Monastic Transformation

Not long ago we heard about a disabled man named Walter who lives in a group home for the severely physically handicapped. Walter loves to dance. But this is next to impossible given his condition. And at parties when he has made attempts, wiggling and shaking, he has been restrained by staff members who fear for his safety. One day the sounds of rock music and loud crashes are heard upstairs in the residence. The ruckus is traced to Walter’s room. Nurses rush upstairs, knock frantically, call Walter’s name and burst into his room. They see him twirling around and falling to the floor as the music booms. He is flushed and sweaty and laughing. As they rush to help him up, he reassures them, “It’s OK, the falls are part of the dance.”

It is probably something we all get to learn sooner or later- how to welcome the falling, the mess and see it as opportunity, perhaps even grace. And truly “this is how the birth of Jesus took place…” Those few words from Matthew’s Gospel always sound so promising each Christmas, almost like, “once upon a time…” But as the story unfolds, it’s more like a fractured fairytale, not at all picture-perfect. There’s Mary’s unexplained pregnancy, Joseph’s puzzling dream, and on and on. This is the scandal of the Incarnation – God wants to be small, hidden and unremarkable – with us in the mess. Such is the reality of God’s enfleshment, God’s embrace of all that we are in its beauty as well as its shoddiness. Hidden first of all in the warm womb of a very young, virgin mother; he then lives the small-town life of a carpenter and wandering preacher. And later on he falls under the weight of a cross, and in the excruciating hour of his death his body will be pierced and torn; all his beauty and divinity smeared over and concealed by the blood and spittle of his passion.

But it is there most of all in the poverty of his passion that dying and fragmentation are turned completely inside-out by God’s weakness. The mess is opportunity; for God’s power is made perfect through weakness. Jesus refuses to fight evil with evil; instead he absorbs hurt, depending on the love of his Father, who will not let his Beloved know decay and raises his Son from the dead. Thus Jesus reveals a God who is always renewing, recreating, drawing life out of mess and confusion. “Nowhere is God greater than in this humiliation; nowhere is God more divine than in this disfigured humanity”[1] of Jesus. Now the falling is forever part of the dance. Woundedness forever signals God’s presence. Death, dereliction and fragmentation have become harbingers, open spaces available for God’s intervention. Jesus risen and still full of wounds has become the foundation for our self-understanding, the Way to parse our experience.

As monks we know that, as we seek to be faithful in work, in prayer and in fraternal relationship, we very often arrive at a place of real vulnerability born of a somewhat bitter self-knowledge. We learn that the monastic life is not about our achievement, but about our readiness to make our weakness available to the mercy of God. Perhaps this is our most important work – to realize that we are in desperate need of this mercy. At best we become accustomed to letting things fall apart, noticing the fragmentation that is inevitable, unavoidable and ready to welcome it as opportunity. In the end the harmony and holiness we seek as monks can be ours because God desires to transform all that is fractured and broken in us into something whole and beautiful. In Christ we have been grasped by the tender compassion of God.

[1] See Jorgen Moltmann, The Crucified God