One of the troubles with English being the universal language, is so many English words are laden with thousands of years of nuance, literary history, and innuendo. If you’ve ever sat in a Sunday School class with me, you’ve heard my rantings about the word “repentance.” Consciously or not, native English speakers have all kinds of negative connotations riding under the surface of the word repentance. Most acutely, Americans gut reaction to the word is informed by Edward’s “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” sermon, depicting a vivid and horrifying version of Hell meant to shock the human heart back into strict (I’d say Puritan) alignment with God’s will. Add to that the psychological weight of a post-1969 LDS world, in which the smallest transgression triggers the assigned reading of The Miracle of Forgiveness, whereby the path to true forgiveness from God is long, arduous, and requires heavy-handed involvement from local bishoprics. It’s no wonder that we’d just rather not!
On the opposite side of this, sits Chinese. Chinese doesn’t borrow, beg, or steal from other languages. It doesn’t add new words to keep up with the times. Instead, Chinese asks of The Times to describe exactly what a new thing does for society before society will grant it a name. Then Chinese uses ancient and often rudimentary words together to communicate the functionality of the thing. Computer, for example, is three characters strung together: lightning, brain, machine. Perfectly describes a computer, don’t you think? Some kind of machine, powered by electricity, that has all the functionality of a human brain. Chinese does the same thing with repentance… it asks Christians (and, ostensibly anyone else who believes in the concept) to succinctly describe exactly what the act of repenting entails. The answer? Change, alteration, correction, rectification, revision, or transformation as a result of regret or feeling remorse. If you break the two characters of repentance into their individual parts (radicals, groups of strokes that have meaning and support the underlying meaning or pronunciation of a larger character), you get this: to change your own heart, every day.
I’ll give you a moment.
Now, let’s look at the word Monastic.
I recently (like a couple hours ago, at a coffee shop in Pocatello, Idaho) finished reading my last book of 2017. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey. First off, you should know that if you have a birthday in the year 2018 you’re going to get a copy of this from me. Second, I’m going to apply the practice of lectio to The Book of Mormon this year, which will mark the first time I’ve done a serious, end-to-end study of that particular book of scripture. There will be a floraleggia document as a result of this study, which will likely serve as 2019’s sacred text of choice. In short, lots of blog posts to look forward to.
However, what I’m interested in right now is this quote:
“If we are looking for writings with a more direct bearing on spirituality, we will often find this in the texts that derive from the monastic tradition. It would be a pity if we thought that these writings were only for monks and nuns -- especially since the definition of “monastic” in those days as much broader than it is today. Sometimes in a sense it could include almost anyone who was seriously living a spiritual life.”
-- Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: the Ancient Art of Lectio Divina
How many of us are looking for writings with a more direct bearing on our spirituality? Chances are, all of you who are reading this can answer yes to this question, and easily come up with a list of ten to fifteen friends and family members, too. The catalyst for these questions is one of a million life events (death of a close friend, parents’ divorce, offense at church, getting hit with consequences of a decision, awakening to any number of social ills, etc etc etc) but they always end in the same place:
Who am I? Where am I going? How do I get there?
The traditional avenues are not available to us -- either as a result of some trauma, transference, or logical fallacy -- or we don’t have the keys to unlock the secrets of the text sitting in front of us. We read it day after day, but it’s become stagnant and remote to the reality of our human struggles with divinity.
So, we look around. Surely, I’m not the only one who feels like this? What are others doing? Is there someone who seems to have these answers? How did they find them? Should I try something similar? In this digital, connected world we find ourselves in it’s much easier to hear the monastic call. Instead of trekking up a sacred mountain to find the man who sits, cross-legged at the top we turn to our modern oracle: Instagram.
Before we dive into that last claim, let’s break down Monasticism. I need you to erase the bald, celibate monk in brown robes, pouring over illuminated Gutenbergs from your mind. The Encyclopedia Britannica is useful, but dense… so I’ve streamlined the entry on Monasticism here for our purposes:
Monasticism: an institutionalized religious practice or movement whose members attempt to live by a rule that requires works go beyond those of either the laity or the ordinary spiritual leaders of their religions. Commonly celibate and universally ascetic, the monastic individual separates himself or herself from society either by living as a religious recluse or by joining a community of others who profess similar intentions.
