We had a guest presider at Mass today: a wacky and hilarious young Trappist monk. I've known friars, but never monks--and part of the reason for our guest's presence was to talk about what monks do and why it has value: what's the point of living in silence in a cloister? What does that contribute to the world, or even to their lay co-religionists?
I've heard intermittant reports that vocations to religious life have risen slightly in recent years--but whether or not that's true, the contemplative life does seem to be having a minor moment in popular culture: The New York Times keeps turning out articles about urban professionals going on spiritual retreats, or families and individuals declaring digital fasts (or trying to), or what the rest of the world can learn from introverts. For that matter, just ask yourself: how many thoroughly secular people in your life have sung the praises of meditation? How many were doing it ten years ago?
For all the popularity of meditation, mini-retreats, or mini-fasts from one's gadgets and devices, there's still something challenging and counter-cultural, even uncomfortable-making, about those who actually live out the contemplative life in a monastery, convent, or ashram. Who are these people? Narcissists and dilettantes, searching for some kind of nebulous personal fulfillment? Weak souls in thrall to what's more or less a cult? Or asocial wackos who can't get along in the real world?
Those charges are also familiar to academics: why do you get the summers off? What's this "sabbatical"? What good is it to spend ten years writing a book that maybe 300 people in the world will read and understand?
I'm not trying to aggrandize what we do by suggesting either that it's so very radical or that it has a deeper spiritual purpose--and the monastic roots of the scholarly enterprise are well-known. But seeing this self-deprecating, low-voiced monk utterly charm our urban congregation made me hope that, as teachers who are also scholars, we bring our undergraduates a version of what the monk on leave from his abbey brings to a busy and skeptical laity: a sense of what we do with our lives and how it might be relevant to theirs.
Or as our guest said, "there's a little monk in all of us."