Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ruminations in a Kayak IX


(Click to enlarge)

On Contemplative Life vs. Society

In the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (the last escort of Dante in Paradiso) was responsible for the spread of the Order of Cistercian Monks, the avowed purpose of which Order was a return to the literal observance of the Rule of St. Benedict. The Cistercians demanded an even more austere lifestyle for the Benedictine Monks than they had endured in St. Benedict’s time. The main feature of the new lifestyle was a return to manual labor – especially to fieldwork, which became the special characteristic of Cistercian life.

I often think of those Monks and their lifestyle when at sea in my kayak, and cannot help thinking of the story of the young novitiate in a cloistered order of monks who, upon entering the cloister, was instructed by the Abbot in the rules for all members of the cloister: Arise at 4:00 AM, chapel prayers for one hour, followed by a light breakfast, followed by six hours of work in the fields, followed by a meager lunch, followed by five hours of work in the fields, followed by a Spartan supper, followed by evening chapel prayers until 9:00 PM, followed by one hour of private meditation in one’s cell. The routine never varied day after day. No talking was permitted, but every five years each monk was permitted to speak two words.

The young novitiate went off to his cloistered life and dutifully fulfilled his tasks each day. At the end of five years, the novitiate was called in to meet with the Abbot, who congratulated him and asked him what two words he would like to say. The young monk looked at the Abbot and said: “Bed, hard,” and immediately returned to his routine for another five years.

Five years later, the young monk, who had continued faithfully fulfilling his prescribed duties in the cloister, was again called in to meet with the Abbot. The Abbot, for the second time, congratulated the young monk and asked him what now, after 10 years in the cloister, he would like to say. The young monk looked at the Abbot and said: “Food, bad,” and immediately returned to his routine for another five years.

After 15 years of strictly following the rules of the cloister, the now not so young monk was called in to meet with the Abbot, who, for the third time congratulated him and asked him what two words he would like to say. The no-longer-young monk looked at the Abbot and said: “I quit.” To which the Abbot replied: “Well, I’m not surprised. All you’ve done since you got here is complain.”

The question arising from the above to be ruminated on while paddling a kayak is: Which is the better choice of life: the solitude of the cloister or the daily hubbub of society? Is it better to dedicate one’s life to God apart from society, or to try to remain faithful to God while remaining a member of society? Is the man who forsakes society for the quiet contemplative life of the cloister nobler than the man who continues to enjoy the good life of society, while also abiding it’s evil, or is he simply taking the easy way to God by removing himself from society’s daily temptations? It would appear that a man cannot be a part of both worlds.

For people who are very sociable, the choice is easy. But there are some of us who could not be described as being overly sociable. I, for example, do not consider myself unsociable, but I do know for certain that I will always consider a tandem kayak as having one too many seats.

Mona Charen has admonished women who want it all: career, children, athletic accomplishments, etc., that they can indeed have it all – just not all at once. I see it the same with the dilemma faced by the man who is not ready to abandon society, but yearns for the peacefulness of solitude to pray, meditate, and even ruminate. I have the solution for such a man: get a kayak – a one seater.


(On such things does one ruminate while paddling a one-person kayak miles out in the ocean - closer to God.)




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