The word monasticism is derived from the Greek monachos (“living alone”), but this etymology highlights only one of the elements of monasticism and is somewhat misleading, because a large proportion of the world’s monastics live in cenobitic (common life) communities. The term monasticism implies celibacy, or living alone in the sense of lacking a spouse, which in some societies became a socially and historically crucial feature of the monastic life.
Even this aspect of monasticism does not extend beyond the cultures and languages that perpetuate the religious terminology of the so-called Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the Islamic world, Arabic and Persian terms that can be translated as monk or monastic do not mean “solitary,” as in the Greek. Instead, they are etymologically derived from other terms associated with monastic life in Islam like zuhd meaning asceticism. Some etymologies of that region’s monastic terminology connote poverty, ecstatic states of mind, dress conventions, and so on, while other terms imply single, celibate living. None of the many Indic terms for monk like the Sanskrit apabhramsha or the Pali prakrit mean “single” or “living alone,” though monastics in those traditions live alone or in groups that are set off from the rest of society.
A definition of monasticism that covers all its forms would be so broad that particulars would have to be relegated to the analysis of specific monastic systems. Such a definition might be: religiously mandated behaviour (orthopraxy), together with its institutions, ritual, and belief systems, whose agents, members, or participants undertake voluntarily (often through a vow) religious works that go beyond those required by the religious teachings of the society at large. Such behaviour derives from the example of religious and spiritual founders who interpreted more radically the tenets that apply to all believers or to the whole society. Beyond such a statement, one can speak only of the principal characteristics of the monastic life and its institutions, since none of them is universal.
For the more visually inclined, let’s take a look at the Marathon Monks of Japan for a solid and more universally applicable definition of monasticism:
“I’m interested in why people run,” I begin. In answer, he starts explaining the whole process of the 1,000-day training. It’s not just about running, he says. Along the way, each day you need to stop at over 250 shrines and temples. The running is really just a way to get from one to the other. And it is not even running. Much of the time you are walking.
“But why?” I ask. “Why this 1,000-day challenge?”
He ponders for a moment.
“All humans are asking the question: ‘Why are we alive?’ he says. “The constant movement for 1,000 days gives you lots of time to think about this, to reflect on your life. It is a type of meditation through movement. That is why you shouldn’t go too fast. It is a time to meditate on life, on how you should live.”
“And when you did it,” I say, “did you find an answer to the question, why are we alive?”
I may be pushing it here, but I’m waiting to hear about the sense of oneness with the universe he experienced. I want to know what reaching enlightenment actually feels like.
“There is not this one point of understanding where everything else stops and you’ve made it,” he says calmly. “Learning continues. Once you graduate from university, you don’t stop learning. The 1,000-day challenge is not an end point, the challenge is to continue, enjoying life and learning new things.”
Does that resonate with you?
If so, let’s call that the monastic call… this inner stirring to get out. Out of your normal routine, out of your city and state, out of the country even. To experience something else. Whether that’s another culture, the extreme limits of human endurance, the thrill of an alternate identity, the release of all the social obligations weighing you down at home, the taste of foods that fail description, the stars unencumbered by urban lights… it makes no difference. You feel like something out there is going to answer the questions in here. You’re driven to “undertake voluntarily works that go beyond those required by the religious teachings of society at large.” This can look like solo travel, a social media fast, no screen time after or before certain hours, weekend hiking or camping trips, any number of snow sports, a weekly golf ritual, photography, quilting, raking rocks, quitting your day job to travel internationally, a dedicated side-hustle, a garden… whatever you do to feel like you’re stepping outside the profane space of every day and toward the answers to our questions: Who am I? Where am I going? How do I get there?
At the end of 2017, I wanted a monastic experience. I’d go so far as to say I needed it. Last year was a lot and it was all at once. Personal change, spiritual growth, the opening of a new decade in my life, the final closing and healing of emotional wounds, facing the death of a beloved family member and possible tragic loss of a new one, moving across the country, not making the time or space to set down roots, starting a new job and a total career shift, the marriages of two best friends. Not to mention the endless hours in my car, driving across North America and sending out 2017 with 30 hours on a plane back from the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere.
