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Living the Monk's Life in the Real World

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I am not a monk, but I play one in real life.

That's a flippant way of saying I am a monastic associate -- someone who lives out a version of the monk's life in the middle of everyday life. So in addition to mowing my lawn, I pray the Psalms; besides holding down a job, I spend time with God in silence.

What does it mean to live as a monastic associate? And why do it at all?

First the what. In the Christian tradition, monastic associates affiliate themselves with a monastery or monastic order. Each order has a Rule of Life -- a set of principles and practices designed to guide its monks or nuns. Depending on the order, the Rule might call its adherents to live in an attitude of poverty, chastity, obedience, or stability. It typically prescribes prayer, the study of sacred texts, silence, and self-giving service, among other disciplines.

In many orders, associates have their own Rule of Life, based on the order's Rule. The associates of "my" monastic order -- the Episcopal Order of the Holy Cross -- further adapt the Associates' Rule so that it challenges them to live deeper into God while flowing with the realities of their individual lives.

Here's how it works for me. The monks gather to pray the Psalms five times a day. My life in the world doesn't allow for that, but I can pray the Psalms once a day, so that is part of my Rule. The monks own many of life's necessities in common; the circumstances of my life don't permit that, but I can commit to living simply, with only the possessions I need, so that goes into my Rule. And so on.

My personal Rule takes up all of two pages. Every now and then, I review it, together with the larger Associates' Rule, to see how I'm living up to the commitments I've made. And because of my quintessentially human capacity for self-deception, I periodically meet with my spiritual director -- a monk in the order -- to work through issues and uncover blind spots.

But this description of what doesn't answer the larger question of why. In our post-religious, commitment-optional society, in which "do whatever works for you" is often cited as the cardinal virtue, why on earth would anyone commit to live a prescribed set of rules -- especially rules that date back to the Middle Ages?

There are as many answers to these questions as there are monastic associates. I keep coming back to three.

  1. The daily practice of the Rule provides a framework that heightens awareness of God. When part of our day involves praying to God, reading about God, spending time with God in silence, we cannot help but grow more aware of God's presence in the rest of the day.
  2. Paying attention to God mysteriously makes room in our lives for God to shape us from the inside out. We start to reflect the image of God more clearly -- becoming more compassionate, more attentive to the other, more concerned for justice, less concerned about status and achievement and material possessions and our own vested interests.
  3. Living out the Rule also draws us into something larger than ourselves. When we pray or study words written centuries ago, we run smack into perspectives on God that may differ from, even conflict with, our own. When we commit to serving others, we open ourselves to those others and their perspectives. We begin to see that our view of God and the world is one among many. That, in turn, fosters many of the virtues that make the world better: humility, respect for the dignity of others, a sense of ourselves as part of a larger we.

In short, the practice of the Rule can change us -- in ways that make our lives more fulfilling, our actions more loving, our souls more at peace. And these benefits are not only for us to enjoy. The world could use more loving, peaceful, self-giving people. A lot more.