As I have been concluding this series of posts from my out of print book, When God Gives a Time Out, I have focused on “time out prevention.” Before we are put in time out, we self regulate by intentionally stopping and listening for God. Last month we talked about the preventative power of journaling. Today’s post discusses the masters of giving themselves time out – monks!
Have you ever wanted to get a nice bald patch on the top of your head and wear a long camel hair robe? No, me either, but I do want to be a monk. There were (and are) some monks that totally missed the boat. There were some monks trying to escape from family, some monks who liked the power that the medieval church gave them, and some monks who were monks out of superstition. There were (and are), however, some monks that were on to something spiritually. No, I don’t mean the haircut, although I have seen some aging men reluctantly sporting the “tonsure” and I am on my way. What the monks were on to was their effort to include God in every aspect of their life. Every activity, no matter how mundane, was done in the presence of the Father. Monks sought to tune into the voice of God at any and all times. Listen to what William of St. Thierry, a monk of the 1100s, wrote in his work The Golden Epistle,
“For that is your (a monk’s) profession, to seek the very face of God which Jacob saw, he who said: ‘I have seen the Lord face to face and yet my life was not forfeit.’ To ‘seek the face of God’ is to seek knowledge of him face to face, as Jacob saw him. . . . This piety is the continual remembrance of God, an unceasing effort of the mind to know him, an unwearied concern of the affections to love him, so that, I will not say every day, but every hour finds the servant of God occupied in the labor of ascesis and the effort to make progress, or in the sweetness of experience and the joy of fruition. This is the piety concerning which the Apostle exhorts his beloved disciple in the words: ‘Train yourself to grow up in piety; for training of the body avails but little, while piety is all-availing, since it promises well both for this life and for the next’. The habit (the robe) you wear promises not only the outward form of piety but its substance, in all things and before all things, and that is what your vocation demands.”William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley (Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 18-19.
That is the kind of monk I want to be! William clearly stated that all the monk stuff, including the snazzy robe, is secondary to the monk’s primary vocation of knowing God. The goal is “an unceasing effort of the mind to know him, an unwearied concern of the affections to love him.” In short, the goal is relationship. To hone their relationship with God, and their ability to hear His voice, many monks went into an extended period of time out. Their goal was the same one that has been written about in this book – remove the distractions, all the tasks, and focus on God’s voice. In William’s order, monks had what he called “cells” in which they spent their alone time with God. Of these time outs with God, William further wrote,
“If anyone does not posses this (the desire to know God as written about above) in his heart, display it in his life, practice it in his cell, he is to be called not a solitary but a man who is alone, and his cell is not a cell for him but a prison in which he is immured. For truly to be alone is not to have God with one . . . the cell should never involve immurement imposed by necessity but rather be the dwelling-place of peace, and inner chamber with closed door, a place not of concealment but of retreat.”William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle, trans. by Theodore Berkeley(Kalamazoo, MI.: Cistercian Publications, 1980) p. 19
Twenty first century Christians need a “cell”, not a literal place as much as any place to go and connect with God. Like the monk’s cell, time outs are not for us to be alone and hide ourselves from a stressful and hostile world. Time outs are “not for concealment but retreat,” retreat meaning openly resting in the company of the Father, Friend, and Savior. The location is not important, but the monks saw the value of having a place where there were no distractions. Each monk had a place where there was nothing to do except connect with God in a transparent, honest, and meaningful way.
The goal of the time out, or the cell, is to take time to hear God’s voice and train ourselves. We train because at first we may only be able to hear God while solitary. The goal, however, is to eventually be able to listen to God when in a crowd or engaged in activity. This growth does not mean that one graduates from having to take time outs. No matter how mature a Christian is he/she still needs time to focus on God alone. To use the theme of this book, it is like a child who needs a time out because there are too many distractions and they can’t hear the parent’s voice. When the child is almost an adult, they have hopefully matured to a point that when their parent speaks to them in the store they can immediately focus on the parent’s voice. (However, when this child later gets married they may have to battle selective hearing when it comes to their spouse.) The parent-child relationship still needs some one-on-one time to continue growing – but doing things together actually helps the relationship rather than takes away from it. The goal of a monk is to live in God’s presence and hear Him at all times, not just while alone or in time out.
When the principle behind taking a time out (listening to God) begins to infiltrate all of life, then we are starting to “practice His presence” as Brother Lawrence describes it. Brother Lawrence was a 17th century monk who sought to knowingly enjoy God’s presence in every aspect of his life. His life of devotion to hearing the Father’s voice is described this way,
“That when he (Brother Lawrence) had thus in prayer filled his mind with great sentiments of that infinite Being, he went to his work appointed in the kitchen (for he was cook to the society); there having first considered severally the things his office required, and when and how each thing was to be done, he spent all the intervals of his time, as well before as after his work, in prayer.
That, when he began his business, he said to GOD, with a filial trust in Him, ‘O my GOD, since Thou art with me, and I must now, in obedience to Thy commands, apply my mind to these outward things, I beseech Thee to grant me the grace to continue in Thy Presence; and to this end do Thou prosper me with Thy assistance, receive all my works, and possess all my affections.’
As he proceeded in his work, he continued his familiar conversation with his Maker, imploring His grace, and offering to Him all his actions.
When he had finished, he examined himself how he had discharged his duty; if he found well, he returned thanks to GOD; if otherwise, he asked pardon; and without being discouraged, he set his mind right again, and continued his exercise of the presence of GOD, as if he had never deviated from it. ‘Thus,’ said he, ‘by rising after my falls, and by frequently renewed acts of faith and love, I am come to a state, wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of GOD, as it was at first to accustom myself to it.’
As Bro. Lawrence had found such an advantage in walking in the presence of GOD, it was natural for him to recommend it earnestly to others; but his example was a stronger inducement than any arguments he could propose. His very countenance was edifying; such a sweet and calm devotion appearing in it, as could not but affect the beholders. And it was observed, that in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit. ‘The time of business,’ said he, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess GOD in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.’”Brother Lawrence The Practice of the Presence of God, Reprint of the 1895 edition. Martino Publishing 2016.
When I read about Brother Lawrence, I get that inner “YES!” “Yes”, because I am happy that someone achieves such constant contact with God. “Yes”, because I deeply desire to be in the Father’s presence in this way.
Do you want to be a monk yet? I do. I want my primary profession to be knowing God and hearing His voice, like what William of St. Thierry wrote about. I want to be so deeply aware of God’s presence that I can hear his voice even when I am doing dishes, like Brother Lawrence.
While monks would go off into their cells to hone their ability to hear God, they also had their faith community to spur them on once they were out of their cell. Younger monks had elders and all monks had one another to hold them to the task of knowing God. When a monk got too caught up in doing works for God, he hopefully had someone like Brother Lawrence step in to refocus him. The monks had a community to keep them focused and balanced.
Here in the 21st century, we non-monks also have a community to keep us focused. We have our church. Even if our church seems to be a distraction, there is nothing stopping us from carving out a group of like-minded believers that will hold us to our goal of being a monk. In a small group of believers we can help one another overcome things that distract us from God, and we can be co-laborers in striving to practice God’s presence. Monks are experts in the art of giving themselves a time out. Find others who desire to live in God’s presence and spur one another on to becoming monks. Robes and haircut optional.
Questions to Ponder
Are the goals of a monk, as talked about in this chapter, consistent with your goals?
Do you have a “cell” or place that facilitates your connection with God?
What are your feelings about the connection with God that Brother Lawrence had? Is this possible for you? Why or why not?