By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published January 21, 2016
“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.”
Monastic life has as its aim the transformation of the heart. Young people often ask me how it came to be that I entered the monastery at a later point in my life. I was 48 years old when I came to Conyers, Georgia, and embarked on the journey of monasticism. Back then, it seemed to be a totally new life for me. But as the years have passed, I have come to know that what then seemed so new was always there in my life, though I was not then aware of it. The stillness of the life; the daily immersion in prayer, meditation; the cycle of the psalms we chant in the abbey church every day; the work we do to support ourselves—all of this has opened for me ways of discovering how God has been with me all of my life.
When young people ask me why I became a monk, I suspect that behind their questions there lies a curiosity as to why someone would “leave” what they perceive as a normal life and enter a cloistered, removed life—a life radically set apart from what they consider “real.” I am aware, as I look at the young people, listen to them and enjoy them, that I experience their lives differently, perhaps more deeply than I did 21 years ago.
I tell them that I am at home in the monastery. I have been blessed with good friendships with the monks. I am able to accept and hopefully develop the gifts I have been given—writing, photography, the writing of letters, the delight of a good novel. But most of all, I feel a sense that the monastery is where I belong, where I want to be for the rest of my life. I do not see it at all as a life of deprivation.
Yet I am aware that people who are not familiar with monastic life might understandably look on us as giving up a lot of life’s blessings: marriage, children, self-sufficiency, the freedom to exercise a whole array of choices. In setting aside these aspects of life and choosing to follow a different path, that of a monk, I have been given a way of seeing, loving and living that fits for me and that I would not be able to find outside of the monastery.
I came to the monastery with a hope that it would “work” for me, that it would be a place where I could somehow find myself and be myself—and that has come to pass.
I do not expect young people to understand our lives as monks. What I hope for, and what I tell them, is that when and if they find a place, a community, a spouse, a calling or a vocation through which or through whom they feel at home, they will have landed in the right place. And in that place they will better be able to better handle the high and low days of life. Being given that right place will ground them enough that when the rough days come—and come they will—they will have the support they need to get through those days. And when the good days come, they will be better able to share them with those they love. They will know the peace that comes with being at home, no matter what arises in their lives.
Life is all about the transformation of the heart. When a person finds the place where that transformation starts to spark and ignite, that person has landed in the right place. And no matter what the parameters of that place may be—a house, a monastery, the Salvation Army or a symphony orchestra—that person has landed in the heart of God. And from that warm and life-giving place, there will come a profound sense of home and of belonging. It is a place where the best in life can be found. It is as well a place that the best you can be can be given.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at www.HolySpiritMonasteryGifts.com.