By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published March 3, 2016
“Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture. It is simply not possible to lose yourself in an exotic place. Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life, or seeing clearly a serious mistake.”
Paul Theroux, “The Happy Isles of Oceania.”
I have moved from one place to another many times in my life. During my 20 years as a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, I served in six parishes in several different counties. The most challenging move in my life was when I moved from that archdiocese to my present home, the monastery in Conyers. As I remember that transition, there were so many new things that hit me all at once: new people, a radically new and different lifestyle, a permanent separation which involved leaving many friends and familiar patterns of life and entering new ways of living, new friends, and an evolving new sense of myself as I struggled with all the newness.
I remember when, after being at the monastery only a few months, sitting in the abbey church very early in the morning and being amazed at the flood of memories that came to me. I wondered why that was, why so many memories of the past arose so freely from what seemed to be such deep recesses in my mind. Perhaps, I thought, it was the stillness of the life and the sameness of the days, days with few distractions that freed the memories to rise and have free and warm play on the conscious plane of my mind. I found that my sense of recall was not deadened by the routine of monastic life. On the contrary, the routine roused the past and brought much of it to me in sharp and vivid detail.
In order to appreciate life, one has to pull away from it every now and then and ponder it. People do that every day in the most ordinary ways: a quiet time in the morning with a cup of coffee, a need to spend time alone in a park or on the beach, the laying of a book in one’s lap in order to savor and absorb what was just read. In short, we all need to find ways to stop and ponder this mystery of who we are and why we are here.
Christians hold fast to the belief that God is a community of persons—the Trinity. They created us and have involved us deeply and intimately in their communitarian life. Theirs is a life of love, peace and, I like to think, a need to share these gifts with us. Some writers have suggested that the God who created us did so out of a sense of longing and, maybe, a sense of loneliness. I have no way of knowing that for sure, but it would not surprise me if God is more like us than we think.
God may be a God of need, a need that is assuaged through the presence of others—of community and all that provides.
During those early mornings at the monastery 20 years ago and to the present day, I have been blessed with the richness of my memories, which have always been within me. Perhaps I was too busy for them to attract my attention. So they now come, and something of God comes with them.
Being apart has helped me grow close to what is deepest within me. And it has also allowed me to find my way in a life that is deeply communitarian and grounded in charity, faith and hope.
God is never far from any one of us. He arises from within us when we give him the “space” he needs in order to make an appearance, an appearance adorned with the beauty and warmth of human memory, human life. He may draw a person to some pretty strange places in order to stir the deep waters of memory and speak through them. Could be a beach, could be a park bench, could be a church pew.
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.