The Monk Mystique

Every time I go to Mepkin Abbey I bring more expectations than luggage. It’s hard to name what I expect, but part of me bristles when I see the monks wearing Keens and find Jiffy peanut butter in the refectory. I would’ve really liked handmade leather sandals and lembas bread.

My expectations bristle even more when I talk with the monks and our conversations turn more towards oyster mushrooms and microgreens than God. I want some sagely riddle to ponder, but instead we talk about wild turkeys and raccoons or Wales.

Mystique surrounds the monastery and that magical fog is a blank canvas for projections. But once you enter the cloister that fog rolls back and reveals the monk who smokes cigars and the other who jokes about leaving it all for beer, steak and women. They drive fast in their golf carts and fall asleep in meditation. And the most disillusioning is that they also suffer from anxiety and anger.

I don’t tell these things to tattle on the monks. I tell them to show that there is nothing in the world that fits our ideas of holiness.

We are all carrying such an idea around.  It may be Buddha sitting with endless serenity and depth. It may be the business man who always makes the right decision and suffers no anxiety. We have some idea of perfection and it does not exist.

But what does exist is much better.

The monks do not fit my standard. I did not find the type of holiness I wanted. Instead I found a transparency that challenges my idea of perfection.

Within silence I quickly become aware of the mind as a story teller. These tales entertain, but they also hide me from myself. I know that’s a paradox, but humans are funny beasts. I could wax philosophic on this dynamic, but it really comes down to the fact that it feels bad to own anxiety, guilt or fear. Hiding it doesn’t feel great, but does feel better.

It sounds too cliché to talk about dwelling in the present moment. I don’t know of any spiritual adage that is more played out. But we are never told what we will find in the present. What we find is ourselves. And often that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

What I found at the monastery was a group of men who had taken the bitter medicine. They had faced their shadows, faults and death. They had seen their fear. And while they probably blinked, closed their eyes and turned away, they stayed. In silence you have no choice but to move through that dark valley.

What is on the other side does not fit my standard of holiness. They did not float or have telepathy. Instead they were simply themselves. I am shedding my standard, replacing it: The most holy thing we can possibly be is ourselves. Because within their foibles, farts, worries and frustration I saw a depth of humility and love in the monks. And that transparent depth spoke about the eternal in man better than any idea I have of perfection.

It spoke with laughter. They laughed freely and fully. A squirrel eating a mushroom or a yawn was enough to spark a mirthful laugh. When I pictured the holy man lost in meditation I never really thought about him laughing.

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