In what seems like a galaxy far, far away I once contemplated becoming a monk, a Trappist to be specific. I never took vows or even donned cowl but a RCC priest did arrange for me to have a monastic summer experience at a monastery in South Carolina in the summer before I graduated. I had booked a ticket on Amtrak, but you see there was this woman, the same woman I would later marry, and celibacy and just didn't seem to go together. So I backed out, went to seminary, married that woman, graduated, got busy making kids and pastoring churches.
Reader you should know that I was neither raised nor ever have been a Roman Catholic.
So why did this urge to live the life of monastic prayer emerge? Well, it began with Wednesday night bible study. If you've never been to a Wednesday night bible study in Appalachia let me provide you with a snapshot. Picture a good sampling of old people, a preacher providing a wandering 25 minute bible study, then a public airing of aches and pains, surgeries and procedures, and other things that make folk anxious (as a teenager I took all of this in and what at first seemed like useless information has actually proven quite useful in my visitation with the elderly. It is amazing how I can guess so quickly what ails someone. "I bet that your sciatic is bothering you." "Why it is, how did you know?" "Just a guess.") Then line-by-line praying for the requests.
One evening after the prayer meeting I asked the pastor if there was any other kind of praying other than intercessory prayer? He didn't quite know how to answer, but to his credit he lent me every book in his library on prayer. One book was Prayer by Richard Foster, which I read with gusto. But I didnt quite get it. Then a little of life: graduating high school and off to college. In college I became part of a discipleship class and picked up another Richard Foster book, The Celebration of Discipline, which I borrowed from my campus minister and subsequently dropped in the toilet. I fasted (and wouldnt you know it the week I fasted the cafeteria served steaks and ice cream). I prayed, I journaled, I did everything the book said I should do. But i was still hungry. At the end of the discipleship class the campus minister suggested that I mosey over to the Newman Center and contact the Franciscan priest who was also a spiritual director. So I did. Week after week he was my spiritual director. He then suggested that I take the Religious Autobiography class that semester. So I did. And there I met, for the first time, Thomas Merton. And for the next two years I read, and read, and read, and read Thomas Merton books. I became so obsessed with his writing and life that I decided the only way to live a life of prayer was to become a monk like him, a Cistercian monk. But there was this woman...
Funny thing though. After a while I kind of stopped praying. Sure I prayed with folk, at services, over meals, prayed them into glory and out of heartache but I, personally, stopped praying. Dont know why. The closest I remember to prayer was when a spiritual director prayed for me, blessed me really, and I cried for hours afterwards with thanksgiving.
So fast forward to last week. I packed an overnight bag and headed to the St. Johns Abbey Guesthouse for my first ever retreat. There I prayed, and journaled, and worshipped, and prayed. Just like rolling down a hill, or baking bread, or splashing, or laughing out loud I didn't forget how to pray it came back easier than I thought.
Now Reader I'm sure you're wondering why did this take place last week and not before? I have not a clue. But I do have a theory about why what happened last week took place. Stability. Something I always wanted, yet something I knew eluded me as a free church pastor. I thought maybe I could be one of the pastors that pastored one church for 40 years. But my first church had 18 in worship, on a good day. My second church, what I refer to as Camelot, was great - seven wonderful years but I knew it was not forever. It was where I learned to be a pastor, as did my predecessors. Then the move down south. I knew the first day my family and I landed that I made a mistake but I thought I'd make the best of it. Then I resigned and went looking. Then I found my current place of employment. And I found a place I can be for a good piece. And after 14 months the stress of the previous three years started to flow downriver where it came from and life started making sense once again.
Benedictine monks take five vows: poverty (kind of check, I am an American Baptist pastor after all), chastity (no check), obedience (little fuzzy here), fidelity to the life (check, I love the pastoral life) and you guessed it: stability (which check as much as I can). Minneapolis, with your clean political system, nice people, odd cuisine, bike lanes, and amazing parks you're stuck with me and my family. Even if your major league baseball team does not have a clergy pass program...yet!