31 October 2008

Carrying a Silent Cross

It's difficult to carry a contemplative nature in the secular world. I've never really found a mentor that I trust. I converted to Catholicism in my 30's, so I didn't have the example as a child to devote my lifetime to a religious model. By the time I realized I should have entered religious life, I was already married and had responsibilities. Prior to this awakening in early adulthood, I had no idea such an opportunity existed, or that such a world existed.

Now, I don't have so much responsibility, but it seems I'm too old. The vast majority of orders and houses wouldn't have me. Like most people of a certain age, I've had some health issues. That would be another reason for rejection . . .

I think about the saints of past centuries. So many struggled with illness, psychological troubles, even old age. Many joined or founded orders after 50. Why are we barring that now? Oh, to live in a time and place where serious or even terminal illness is seen as a special grace - an opportunity for spiritual development. (I dont know something about that - I faced death directly twice in the past, and would do it again for all it taught me.) I do understand that care of elderly members of a monastery is a great financial burden, made more difficult in this time when vocations to the religious life are few. I understand the practical reason for these boundaries. But at what cost have they been established?

I've lived a full life, and most of the time a good one. I've dabbled in sin, I've seen trouble and pain in others lives. I know worldly life thoroughly. I could come to a vocation with clear sight, no delusions or fantasies, with complete comprehension of the things I leave behind in the world. But in the current mode of thinking, that isn't worth much.

I recently saw the film Into Great Silence, made a few years ago, following daily life of the French Carthusian monastery, The Grand Chartreuse. I was surprised by my reaction to it. It is difficult to explain, but nothing surprised me in it. It was all strangely familiar. I was comforted by the silence, by the routine, and the isolation. In one scene, an airplane - barely heard - flies overhead; I felt the intrusion of this bit of modern machinery into the peace of the ancient routine. Reminded me of years ago, after a weekend's camp in the backcountry, driving back through the city: back then I would take that bombardment of city and noise very personally, feeling a defensive anger rise as I drove through the necessary transition time, toward my home back "in the world".

One thing struck me about the film: I was surprised to see little joy. I don't mean peace, contentment, even a smile - there was plenty of that. I mean JOY. These men have the grace of living every day - every day - in the seeking of God's presence. If I had that, I am certain that joy would radiate from me! I'd be grateful every day for the opportunity to live such a life!

For now, I take comfort in stories of tertiaries, anchorites, lay orders, and other historical manifestations of combining calling with life in the world. I find no one - although I've searched for years - to whom I can take questions, find guidance. I rely on my books. I have been blessed to know many a kind priest, but always had the feeling they would think me a bit crazy if they knew my heart - they'd think me fanatical. Once I befriended a person in a Carmelite order but correspondence abruptly stopped - I wonder if it was because connection with the secular world on such a level was frowned upon by a superior. I do understand the obedience, and the theory, and forgive. But for me, it was a shame.

Perhaps the point is my isolation. The outside world knows me as an extroverted, community-involved person. They would never guess what is behind that. . . I can only offer my loneliness up in prayer, hoping to give some purpose to it. The dichotomy between my true self and what I offer the world around me, is enormous. I have to wonder how many people live within a similar shell.

I'm not saying it's always bad. In my case, it offers me protection from those who wouldn't understand, and my outer shell is a good one - I know I put joy into other lives, lessen hardship in other lives. I try hard to live as an example of Christian love, even with never giving voice to it. (I do feel the example teaches as well or better than any preaching I could do.)

Lord, help me remember with every person I meet that the true heart will rarely present itself. If I am afraid - knowing your love and support - surely many are just as fearful, and remain hidden. Help me see the person Christ knows and loves, in each person, especially those most difficult to love. Show me how to embrace my own cross with more willingness, and patience, and remind me see it as a grace (I need a lot of reminding, by the way - I'm pretty slow). Amen.

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