The Inner Monk

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Part of "The Inner Monk"

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Good morning, and I'd like to welcome all of you to the Hermitage for this weekend of retreat and reflection on the theme of the inner monk. And as we begin, I'd like to start with a reading from Sacred Scripture, which is our reading, interestingly enough, from this Sunday, coming up in a few days. And it's from the Gospel of St. Mark, Chapter 6, verses 30 to 34. The apostles rejoined Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, Come away to some lonely place, all by yourselves, and rest for a while. For there were so many coming and going that there was no time for them to even eat.

[01:00]

So they went off in the boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves. But the people saw them going, and many recognized them. And from every town they all hurried to that place on foot and reached it before them. So as he stepped ashore, he saw a large crowd and took pity on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he set himself to teach them at some length. Spirit of the living God, we pray that as we come together this weekend for this time of retreat, you alone, who plumb the depths of God and the depths of our own heart, may open our minds and hearts to your word, to your gift of wisdom, so that we might continue to grow and mature

[02:12]

in the Christian life. This we pray through Christ our Lord. Amen. There's a story about a man who was walking in the jungle. And as he got further and further into the jungle, he became somewhat disoriented and lost. And of course there was always the ever-present danger of some of the more powerful and aggressive animals lurking there in the jungle. And it happened that as he was walking along trying to find his way, he began to hear the roar

[03:13]

of a tiger. Now he paid very close attention to how far or how close that roar sounded in his ear. And as he continued through the jungle, the sound of the tiger got closer and closer, and he knew the tiger must have caught his scent and been on his trail. So he began to run, run for his life. And still the sound of the tiger got louder and louder, the roars, and he tried to run faster and faster, even frantically, and not being careful to look where he was going, he ended up stumbling over the side of a cliff. And as he was falling down that cliff, his fingers dragging along the side managed to latch onto a very, very small and precarious bush. And he held onto that bush for dear life.

[04:14]

And as he held on, he became very concerned as he noticed some of the roots starting to feel the strain of his weight, for it was a small bush. And as he looked above him, now the tiger that was chasing him, there it was, drooling and hungry for its next meal. And now it so happened that when he looked below him, it was a long distance down, but also another tiger had come along and was below him with its mouth wide open, ready for a meal and drooling. And there he was caught in the middle, the middle between the tiger above him and the tiger below him, desperately hanging on to this little shrub, pulling out at the roots. And it happened right smack dab in the midst of this experience. Right about eye level, right where he was, however precarious it was, he happened to notice

[05:23]

a little indentation on the side of the cliff. And in there, as he peered in, he noticed, to his amazement, a wild strawberry growing. And even more amazing was the fact that the strawberry was a beautiful, juicy red, ripe strawberry. And you know what he did? He actually let go with one hand, that bush which his life was hanging by, by a thread we could say, and he reached out and took that strawberry and ate it. And he said, how delicious. Whatever our situation in coming here this weekend, whatever kind of life we have left behind,

[06:34]

whatever strains and stresses and responsibilities and problems that we have left, we perhaps are somewhat like the man in the story. And in fact, really, our life is always in this situation. We are always hanging by a thread. We are always hanging in the balance between perhaps the past and the future. Both trying to eat us up, both vying for our attention, for us. And the great gift to be able to live in the present moment, right where we're at, and not to miss the strawberry in the midst of the predicaments of our life,

[07:36]

by being attentive to the present moment. And so I hope and pray that this weekend, whatever our tigers may represent for us, that we can focus our attention on the here and the now, in order to see and taste the strawberry, in order to see and taste that which is being given to us, in order to be able to reach out and to let go of our need to grab on and hold on and perhaps be in control of our life, in order to be able to celebrate and say how delicious this gift of the present moment is. For us particularly, that means to be able to listen, to be totally here and now and receptive,

[08:39]

and not to be too preoccupied with the tiger above us or below us, behind us or in front of us. And I guess this all requires a certain amount of risk. It's interesting that in the scripture that I began with, which is the scripture for Sunday, the Sunday's Gospel, Mark chapter 6, that Jesus talks about coming away to a lonely place, or sometimes it's translated deserted place. The Greek word etomos, where we have the word eremitical, meaning desert, where the word hermitage also comes from. It's interesting that this would be our Gospel this Sunday, and that we are here, that you and I have gathered here in this etomos,

