Mar 21, 2018

How I Learned to Love Solitude and Why I Am No Longer a Benedictine Monk

I am going through old papers, tossing out papers, and boxing up books so I can move out of my apartment on April first.
Saint Joseph Abbey is a Benedictine community of monks in South Louisiana
Saint Joseph Abbey Church in St. Benedict, Louisiana
I realized I could not find any photographs of me as Brother Bede. I used to be a Benedictine monk. But the traces of that life are quickly receding.

Leaving a Monastery 

When I left Saint Joseph Abbey - a Benedictine monastery in Saint Benedict, Louisiana - I was twenty-eight years old (and six months). In my life as a monk, I was Brother Bede. I baked bread once or twice a week with my fellow monks, I went to daily prayers, ate with my community at the common table, worked in our college library - and I was a graduate student at the local university. That was nine years ago (and eight months, roughly).

As a monk, you are told: "To work is to pray." So I grew up in this dispensation. We were told that we were monks first. Our work was just something we did as part of our religious identity. If I was baking bread, or if I was studying Latin, I was merely living out my life of prayer and work. I was a monk. So don't complain.

The Life of the Monk

Life in the monastery followed a trajectory. And there were different stages of my life there. Depending on how you count the years, I was first a seminary student, then a novice, then a monk in temporary vows, then a monk in solemn vows - all for a total of ten years. 

I had just graduated from high school when I joined the seminary. It's crazy to think that was twenty years ago. In May, I am going to Louisiana to celebrate my high school reunion. But I probably won't visit the abbey where I gave ten years of my life - formative years (if you want to put it that way.)

I fantasize that when I tell people I was a monk, they think I lived in a stone hut, spoke to no one and ate bone stew and hard bread. The truth is my life as a monk was at the same time innocuous and magical. Life follows a scheduled rhythm in a monastery. Vigils, Morning prayers, Mass, Evening prayers, and Compline. Monks were assigned jobs. And for the most part, we went through our day praying, eating together, and performing our tasks.

Why did I Join?

People often ask me why I joined a monastery. What was going through my head? And then they ask me why I left the monastery. And people seem to be pretty curious about the whole process. For me - I wanted to be a priest or a monk from an early age. I can remember pretending to celebrate Mass with Ritz style crackers while my brothers complained (they'd rather play other games). When I was in High School, I was very much into Catholicism - and I made it pretty well known that I wanted to join the seminary when I graduated.

Read more about why I became celibate after the jump . . .


Monastic Profession
People also ask me about the "no sex policy" - it is what you do when you sign up for the job. For me, of course, I knew that celibacy was part of the entrance ticket, but at eighteen, I had this idea that I would give up sex and follow Jesus. It sounds hokey, but it is true. I was looking back at my old journals where I even scribbled that down. I was serious about my calling, and I figured that God would help me in whatever sexual desires I had. You'd be surprised though how inside the walls priests and monks deal with sexuality and celibacy. Amongst ourselves, we were pretty open about the pitfalls of celibacy. When we had formation meetings, which were group therapy sessions for monks, priests, and brothers - sex would often come up as a problem. You cannot just wish away sexual appetites. Just like you cannot whisk away hunger or thirst. Did I think it was unhealthy to eschew those desires and sublimate them into an aspiration for God and all that is holy? At the time, I just figured that God would help me through it. And in those formation meetings, people would often talk - "I had sexual thoughts" or "I cannot shake my sexual cravings." 


I was a novice monk in this photograph
For me, what I came to realize was that the struggle to remain celibate had more to do with how I managed loneliness more than anything. In the beginning, celibacy was sort of easy. But as I grew older and more mature, I began to have a gnawing sense of loneliness. I wanted to be with people, not just monks. I wanted to live a life where I could see who I wanted and be with who I wanted. Even though in a monastery we all ostensibly live together in community, the experience itself had become bone-crushingly depressing for me. I was having trouble attending to my duties; I was late for community activities, and I longed to be apart of the world, rather than separate from it. So it became impossible for me to be a monk. So I left.

