The monk said something that sparked an afternoon of reflection. I asked him what is most essential to monastic life and he said, “Longing. It’s really just institutionalized longing.” We went on for quite a time sharing thoughts on this. All blended, it went something like this:
Love longs. Period. And everything humanity is about is either an expression, digression or repression of that longing. People come here because they long. Often they don’t know what it is they’re after and are confused or anxious. They come seeking meaning, direction, stability, clarity, belonging, friendship, a listening ear, knowing they are loved by God. You name it. Our longing includes an immense collection of things. All of them important. But if they don’t place those things in service to their love for God, these things quickly become idols.
When they speak with me about their desire for this or that, I often ask them if they listen to music or read poetry. Our taste in music and poetry reveals the condition of our present longing. And shapes it. I ask them why they like the music they do. The words, the tune, its effects on them? Often they’re surprised by this question and maybe have never thought deeply of it. And sadly, very few people read poetry anymore. I encourage them to purchase the new Grail Psalms and pray them out loud every day. To read Yeats, Eliot, Wordsworth, Auden or Hopkins. Listen to classics like Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 or some contemporary group that draws from deep wells. Go to an art museum and spend a whole day. Get out of the office and wander into some deserted track of trees or forgotten stream. Spend time in a hospice volunteering, or a homeless shelter and get with those who suffer a fever pitched longing. As you help meet their needs you’ll find yours met. Let these shape your longing, give it direction. Lift it, stretch it, grind it, burn it, awaken it to something greater. Never allow a day to pass without reading, listening to or viewing the great thoughts and visions of another. God’s Word in the liturgy above all, and the countless refractions of beauty in literature and art. And the crucifix, apogee of all beauty.
People want their longings met, but often have not disciplined and formed them enough to offer any hope of that longing matching what genuinely fulfills us. Lost, they find themselves in cul-de-sacs, sinking into meaningless sex, drugs, alcohol, porn, banal entertainment, confusing trivialities with the depths for which the human spirit was made. God has prepared a banquet for us in His House and we wander off into the backyard to feast on the rotting garbage. Gehenna, Jesus called it. A strange and pathetic rebellion that, instead of proving the virile might of an unbridled will, merely proves the tragedy of a refused destiny; a thwarted longing.
We monks are meant to serve as a reminder to the world that if you bridle your will in accord with the truth of who God made you to be, which is to love and be loved, your joy will know no bounds. That’s the hope, at least.