I can’t say I did this consciously, but I expected my monastic experience to look like this:
So I made some plans to match that expectation, and when those plans fell through I was devastated. How was I supposed to be enlightened now? I’ve completely wasted a really expensive and incredible opportunity to get answers to my questions! I’m going to have to wait until I can afford to take another big trip to have a true spiritual experience.
I cried all the way to the Auckland Ferry Terminal -- a half-hour walk through downtown, downhill. I got on the first ferry to somewhere and fell right to sleep. When the ferry docked at Waiheke Island, I got off and looked around. Tropical flowers, sailboats for days, crystalline waters… it looked exactly like where I’d planned to go on the North Peninsula, but I couldn’t see that. All I saw was disappointment. I can’t be enlightened here… it’s just the other side of Auckland Bay.
This island is a little mountain, one side of which faces Auckland Bay and the other faces the Pacific Ocean. I’d resigned myself to at least getting to touch the Pacific. That’ll be enough for now, I thought. I trudged up the mountain, in a rush to get to the other side. My mind raced with doubts -- should I be walking this? Should I take a taxi instead? What about renting a bike? The only goal of all these questions was: how to carry myself faster to a spot where I thought a spiritual experience should happen.
In front of me was a big red and white traffic sign. I must have stared at it for a good ten minutes, looking at the words cautioning the cars zooming by. But it wasn’t until I was right up next to the sign that I finally read it.
And then I understood it.
Slow down. You’re here.
This sign towered over my head, and at its base sat a bench with a plaque. (Roman Mars: “Always read the plaque!”)
Dedicated to the Elephant God Ganesha.
I laughed out loud and smacked myself on the forehead. What were you thinking, Vanessa? That enlightenment only exists at the very Northern tip of New Zealand? That it can’t possibly be found anywhere else? I was eternally grateful that the traffic on this road disappeared because anyone driving by would have thought I was crazy. There was a lot of laugh-crying and most of it was straight-up ugly crying. I was so tired. I slumped down on Ganesha’s bench and just let the entire year’s worth of emotions wash over me. I’m not quite sure how long I sat there, but I had no motivation to go anywhere else or do anything else. I was here.
I opened a dialogue with God, then, that I don’t think I’ve closed yet. I let him know what was going on, what was difficult about this year and what I was ready to be done with. I told him I hated going to church, that I didn’t think any organization that supported such blatant bureaucratic bullshit could be his true church. I told him I hated being an intelligent woman in Mormonism… because it’s lonely. I told him I was ready to leave. I let him know what I would be willing to keep doing and what the non-negotiables were. I won’t take you through the whole ordeal, but let it suffice to say I laid all my cards out on the table. And then I just sat back and took a deep breath. Not sure how long I sat there, but I noticed some cars start zooming by again. I knew this conversation wasn’t over, but that it was going to take some time. But, since I was here, I might as well enjoy it.
I pulled my camera out of my bag and wandered. Instead of going straight up the mountain and not stopping until I arrived at the Pacific, I concentrated on the few feet of earth immediately around my next step. What was here? Hydrangeas, tree ferns, old cars, bicycles, strange birds, birds of paradise, vines, rocks… it was all so beautiful! Maybe it was the endorphins from bawling my eyes out. Maybe it was this feeling of enlightenment we’re all chasing. Maybe it was Maybelline… whatever the case, there was a lightness to my shoulders that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Like that time Atlas shrugged. Must’ve felt nice to not have the weight of the world pressing down in the same place.
I reached the top of the mountain, turned left and found the signs pointing toward the village that sat on the Pacific. As I rounded the corner, I saw one missionary. I blinked a couple times and tried to find his name tag. Maybe not the missionaries… there’s only one of them, and I’m not sure if that’s a name tag or not. He rode his bike closer and I determined he was in fact an LDS missionary. First thought: where’s his companion? Second thought: God, you have a really strange sense of humor, you know that? I chatted with Elder Chapman for a few minutes and his companion eventually materialized. I thought, well, maybe going to church in New Zealand is better than it is on the I-15 Corridor. Wouldn’t be the first time that’s held true. So I got the number of the elders near where I was staying in Auckland and promised to give them a call to find out church times. I meant it, too. I let them ride on and smiled at God’s ability to immediately answer prayers when offered so bluntly. I was content with that being the answer and moved again toward the Pacific.
