You are the Beloved.’ ” —Henri J. M. Nouwen
If someone had told me a year ago that I was going to be a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School, with the opportunity to directly experience monastic life from the perspective of two different religions in the middle of January, I would have probably laughed in their face in complete disbelief. The idea of graduate school I had meant sinking my teeth deeply into dense theological texts and engaging in spirited debates around carefully nuanced arguments about God, theology, and human nature. Having a Trappist monk scream “GOD LOVES YOU” directly into my face did not necessarily fit into that particular image.
However, the study of religion, in all of its varied forms, is (I am convinced) as much a lived experience as a theory, and this is why I was drawn to the Comparative Monasticisms J-term course. J-term, I learned, is short for January term, and a time in which Harvard offers short, intensive courses for students looking for meaningful learning opportunities over winter break. While I have been fortunate enough to study Christianity in depth in undergrad, I had very little experience in learning about Buddhism, and absolutely none in experiencing monasticism. (Monastic life is, by its nature, a bit elusive from the public eye, although our friends at St. Joseph’s Abbey seem to have gotten a bit of notoriety through their brewery endeavor.)
So, after a few initial meetings with my fellow adventurers in monasticism, in which we discussed various understandings of monastic life and created sets of individual and communal vows, I packed my bags and found myself in a whirlwind of contemplative and communal activity. At the Boston Vihara, we chanted and meditated with the Buddhist monks in addition to being presented with academic presentations on Buddhism and its historical and cultural influence throughout the world. At the Empty Bell, a Buddhist-Christian retreat center, we engaged in both guided and silent meditative practices and discussed the influence of mysticism in Christian theology. At St. Joseph’s Abbey, we valiantly rose at 3:00 AM to begin our day with one of many instances of prayer with the Catholic monks and interpreted the Gospel readings under the direction of two kindly and wise brothers. Throughout all of our adventures in the monastic life, we as a class also engaged in communal meals, reflective silence, and service in whatever ways our gracious hosts would allow us.
We were given the opportunity to not only directly encounter and experience monastic life, but to directly engage with the monks who chose it. Naturally, monastic life retains an aura of mystery about it—given that our culture can be incredibly driven by material success, individual achievement, and direct association with the world, voluntarily choosing a life of poverty and relative anonymity is a pretty radical thing to do, to say the least. What, exactly, draws one to this kind of life? Some of the answers we received were not all that far off from what could be expected: wanted to be of service to others, felt a connection with the divine, etc. However, we also consistently heard that there is something much more ineffable calling people to monasticism—through all three places we visited, everyone mentioned a deep longing to really wrestle with themselves in relation to the divine. The overarching idea seemed to be that monasticism offered a way to find some sort of answer—to understanding human nature, to understanding divine nature, to understanding the relationship between the two—that provides some sort of satisfaction that conventional life cannot. As one of the Trappists-in-formation, Charbel, put it, “So, what did you all come out to the desert to find?”
That question got me thinking about why I was drawn to this experience in the first place, and what has stayed with me the most was the overwhelming message of love and belovedness that all three communities emphasized. Whether through the above quote of Henri Nouwen given to us by the Empty Bell, the guided meditations on peace shared with us by the Buddhist monks, or the enthusiastic interpretation of the daily Gospel reading by the Trappist monks, everyone repeatedly reminded us that we were all loved beyond measure, and called to do the same. This has its drawbacks, as amazing a message as it is: getting away from the distractions of the world allows for complete reflection on what being completely loved means for oneself, but it also means confronting one’s failures to love without any respite. For me, at least, having the experience of knowing that I am loved perfectly somehow, yet still knowing that I fail to love in that manner, was profoundly terrifying and comforting at the same time. Living in that simultaneous terror and comfort, though, is a distinctly human experience, and engaging oneself in that tension on a daily basis, is ultimately what I think monasticism is about—and it is something I hope to carry with me through my non-monastic adventures.