“There is no need to know everything, to do everything, to see everything, to hear everything, to know everyone, to go everywhere. In fact, there is much truth in realizing that knowing less and doing less, and seeing less and hearing less, and so less all the way down the line, is perhaps the beginning of real wisdom.-Matthew Kelty, “The Feast of St. Mary.” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1996.
“It is a matter of cutting down the input, of controlling what you are subjected to, or creating a context. We desire minimal input, a quiet context, a controlled environment. That is the idea. Cut out the outer to increase the inner. More quiet than most want, less input than many can abide. More control of the environment than many opt for. Why? Because by nature, by temperament, by character, by grace, we are called to this[, the monastic lifestyle]. Maybe we are introverts…
The joy of the monk is no less than the joy of those who share what he has, for the monk knows that it is a gifts and gifts do not last unless shared. The monk is no capitalist who stakes out a claim in order to sell at a profit. No, he freely spends all he has as prodigally as the God who gave it all to him. The people he flees from are the people he carries in his heart, sings for, prays for, lives for, and is glad to meet.”-Matthew Kelty, “The Call of Wild Geese.” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1996.
Today, I find myself circling back to the work of Matthew Kelty. He was a Cistercian monk, who was a novice under Thomas Merton, and who – I just discovered – was also gay. In retrospect, I can see how some of his commentary might be formed by his being an openly gay man in a religious institution that has a complicated relationship with gayness.
I took a strange route to find him. When I was a teenager, I read David Morrell’s book, The Brotherhood of the Rose. David Morrell is perhaps best known for the creation of the character, of John Rambo, who later devolved into the jingoistic Cold and Drug War action hero/anti-hero. The Brotherhood of the Rose is a typical spy-thriller, but one of the characters has such difficulty with his feelings of guilt over being an assassin that he becomes a Cistercian monk. Monks were something I associated with medieval times. Do modern monks exist, and are they an anachronism?
Of course, monks still exist. Personally, I find them talking to issues that are central to all of our lives. What could be more central in a monk’s life than the fear of missing out that you have spent your entire life in a monastery and have missed whatever is going on outside of the monastery’s walls. One of his homilies, I cannot remember which, talks about how when you go out into the desert, you do not leave your demons behind. You bring them with you, and you have nothing else to do but spend your time with them. You’re going to end up snuggling with those demands and getting to know them real well, in ways that the person dealing with the day-to-day existence of putting food on the table does not have the opportunity to experience. Monks have a lot to teach us.
It’s also an impulse I share. I remember being asked once that if I admired the life so much, why didn’t I become a monk? Well, I didn’t have the faith for it. A monastery is like a psychedelic drug, all of which are based on set and setting. Joining a shared enterprise, dedicated to the spiritual life seems to be a singular joy that is, as Thomas Merton sometimes put it, like a candle in the world, giving it hope. I’m not able to give all, to give all of the prodigious benefits back, because at some level, I worry about the morrow.
“Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?-Matthew 6:26
Very easy to say. Another matter entirely to live that way. This is why reading people like Matthew Kelty is so important. It reminds us that life is lived, right there, out on the end. You cannot hold anything back for the return trip because in the end, there is never a returning. Everything is transformed and everything we learn turns to meso-facts, things that were once true and are now no longer. Perhaps this is a good definition of wisdom, knowledge of truth that lasts, which we can only get to by putting the other kinds of knowledge aside.