I was going to be late.
I misjudged the time it would take and there was no way around the fact that I wasn’t going to make my appointment on time.
I hate being late.
My meeting was at Subiaco Abbey with Father Reginald Udouj [pronounced U-Dodge]. We’d corresponded back and forth via email, and he cut out some time for me this afternoon. But the stress of being late was starting to frustrate me. Being on time is to be a professional and being late was to make a bad first impression. I didn’t have an excuse for my tardiness and I began rehearsing the apology in my head.
He was waiting for me in the common area of the Coury House, a guest house at Subiaco that resembles a small hotel, sitting on a couch, wearing the traditional black habit worn by Benedictine monks. He was middle-aged, with thinning hair, a grey beard and a voice that had just enough gravel mixed with southern drawl to add a richness to most everything he said.
He was in no hurry and made my apology seem unnecessary before it had left my mouth.
I don’t know what you think of when you think of monks. Your brain may go back to the middle ages of silent men in robes, chanting by candlelight within the dark walls of a monastery. You may envision something of a secret society carved out of a Dan Brown novel. Or your brain may go back to Monty Python’s cloaked men whacking themselves in the heads with wooden tablets. The urge is to think of them as a people set apart, mystical. Mysterious.
Years ago, I attended the Easter vigil at Subiaco with my wife. It was a cold March evening and a big fire had been lit outside the chapel. Hundreds of people had gathered around the fire, the fog of their breath illuminated in the night by the glow of the flames. Soon we would all light our candles by the fire and then silently walk into the darkened cathedral. Person by person and candle by candle, slowly illuminating the room. From darkness would come light. It’s somber, it’s beautiful and full of symbolism.
As I stood waiting with my candle, I watched as a group of men in black robes gathered around in a circle. Their heads were bowed. They cast a vision of everything you might imagine monks being. I eased closer, trying to confirm the stereotype. And that’s when I heard them erupt into cheers. That’s when I saw the small radio. That’s when I realized they were listening to a March Madness basketball game.
That’s when the illusion shattered.
The monks at Subiaco are something more complex than the box into which I try to make them fit. There is something uniquely countercultural about their lives. They defy what you want them to be, but once you get beneath the surface, you realize that they are something more than you imagined.
It was that countercultural nature that had brought me to the abbey. I was there to make arrangements with Father Reginald to follow the monks of Subiaco around for a few days and see what I might discover. There was a question that had been on my mind for a while that they seemed to be uniquely qualified to answer.
Too often we drift away from our ambitions because we feel the need to take safer paths. We take the job that’s a little less stressful and pays a little more. We quit doing that thing we loved because we want to spend a little more time at home. We take a break from whatever it was we were chasing and then promise ourselves that we’ll get back to it once things settle. But that path wears deep and the longer you travel it the harder it to escape the eventual rut. Life gets softer and so do we.
I had spent the past few months covering the escalating humanitarian crisis on the U.S./Mexican border. For the first time in a long time I was in the middle of the biggest story in the nation. The only way I know how to explain it is that it felt like it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I’d been teaching journalism for years, but this wasn’t theory and this wasn’t a writing exercise. This was the real thing. I was alone with a camera and notebook talking to the people everyone else in the country was reading about at home.
That experience allowed me to take a fresh bearing of my own life and what I wanted from it. It allowed me to see the rut I’d dug for myself. Stepping away also allowed me to shut down all those offering unsolicited advice of what exactly they thought I should be doing with my days. Stepping away allowed me to do something meaningful on my own terms.
But then I had to return to a world that felt a lot smaller than I remembered when I left. The thing about growing is that you don’t fit back into the old boxes that seemed so comfortable before.
I had evolved, but I didn’t know how to take the rest of my life to that place. And I found myself asking how do I walk away from a life I’ve spent so many years building so that I can pursue something that I feel called to do? My mind has been a hurricane of thoughts and it’s become harder and harder to focus and I desperately needed to focus. I needed a space to come to terms with the next right answer.
I needed a quiet place.
We live in this world. This hyper-connected world. This world where everything is temporary and discerning what is genuine and what is social media pageantry has become a skill unto itself because truth, at times, seems unknowable. This world where faith in the institutions that once held us together is sliding farther and farther into cynicism and fatalism. This world where those we disagree with are turned into caricatures on cable news and we are bombarded with messages that tell us to pick a side.
We reach for our phones the moment boredom hits our minds because we can’t stand the silence. We keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling for something that’s going to fill whatever it is we’re searching for. And the more we search, the more we start to understand that there was nothing to be found there anyway. We realize there is nothing external that is going to satisfy our thirst. We’re just gamblers playing a slot machine and waiting for the win that never comes.
The irony is that the thing that seems to be at the center of what so many are searching for is simply the chance to do something meaningful with the companionship of sincere human connection.
But, we can’t figure out how we’re missing it.
We’re kind of a mess.
Which is how I found myself at Subiaco talking to a monk about a question that had been bouncing around in my brain for a while: What if we walked away from it all? Not for a day. Not for a week and not for a year. But a lifetime.
What changes when someone gives up a life focused on the pursuit of family and career and instead commits to a lifetime of intentional poverty, service and a singular focus on something greater than himself?
This is why I’m here.