The Freedom of Life Together

Earlier this month, I spent a week at Saint Andrew’s Abbey.  Located in the high desert of Valyermo, this community of seventeen Benedictine monks welcomes individuals and groups to take retreats with them.  Visitors stay in one of the Abbey’s guest rooms and can join the monks for daily meals and prayer.   I try to spend a week each year at the Abbey selecting scripture passages and considering sermon themes for the coming year.  I find the stark desert landscape conducive to planning and reflection.  And I love taking thirty-minute breaks throughout the day to pray with the monks in the Abbey’s chapel: once at 6 a.m., and again at 7:30 a.m., noon, 5:30 p.m., and 7:30 p.m.   For each gathering, we chant the words of five Psalms together, making the words our communal prayer.   There are times of silence interspersed throughout.  And there are two readings at each service: one from scripture and one from The Rule of Saint Benedict.  Finally, there is a time at the end of each 30-minute gathering when a monk will lift up joys and concerns in prayer.

Why would one willingly choose such a rigid and lengthy daily rhythm of prayer?  Why would I choose it for a week?  And why would seventeen grown men vow to follow it every day of their lives?  Some days at the Abbey, you might not feel like praying – at least not five times.  Some mornings 6 a.m. will seem WAY too early to get up and pray with others.  Why would an individual willingly subject themselves to such constraints?   And why would someone add to that commitment the vows each of these Benedictine monks had made: to remain a part of that community in that place for life?

Sitting in silence during one of the prayer times, I thought about freedom.  I have so often associated that word with personal autonomy.  Steeped in the American mythology of rugged individualism, I imagined freedom as the ability to choose whatever I wanted for myself at any given time.  And yet here I was with others who had freely chosen – vowed, even – to give up a great deal of individual autonomy for a different kind of freedom: life in community.   I thought of what a provocative alternative this Abbey represented to the atomization and social isolation of our times.

While I have no plans to take monastic vows, I did reflect on the ones I have taken: those of marriage and of ordination especially.  Those commitments – each of which constrained my personal freedom – opened up vast riches in terms of life with others.  I thought of the depths of love – given and received – that both of those vows brought with them.   And I reflected on the many other commitments I have made: those of friendship, of family, and of membership in the church of Jesus Christ.  I considered that core commitment each of us makes as a Christian: declaring Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, and uniting with him by faith, thus binding ourselves to God and other members of Christ’s body.

Choosing to observe a common life and preset gathering times – whether it be daily prayer at an Abbey or weekly worship at a local church – involves relinquishing a kind of freedom. But what an incredible freedom it opens up for us: love known in community together.

~Pastor Matt