Saturday, January 31, 2009

Everyday Life: Nakedness and Mirrors

“…supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior.” RB 72:5

Before I came to the monastery I read a wonderful book by a journalist who spent several months living in Trappist men’s monasteries. The Trappist’s are a monastic order that is strictly enclosed, they do manual labor to support themselves rather than ministries that require them to go outside. The author got to know the monks very well and writes about several in depth conversations including one with an abbot who said “you know, we walk around naked here.” Of course he didn’t mean physically naked, but naked in the sense that when you live with a small number of people, in an enclosed space, for years on end, pretty soon there is nothing you don’t know about them. You get to know all their moods, their pet peeves, whether you should even try talking to them before they have had their coffee in the morning. There is nothing hidden in a monastery.

After a few years of living in my monastery I thought that I could amend what the abbot said. I would say “we walk around naked in a house full of mirrors.” But pretty soon when you live with people day after day you realize that you aren’t just seeing them, you realize that you are looking in a mirror day after day. All the things that you see in another person that seem so irritating are really your own problems being mirrored back to you.

When I first came to the monastery there was one woman who seemed to have the power to irritate me to no end. I could tell it was irrational, she was a perfectly nice person, but there was something about her that felt like finger nails on the blackboard of my psyche. It took years of everyday living, seeing her in the hallways, chapel, dining room, living with her, before I realized what it was. Somehow, on some very deep, unconscious level, I saw in her my deepest fears about myself. When I saw her she became me at 12 years old, back in the deepest, most painful depths of junior high school, those years that I, and most people, shudder to even think about. Knowing this woman was like constantly walking by a magic fun house mirror that showed only images of my deepest insecurities.

Of course if we look carefully we also see what we can be. The mirror also reflects our deepest gifts, our wisdom, how we will be transfigured and transformed by our faithfulness to this way of life. There are many women in the same hallways, dining room and chapel that I hope to become. When I look at them I hope I am looking into a mirror of my future. A future when I no longer see that image of 12 year old angst, but a figure of patience, humility, ability to love even the most difficult people, able to inspire and teach.

This is the odd gift of the monastery. You can’t remain cloaked in your illusions about yourself. Most of us can manage to have our act together for large parts of the day, while we are at work, for long periods of time in our lives, but if you live in the monastery there are no illusions, you are forced to look in the mirror. Every day, reflected back at you are both the sags, wrinkles, scars and warts that you try to cover up. But at the same time there is the luminous reality that we are truly the image of God, the light of God shines in us and through us.

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