Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why a monastery is built

Today is the 80th anniversary of the birth of Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen, a Dutch-born Catholic priest who worked as an author documenting his restless personal and religious quests. In one of his many books, The Genessee Diary, Nouwen describes the inner workings of his mind while living - for seven months - as a monk in a Trappist monastery. His concludes that a monastery is not built to solve problems!

Nouwen was born in Nijkerk, Holland, on 24 January 1932. He decided when young to enter the priesthood, but also studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. He was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1957. In 1964 he moved to the US to study and teach at the Menninger Clinic. He taught at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. For a short while, in the 1970s, Nouwen lived and worked with Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genesee; then, in the early 1980s, he lived with poor people in Peru.

In 1985, Nouwen joined L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities lived with assistants; and then a year later he joined L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada. He was a prolific author, and published around 40 books on spiritual life. Several of these were based on his diaries, such as Inner Voice of Love, a diary written in 1978-1988 during a bout of clinical depression. He died in 1996. Further biographical information is available on the Henri Nouwen website or at Wikipedia.

The Genesee Diary is another of Nouwen’s diaries, first published by Doubleday, New York, in 1976. The following extracts are taken from a British edition published in 1995 by Darton, Longman and Todd. Nouwen explains at the start of The Genesee Diary that his desire to live for seven months in the Abbey of the Genesee (300 miles northwest of New York City) as a monk ‘was the outcome of many years of restless searching.’ He began the diary on 2 June 1974, and though he tries to (and does) write about prayer, and spirituality, and his own inner mental workings, it seems that he often finds it easier to reflect on the news, and on books - many religious - that he’s reading.

26 July 1974
‘Since I have lived in this Abbey of the Genesee, I have written many more letters than I planned to write when I came. My original idea was: no telephone, no letters, neither outgoing nor incoming, no visitors, no contact with guests - but a real retreat “alone with the Alone.” Well most of my plans are coming through except for my letter writing. Is this good or an initial sign of compromise? Maybe both. One of the experiences of silence is that many people, good old friends and good old enemies, start seeking attention. [. . .] Perhaps part of my letter writing shows that I do not want to be forgotten here, that I hope that there still are people “out there” who think of me. Maybe part of my letter writing is my newly found way of seducing people into paying attention to me here in the enclosure of the monastery. I am sure that is part of it because just as I feel happy when I drop my letters in the mailbox, so do I feel disappointed when I don’t receive much in return. Then my heroic remarks about not writing to my friends shrivel into feelings of being forgotten and left alone.’

29 July 1974
‘All the monks in the Abbey signed a petition to President Nixon asking for immediate and drastic measures to alleviate the hunger in North Africa and to prevent full-scale starvation. The petition, organized by “Bread for the World”, asks the President to share our resources with hungry people everywhere, urges an immediate increase in food aid, and stresses the importance of building a world food security system. It also says, “We are willing to eat less to feed the hungry.” I am happy that we can at least make our voices heard in this way. Maybe fasting can receive new meaning again, just in a period when Church laws on fasting have practically vanished outside the monastery.’

4 August 1974
‘This morning I kicked over a big pile of boxes with freshly washed raisins. It was a real mess. But nobody seemed upset. “That has happened before,” Brother Theodore said. Then he turned on the machine and washed them again.’

5 August 1974
‘I oiled a few thousand bread pans this morning. Noisy work but not too bad.’

7 August 1974
‘During Sext, the short communal prayer before dinner, Brother Alberic came into the church making a gesture that caused about half the monks to walk out of church as fast as they could. The others, myself included, stayed not knowing what was going on. We finished our prayers and went to the dining hall to eat. During dinner the others returned and it became clear that the straw in the field had caught fire and that a few men were needed to extinguish it. I spent the afternoon with Brother Henry at his bee-hives. This was my first encounter with the bees. Although I was well protected, one bee found its way into one of the legs of my pants. Well, he stung and died as hero.’

10 August 1974
‘Worked with John Eudes and Brian in Salt Creek collecting stones. Brian drove the pickup truck right into the creek to load it up with stones. While he was driving the loaded truck out of the water with all four wheels engaged, the truck jumped so badly that half the load rolled out again and the old rusted fender nearly broke off. We reloaded the truck, pulled the thing out of the water, and came safely home in time for a shower before Vespers.’

24 August 1974
‘Today I imagined my inner self as a place crowded with pins and needles. How could I receive anyone in my prayer when there is no real place for them to be free and relaxed? When I am still so full of preoccupations, jealousies, angry feelings, anyone who enters will get hurt. [. . .] If I could have a gentle “interiority” - a heart of flesh and not of stone, a room with some spots on which one might walk barefooted - then God and my fellow humans could meet each other there. Then the center of my heart can become the place where God can hear the prayer for my neighbours and embrace them with love.’

Finally, in his ‘Conclusion’ to the book, Nouwen says this: ‘If I were to ask about my seven months at the Abbey, “Did it work, did I solve my problems?” the simple answer would be, “It did not work, it did not solve my problems.” And I know that a year, two years, or even a lifetime as a Trappist monk would not have worked either. Because a monastery is not built to solve problems but to praise the Lord in the midst of them.’

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