About halfway down the backside of this mountain, I crossed the street for a better view of the bay unfolding in front of me. Looking down the street, I catch a glimpse of two more white shirts. Two more ties. Two more bicycles. Ha! What on earth? Ok, God, I thought, I guess this conversation isn’t over yet. I stopped these two (Elder Murphy and Elder Taranaki) and laughingly told them I’d just run into their companions. About halfway through that bit of banter, I took notice of these two elders. They looked tired. Not the kind of tired that comes from biking up a tropical mountain in the heat of Summer… but the kind of tired I’d felt on the other side of this same mountain not an hour earlier. I asked them how their day was, and locked eyes with Elder Murphy to silently communicate I wanted a real answer. He opened up and told me it wasn’t good. He said they only come to this island once a year to check up on the five less active members who live here. Apparently Waiheke is really a party island, so there’s not much work for missionaries. In the course of tracking down these five people, Elders Murphy and Taranaki had gotten lost, chased by rabid dogs, had a door slammed in their face, and not managed to talk to anyone, let alone the less actives they were looking for.
“Well, Elders. You’re in luck! As it turns out, I’m less active. And I would love to have a lesson with you.”
That last sentence was choked out by some tears… which I didn’t know were coming. As the words came out of my mouth, I suddenly realized that this was exactly what I wanted and needed. Something to reconnect me with the Gospel I’d found so sweet and so healing while I was in Taiwan. Something to give me strength to put up with the stupidity of bureaucracy plaguing the Intermountain West. Something that was true.
The two of them picked up what I was putting down and we all ended up on the back patio of a cafe across the street. Unsure where to start, we each took turns telling the story of how we’d arrived in this moment. It was such a beautiful conversation, detailing the hand of God in each of our lives. There were stories of past transgressions, repentance, arrival on Island (Taiwan, New Zealand, and Waiheke respectively), current cultural and family struggles, and worries for the future. Time stopped and nothing else mattered. It became so very clear that each of us were meant to be right here, helping each other. When the conversation drew to a natural close, Elder Taranaki thanked me for being their miracle today. I shook his hand and thanked him for being mine. I took their photo and said I’d meet them on the ferry. I still had to get some pictures of the Pacific Ocean.
I slid down a well-worn track to the beach and came through the trees to see the Pacific Ocean stretching out before me. I walked out to it and put my feet in. As I watched the waves lap around my ankles I just laughed. Here I was, standing in the middle of what Instagram tells me a spiritual experience looks like… and it’s just not. The true spiritual experience was back at the top of the mountain, in that space made sacred by children of God in need of each other.
That. That right there is true monasticism…. To step outside time and set aside societal expectation, to go beyond the ordinary and create space in community for radical vulnerability, for truth, for love. I met back up with all four Elders (turns out they were on exchanges) at the ferry terminal and we went on to have some wildly cosmic adventures over the rest of that weekend. I’m sure I’ll tell you about them sooner or later. But for now, it’s enough to know that in my moment of need God sent me four missionaries (because he knew I wouldn't talk to the first two!). And in their moment of need, God sent them me from all the way across the world.
If the monks are like us, then it figures that we are like the monks...
I ask him what he thinks. Are there similarities between what he found, and the experience of athletes and recreational runners? He says he saw a television programme about people training for the marathon and he was encouraged because he saw they often had slumps in their training.
“This was the same,” he says. “Sometimes I had slumps too, so it was good to see it wasn’t just me.”
Now he is finding solace in the trials of novice marathon runners. The 1,000-day challenge is such an extreme thing to do, and yet here is this man who has done it, and still suffers the same doubts, has the same questions as anyone else.
“Look,” he says, as though he is reading my thoughts. “Everyone needs to find something that suits them, that works with their body, with what they are doing in this life. I chose to undertake this challenge. But it is just one of many different paths to the same place.”