And What Do You Do? I Live Here.

“A monk walking through the woods came across a couple strolling and answered their greetings. ‘And what do you do?’ the woman asked. The monk replied, ‘I don’t do anything. I live here.” She insisted. So did he. She thought of life in terms of what one does for a living, but the monk did not. He insisted that he did nothing, he only lived here. She was vexed…

…Is a person only a machine to make money? Is being a parent, a spouse, summed up in what a person does for a living? Is it how much you bring home that makes you what you are? If it is, many a wife and mother has little value, for in terms of economics she may be more like us monks, performing useful and necessary tasks and services. But there is no money in any of it…

…For granted having no income, no job, is a most dreadful worry, it is not the end of everything. Not the loss of humanity, identity, personhood. For trial, trouble, sickness and affliction and death are with us today as they were yesterday and they will be tomorrow. Characteristic of life anywhere. Any time. Only in some times more than others.”

-Matthew Kelty, “Every Reason to Be Merry,” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publicans, 1996.

Upon re-reading The Call of Wild Geese, this passage felt especially relevant in the middle of a pandemic. Who are we if we cannot go into the office? If we are not earning an income? If we are isolating and socializing through screens? Do we have value apart from this life we have constructed? Obviously, we do. The question is: why is this even a question? The answer is that our culture is busy reducing people into categories: type of job, ethicity, religious belief, down the line. None of these things is who any of us are. Yet, the provide a shortcut, just enough to process and move on with our lives and ideas, let’s not have too much disruption please.

Wisdom is Truth that Lasts

“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.

Begin in Your Own Heart

“Hence, the healing of the world does not begin in some far-off land that we must hasten to help, but in the geography of your own heart. There the sinner is washed in mercy and becomes thereby an instrument of mercy, not merely by his prayers, but in everything he does. For he is a vessel of grace. We cannot heal all the world’s problems, but we begin with our own heart if our help is to amount to anything.

For our response is not limited to prayer for the afflicted. We practice justice, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, bury the dead. We forgive injury and do not resort to revenge, to reprisal, to contempt. In our world. Where we are.

It costs nothing and is worth more than anyone can tell. And it is this way the world is healed, with Christ dying daily everywhere and we with Him.”

-Matthew Kelty, “Begin in Your Own Heart.

A fairly sizable list of Matthew Kelty’s homilies is available online.