J-Term Course: Comparative Monasticisms

Editor’s Note: HDS students have the option to take J-term courses, which are usually 2-credit courses held over winter break. In this post, MDiv student, Jessica Young Chang, shares her experience taking Kerry Maloney’s Comparative Monasticisms J-term course virtually this past January.  

Post by Jessica Young Chang MDiv’22 

Photo Courtesy of Jessica Young Chang

Candlelight is flickering against the unadorned white walls. The echo of monks chanting in Latin invites a reverent silence into the room. The table is set with a humble bowl of lentils, rice, roasted squash, bread, and a mug of tea. My notebook is poised nearby in case the abbess reads or utters a morsel of wisdom I want to remember. 

And in the other room, I can hear my husband laughing at whatever he’s watching on Netflix.  

The retreat week for this year’s Comparative Monasticisms class looked a bit different. A J-term class offered by HDS Chaplain and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Kerry Maloney, this class provides students with a background of the contemplative life as defined and practiced in the Christian and Buddhist traditions. Typically, students convene with Kerry and co-teacher David Woessner for a week and retreat at centers in the Massachusetts area. Alas, the pandemic made it impossible for us to gather and travel safely, so we retreated in our homes, are less the band of wandering mendicants and more the community of desert siblings in our individual cells.  

This class gave me a much-needed opportunity for rest and self-reflection. Study at HDS is rewarding, and grueling, in the best of circumstances. In this year of remote learning, the screen fatigue, isolation from my classmates, and continued demands of the work made it even tougher. I also picked this class because I’m interested in the historical and practical narratives of contemplative life. As a student of both the teachings of Christ and of non-dual Tantra, I wanted to explore how living a life circumscribed by vow, prayer, and ritual invites us to understand ourselves and others. I wanted to think deeply about monastic life.  

During the class, I spent days and weeks considering what calls us to a vowed life: an ardent longing for the Truth, a rhythm of worship defined by prayer, a radical dependence on the generosity of others, and a profound journey away from the conventions of society that allows space for the Divine. This consideration was deepened by the class assignments: reading the Rule of Benedict of Nursia, the Buddhist Patimokkha, documentary footage of monastic communities, and writings about and by various vowed individuals, including Thomas Merton. Though I live the life of a householder—living and participating in society, partnered and present in and to the community around me—this week allowed me to consider what it means to craft a life around values and practices, a life defined by what matters spiritually, and not (just) the deadlines and the to-do lists.  

Each of us crafted a set of temporary vows and a rhythm by which we would choose to live for the week we were in digital retreat. Vows ranged from a temporary practice of a vegetarian diet to full silence. We bounded our lives in a thoughtful and deliberate way and made space for the way in which this room we made in our lives might teach us about how we can be filled by the Divine. I found myself deliberately slowing down, looking forward to the scheduled chiming of my phone reminding me to sit and pray, to take some physical movement, or to pay attention to my breath. I was able to sink into a stillness and a silence that has been rare in this time when classroom, worship space, library, meeting room, and house have become one.  

Additionally, the “Zoom Room” which can flatten the classroom community, became a kind of shrine, with the faces of my classmates glowing with joy, with discovery, with struggle and question, during our collective retreat. Each of us was on an individual journey of reflection with our own tradition as well as with the teachings we’d been handed, and yet we were together in a digital space of witness and reflection for one another. It was a rich experience.  

I’ve taken lessons from that time with me into my Spring semester. I’ve attempted to continue a scheduled day, ordered around rhythm of prayer, reflection, and self-care. Every day, my phone chimes at me at 8 pm, and barring any outward-facing obligation, I spend an hour in silence and reflection. I’ve written a rule for how to use my time, attention, and money in a way that allows me to live into and out of my values. This surrender and adherence to a rhythm feels necessary. It reminds me that my time at HDS, while important, isn’t the center of my life, but instead is a means by which I continue to understand what’s most important to me: relationship, community, and spiritual practice. 

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