[09:43]

this lonely deserted place, this hermitage, and that the Lord has called us to come away by ourselves for a while. And as the text suggests, in order to rest, we will refer back to that word rest as very important for our theme this weekend. In order to rest, but also in order to be taught. When coming away, Jesus also, in that place, teaches the disciples, as well as the crowds who follow them to that place, that desert place. And so our theme this weekend, the inner monk. There is an inner monk, or a monk type, I guess we could say,

[10:47]

within everyone, within each person. The outer monk, that is the institutional monk, who lives in a hermitage like this place, or a monastery, with all its structure and particular lifestyle. This person is simply the man or woman who experiences their inner monk in a particular kind of way. In a perhaps forceful way, or such a compelling way, that they find that they must live this inner reality. In as outward a way as possible. Within the support, or the supporting structures of a traditional monastery,

[11:48]

and within the support of other people, like-minded people, people who have had a similar kind of pull, a similar kind of experience. However, the inner monk, the essence of the monastic life, its deepest core, has something to do with the human heart, and therefore is applicable to all people, and even extends to all creation in the cosmos in some mysterious way. And so, as we begin, it's important that we clarify for ourselves what we mean by the inner monk, the monk type, and the outer monk, the institutional monk,

[12:51]

that belongs to a hermitage or a monastery, that follows a certain externally structured life that's identifiable within a particular religion and culture as monastic. It's interesting to note that the very word monk, coming from the Greek, monachos, means one, or it can mean single, or alone. Some experts say it initially meant one who lives alone, meaning without family, unmarried, single. But also it had a meaning which certainly predominated as time went on. The one meant one within one's very self. It came to mean one who seeks to find quies, rest,

[13:53]

by coming into oneness, by coming into wholeness, harmony, both within oneself and all the layers of the self, but also within the world, within creation, to be one with others, other human beings, to be one with God. Division, dividedness, scatteredness, polarization, tension, conflict, which is so much a part of life, causes, as St. Augustine observed, our hearts to be restless until they rest in God. And so we could say the inner monk, in all of us, has something to do with this heart restlessness

[14:55]

caused by dividedness on all the inner and outer levels of life, and that the hunger and thirst of the heart is for oneness, wholeness, repose, peace, and eternal Sabbath. Now, everyone has a heart, and so what we're talking about concerns all of us. The place, therefore, to find and encounter the monk within, one's inner monk, is the heart. Thus the call of the desert fathers and mothers down through the centuries to the new seeker who knocked at the door of the monastery or hermitage,

[15:58]

their call always was, return to your heart. You want to be a monk? Return to your heart. You want to find your path as a monk? Return to your heart. Do you want to find peace and wholeness and harmony and oneness beyond all division and scatteredness? Return to your heart. Saint Benedict begins his famous rule with the words, listen carefully, my son, my daughter, attend with the ear of your heart. To return to the heart, to return to the inner monk,

[16:59]

requires a journey, perhaps as some authors have said, is the most important journey that a human being can make. It requires a journey within, a journey into one's depths, which is primarily a journey of listening and a particular way of listening, I might add. Listening, in this sense, is a kind of obedience. The English word obedience comes from the Latin, which means to listen. So, obedience, to listen to. The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ learned obedience, Christ learned to listen by what he suffered.

[18:00]

He learned to listen with the ears of his heart, through suffering, through what he suffered in his humanity, through what he suffered in sinful human flesh. This return to the heart, this listening to the heart, to the inner monk, this seeking peace, repose, rest and wholeness, is no easy thing. It is a lifetime process. It is what salvation history is all about, and that great journey theme that so dominates our scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments. For many people may think they have found their heart and know their heart,

[19:08]

when all they've done is gone within, to perhaps the unconscious level of the personality, or have gone into their emotional lives, or their dream life. In the sacred tradition, this is not yet the heart that we're talking about. It's on the way, certainly. So, to return to the heart is not easy. To find one's heart is not easy. And the journey doesn't end there, but one must then rest in one's heart, in one's heart of hearts, the very cave of the heart. And even that isn't enough, but one must learn to live daily from the heart. And also a part of this journey to the heart, and this resting and living from the heart, involves a becoming aware

[20:12]

of what we are attached to. A becoming aware of how we are unfree to journey and rest and live from the heart. To be purified of all that is around us and within us, that takes us out of our heart, or that lulls it to sleep. The institutional monk, perhaps we could say, reenacts in an outward, institutional, structured, communal way, something that all humans are called to realize. It's always interesting to talk with people who come here to the Hermitage, and to ask what their experience is.

