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Sunday, September 14, 2014
Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

I have a penpal who is a Trappist monk. He’s an interesting fellow who was a Catholic parish priest up here in NJ for most of his adult life. (He’s quite accomplished, being the author of several books and numerous articles on spiritual topics.) Sometime in his 40’s (remember the idea of “mid-life crisis”?) he decided to “go contemplative” and left the suburban parish life to join the Order of Cistercians Strict Observance. He has been living as a professed monk in a Cistercian community down South since then.

As to the question of just how “strict” the Cistercians (aka Trappists) are these days, I recently received a letter from my monk-friend in which he discussed his latest inspiration. He has been reading travel adventure books written by people who have traveled around the world sailing on working freight ships, i.e. those huge container ships that keep us flush with Chinese-made consumer stuff. My friend has already initiated discussions with his abbot for a leave-of-absence (“sabbatical”) to pursue such a trip. The cost would be around $12,000, and somehow he could swing it (not sure if he has a bank account or if his monastic community would pick up the tab; in the old days, monks were not allowed to have any significant private possessions, everything was supposed to be shared in community).

I’m quite happy to hear that my friend may soon embark on a late-life adventure, one that will no doubt become a major memory for him. I look forward to the book that will inevitable follow (he is currently aware of six books on container ship travel; he will no doubt increase the count to seven). But his upcoming travel plans made me reflect a bit on my own life (especially since I am just about his age). Just a day or two before reading his letter, I had asked myself — what do I remember about this past summer? Nothing obvious came to mind, other than the general pleasantness of fewer people on the roads during the morning and evening commutes, and a relaxed schedule on most workdays. And the late sunsets, coming home and having dinner while the sun is still out. I tolerate hot weather much better than cold, and the warm sticky days generally don’t bother me; I enjoy most of them, actually.

But as to any big memories from this past summer . . . no, not really. I didn’t take a vacation trip, I didn’t start or finish any intense emotion-bound relationships, I didn’t have any catastrophe strike, nor did any unexpected windfall come my way. I didn’t start or finish writing a book, didn’t make any great life-changing decisions, didn’t experience anything that would change my life. After straining my memory to the max, I came up with a list of things that were somewhat notable – the bar that I hung out at somewhat regularly closed for good, I saw Jersey Boys, I led a small “practice circle” discussion one day at my Zen community, I moved the office web site to WordPress (and updated the WordPress program for this blog) . . . good stuff, but not exactly earth-shaking.

Obviously, I don’t live a very exciting life. Actually, my life may be about as monk-like as my penpal’s ! The ideal behind monasticism, if you take seriously the early writings of the famous Trappist author Thomas Merton, is to actually foreswear against such experiences; i.e. to live simply and completely with the mundane, with the same cycle of life, desiring little variation. The idea here is (or was, perhaps) to intentionally minimize the level of stimulus in life, as to maximize one’s prayerfulness and contemplative realization. The focus was to be on something bigger, on “realizing God” . . . to the degree possible.

Thus, I found my “strict observance” monk-friend’s plan to take a 3 month trip around the world to be rather interesting, and a good point of reflection for my own life. So, am I wasting my life by not traveling, by not working on a “bucket list” of memorable experiences, by sticking to the same-old same-old? Are memorable experiences what life is ultimately about?

Life for me turned out not to be the bold, robust cup of coffee that seemed promised in my youth. To stretch the metaphor (probably past its breaking point), I got to drink the coffee, but most of it turned out to be more dilute and tepid than I had dreamed about and hoped for. And yet, I’m not terribly depressed or disappointed about what my life has been. I have a lot of nice memories from growing up and my early adulthood. There were enough fun things, adventures, good friendships, and minor achievements to keep it interesting. Over time, I learned more and more to appreciate the little things; e.g. watching lightening in the summer sky from the safety of your front porch (one of my little summer memories). Or figuring out how to get a WordPress website back up after you tinker with the PHP code and everything goes blank (something that happened more than once in the past few months!).

Another consolation: there’s at least an argument that I am doing my duty in being of service to people around me. No, I’m not changing the world a ‘la Barack Obama (I did have dreams similar to his back in my younger days), I’m not bringing justice to the oppressed, and I have more than enough sins and moral lapses to admit to. I can at times be anxious, insensitive, petty and ungenerous. But I’d like to think (hope, anyway) that I’m at least a little bit on the plus side when you net out all the good and bad that I’ve done. I’m no Saint Francis, but I still try to put cooperation and relationship with others above competition and egotistical achievement, even if I don’t always take risks to do good like others sometimes do. (E.g., not at all sure that I’d jump on the track in a subway station to save someone from an approaching train.)

Perhaps the low-burn, “non-bucket list oriented life” ain’t so bad overall. It can still be a worthwhile life, if you can learn to appreciate the little things, and if you intentionally try to do whatever good you can do whenever it isn’t too risky. And if I’m wrong and I’m not actually worthy enough to “go to heaven” (i.e., if there is some sort of positive afterlife), at least I still know that I’m one-of-a-kind, “a bit different”. My second grade teacher told me that I was “different” way back when, and some older guys said about the same thing when I was a teenager.

Being different isn’t always easy . . . it can be lonely, as it’s hard to make friends. (E.g. I’ve had a profile on a popular free dating website for around five years, and I still haven’t met another “bird of a feather”)(albeit, I did gain one interesting pen-friend, shout out to DJ in Australia!). Sometimes, different is interpreted as weird or even threatening. But still, there is the intrinsic satisfaction in knowing that I could hypothetically sing Paul Anka’s classic “I Did It My Way” (if I had a good singing voice, which I don’t) with the same conviction that Frank Sinatra gave in his classic rendition.

Nonetheless, I hope that my Trappist friend has a great time sailing at least 6 of the 7 seas, and I look forward to his own memories from this “life event”. And hey, if it helps him to be a better, more faithful monk in the long run, then why not. Even I need some time off from work, so as to go back recharged and ready for more. I think it’s good that the Trappists have learned since Merton’s day to be a little more flexible in carrying out their mission; religious life is NOT easy, despite the spiritual inspiration. And I’m sure that my friend will do some good of his own for the people he will encounter on the ship and at the various ports of call, in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, where ever.

And also with those he will touch with his written spiritual reflections about the long days and nights often by one’s self, out on the ocean (the entire crew and guest list for a modern container ship is usually under 30 people). A freighter ship as a floating monastery – not such a bad idea! The Trappists have their various supportive industries, such as making and selling bread, fruitcakes, caskets, and cheese; perhaps they should look into buying a ship and getting into international transport!

[And yes, the title of this note is a reference to a song by the late, great Peter Allen . . . well, sort-of, anyway.]

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:47 pm      

  1. Jim, Since I don’t know your Trappist friend, the most I can say is Wow! The Trappists are willing to let someone take a sabbatical! Good for him. I’m sure you are right that a container ship could likely be somewhat like a monastery. I hope, as you indicate, that many good things come from his trip, both for him and for others.

    As to your own life, I’m sure you have done a lot of good that you have no clue about. One never knows how other people may be helped by something one has done; of course, the opposite also holds. But when one’s intention is to do good which it is clear is your intent – good to come from your life – then I’d go for the position that more good comes than bad has/does/will result from your own life.

    And, I find it interesting, after all the discussions about atheism, agnosticism, some kind of belief in god, etc., when one starts thinking about the whole of one’s life, one wants good to come from it, and hope for “heaven” after all. As I’ve said before, there are no atheists in foxholes. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 14, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

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