Deciding to Leave

Now. It was not easy to leave. I didn't just pack up my bags and hitchhike on the next ride to New Orleans. I spoke to my superiors, and I told them that I wasn't the same person at eighteen as I was now. I could not hang it for the long haul. And at some level the monks understood. And they let me leave. But I think it was a bittersweet parting. But since I was a professed monk - which means I had taken a vow - I was considered to be "ex-claustrated." What that meant was I was still technically a monk. At any time during the ex-claustration period, I was free to return to the confines of the monastery. So during my ex-claustration period, I moved to New Orleans, secured an apartment and became an English teacher at a Catholic High School. 

Let's just say those were rough years. I had no idea how to live in the world. I had gone from having all my needs taken care of to paying rent and designing lesson plans. Those teenagers rolled me over like a wooden rolling pin on soft pizza dough. I cried after my first week. I remember holding down the fort for recess duty - and thinking "What the heck am I doing here? I could be in the monastery!"

Life after Monastic Life

But I thrived as a high school English teacher - but I wanted more. So when my time for ex-claustration had come to an end, I had to make a decision. I contacted the abbot at the monastery and told him that I planned to seek full absolution from my vows. That meant that I had to write a letter which would be sent to Rome, and the Vatican hierarchy would eventually get a seal of approval from the Pope to release me from my vows. So that is what I did. It was kind of like Catholic monk divorce.

It's weird because I still have dreams that I am at the monastery. In my dreams, which are recurring, I dream that I am visiting the monastery, but I have other duties - be it teaching, or whatnot. But the monks convince me to stay - so I end up praying in the church with half my secular clothes on and the other half dressed in my habit. If you didn't know - a habit is the uniform of a monk. Our habit was a black tunic with a hood, a belt, and an outer layer called a scapular. On a windy day, you looked like you were flowing in opaque waters. Especially when all the monks processed to the church - we looked like the flowing waters of the River Jordan.

Do I feel less lonely that I left the monastery? Did I make a right decision? Loneliness is real. The difference between my isolation as a monk and my loneliness now is that I feel like I have more control over how to assuage my solitude, and I have given myself the freedom to seek out intimacy without worrying about whether I had transgressed or not. As a monk, you assuage your loneliness through your prayer life. Which is funny. Because even now. While I do not attend church regularly, I sometimes wake up early in the morning and sing some of the songs I learned as a monk. And it is comforting. One of the chants we would sing went something like:
Accept me O Lord as you have promised
So that I may live
And let me not be put to shame in my hope
In fact, this line comes from the Psalms. Monks sing it today when they take their vows. When I first sang it as a monk, I was praying to God to accept me, to accept my broken humanity. But now when I sing it, I sing it with a tinge of resentment and hurt. Why does God have to accept me? In what way has my humanity offended him? Of course. I look around. Humans are not the most congenial bunch. But that is the lot of this human mess. But maybe I am arguing too much with past religions. I am arguing with the Psalms. Which is probably not kosher. So I put a new spin on things:
Accept me O Lord because you have to
Because I am still living
And let me rejoice in this hope - it's all I got 
I feel guilty though. I do not feel guilty for leaving the monastery - although that is probably somewhat of a lie. I feel guilty that I never looked back. I just picked up myself and moved forward. And in a way, I never really expected acceptance. It has been a long time since I even wrote about my experience. And I am not sure what inspired me tonight. Maybe it is the New York Times article published recently about the Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey. Their numbers are dwindling. And I think of my monastery, and I wonder what monks are still alive, and which monks are still faring strong. And I still feel a sense of commitment even though I live a vastly different life now than I did when I was that twenty-eight-year-old monk thinking of parting ways.

One thing that the monastery did for me was to teach me how to be silent. You may laugh if you know me because with my friends I am always talking. In fact, my mouth gets me into trouble. But I can sit in silence, shut out the world. And in this, I am deeply grateful.