[21:19]

And over and over again we hear the same, same story. That somehow they come to know their heart better here. That somehow the place and the buildings and the monks and the way of life, because of the way it all is organized for one thing only, that somehow this makes a deep impression upon them. And they begin to sound their own depths. And they begin to desire to unite their life, perhaps more clearly, around the one goal, the one thing that is necessary. And that is, as Benedict calls it, the seeking of God. From the biblical point of view, the problem with the world

[22:24]

is its division and scatteredness and suffering and brokenness and incompleteness. Human beings have the capacity to barely taste something of which they want more of, but which life in this world cannot give them. Humans see and experience what they call the incompleteness of life, because they have a sense of a completeness, a wholeness, a repose, which they believe they are made for. We would never hunger and thirst for that which we don't know something about. So the very desire and hungering for this completeness, this fulfillment in life, seems to suggest that we do get a glimpse of it or a taste of it. Joseph Campbell says, follow your bliss.

[23:30]

But in this world, bliss is always partial and elusive. And that makes following it all the more difficult. The quest for freedom on all levels is nothing but the same quest, that of the monk, the inner monk, that of the heart. For the incompleteness and brokenness of life is oppressive to our spirit, is experienced as a limitation, a wall, a hemming-in. And our hearts long for something to do. I'm sorry, and our hearts' rest has something to do with freedom, with being liberated from sin and all its consequences, suffering of all kinds, selfishness, death, and limitation.

[24:35]

One doesn't, I don't think, choose to be a monk. One is compelled. By what? By one's heart, which seeks rest and wholeness and peace and liberation because it has had a taste of it, however small. A brief glimpse. The monastic experience is one of the presence of the absolute goal of life, on the one hand, and of its absence. A foretaste of the kingdom, the New Testament says, but not the fullness of it, that is yet to come. Every human heart, whether we are awake to our heart or not, truly longs for the heavenly eternal banquet, where all will be one in God, all will be love,

[25:41]

all will be peace and repose, where food and wine and joy and harmony will not run dry. This oneness, that the very word monk means, cannot be found on the periphery of life, its fringes, the superficial. Oneness can only be found at the center, and the heart represents that center, and we must return to it, we must journey there through a deeply listening life. The center of ourselves, of our cosmos and the world, and God. The monk within the heart is that place where all polarities come together, light and darkness, sin and grace, emptiness and fullness,

[26:42]

restlessness and repose, life and death, the one and the many, God and humanity, male and female, etc. This heart center is innermost to us, very close to us, yet, mysteriously enough, it is transcendent and elusive and beyond our grasping intellect. We cannot force our way, or bully our way, or control our way, or manage our way, back into our heart, even though it is very close. This listening way into the heart must be a non-violent way, and the heart is a cave that offers us, as Gregory of Nyssa would say,

[27:46]

eternal exploration, a never-ending journey of discovery. So how do we listen? The importance of silence and solitude figure here. That's why, in the beginning, I read from that Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls his disciples away by themselves to a lonely place, a place of silence and solitude. We too must, in order to find our way to our heart, to the monk within,

[28:53]

we too must learn to listen in silence and in solitude, as well as through silence and solitude. There, primarily, we listen to the Word of Scripture. We let it speak to us, and we let it lead us into our heart. In Scripture, we find our heart and the heart of God, who is the Word, Christ. It is listening as receptivity. It is a listening as encounter, a listening as visitation, a listening as communion, a listening as conceiving,

[29:57]

a listening as birthing, which eventually teaches us how to hear God's Word heart, Jesus, in others and life itself. The inner monk seeks to live life deeply, to drink deeply, but something about us resists the depths and prefers the surface and the shallows, where we can stand on our own two feet and ride in our own piloted lives, which are like, I don't know, motorboats riding on the surface of life and remaining in control. And so, we'll stop here, our reflections, for this first talk,

[31:02]

and pick up this theme of how to listen to the depths and go beyond the various superficializing techniques that our minds, these tricks our minds tend to play on ourselves. And our attempts to find our heart. I would encourage you to meditate on that first part of that gospel that I began with today, the gospel of Mark, chapter 6, verses 30 to 33, especially those three verses, about coming away to a lonely place in order to listen. So I'll see you next time. Thank you. Thank you.

[31:47]