I love hearing about the experiences others have had in the monastic life. When I visit another monastery or when other monastics visit us, I look forward to what they have to say. It helps me understand our own life here.
One such occasion came quite some time back when a couple of nuns we knew drove from hundreds of miles away to come and see us, bringing along their portable sewing machine. They had offered to fix any of our cassocks that had fallen into disrepair, sew buttons back on, put patches where needed, and stitch up any ripped spots. They knew, of course, that we holy fathers and brothers were perfectly capable of doing this for ourselves, but they also knew—after all, these women weren’t born yesterday—that we were just as capable of ignoring the need to be presentable for as long as we could manage it.
At any rate, right after lunch one day I asked the senior of the two nuns about something that had been on my mind. I was curious to see how her experience compared with mine. “Tell me, Mother Elizabeth,” I said, “I think you’ve been in the monastic life as long as I have and I wonder what your impressions have been. Has anything especially struck you as you continue your life as a nun while new women come in?”
“Yeah—,” she replied, “I can give you something. For sure. You know what chaps my hide? I’ll tell you. See Sister Anna there?”—and she nodded discretely at her sister in Christ across the room—“Look how she’s got that prayer rope of hers hanging off her belt instead of wrapping it around her wrist or keeping it in her pocket. Well, I used to do that back in my novice days and I got rebuked for it big time. In public, no less. Mortifying, I tell you. The abbess gave us a whole big speech about it one time and everybody kept glancing it me with their little grins enjoying it as I got chewed out. I could have just died on the spot. All about how if we wanted to become real nuns, we needed to act like ladies. But her, my beloved sister, God bless her—she gets away with it!” I laughed. I knew what she meant. I was delighted by the part about how nuns should be ladies because it reminded me of something our abbot had told us—that if we had joined the brotherhood to engage in spiritual warfare, we should behave like officers, not enlisted men. You don’t usually associate the terms “nuns and monks” with “ladies and gentlemen,” but clearly that connection belonged to our tradition.
Her main point, though, was what impressed me most because I saw that she had reacted the way I have reacted to similar situations. Perhaps her comments could provide me with some edifying food for thought. When similar things happened I always asked the same sorts of questions. Why do others get away with things I get corrected for? Why do others get a better break than I do? Why do others receive special favors? Why should I accept correction about something when some else gets away with the very same thing? I guess I have a tendency sometimes to think everything’s unfair, but maybe that’s just the interpretation my ego puts on my experience.
We say that the monastic life requires ascetic struggle. No problem. I signed up for that. I’m a tough guy, a warrior, a commando, a guerrilla in the spiritual battle. I can even picture myself wearing a hair shirt, loading myself with a hundred pounds of iron chains, reduced to bread and water, standing on a rock for a thousand days in prayer—okay, I have to shift my mind into high gear to imagine things like that, but I can ponder those things as possibilities—but you know what I have a really hard time contemplating? You know what seems totally beyond my comprehension and imagination? What seems way beyond my reach—the prospect of crucifying my big fat ego. All the other stuff, the strictly physical self-denial—shucks, what a piece of cake in comparison! But here’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question—can I really learn to see someone else get something good that doesn’t come my way or accept correction when others escape it, and not take it personally?
Let’s face it—this all comes down to my ego telling me that it’s all about me. Yeah, I said I would endure in the ascetic life to my last breath and all that stuff, but how come my brother in Christ over there has an easier time of it than I do, at least according to my self-righteous comparison? We get plenty of reminders that we shouldn’t look at things that way. For example, all the way through Great Lent our services include St. Isaac’s prayer with the wonderful line, “Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother.” Shouldn’t that suggest that I stop focusing my attention on the fact that someone else wasn’t rebuked for something when I was? In plain old ordinary English, could it be that I just need to mind my own business?
Let’s return to the old statement that if we joined the brotherhood to engage in spiritual warfare, we should behave like officers, not enlisted men. When I compare my situation to someone else’s and gripe about it, I am acting just like a recruit. Recruits complain about the treatment they receive while officers accept the fact that on the one hand they give orders to those below them, but on the other hand they also have to carry out the orders they receive from above. The Gospel of Luke gives an example of a centurion who applied his military discipline to spiritual matters in a way that impressed even Jesus. I’m thinking of the man who asked Jesus to heal his sick servant. He sent word to Jesus saying, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy to have You come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to You. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Luke 7: 6-8). In other words, he recognized that the demons were under Jesus’ authority just as he was under the authority of officers above him and others were under his own authority. When Jesus heard this, He commented, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
If I want to be an officer and a gentleman—as we monks must strive to be—then I need to see my own sins and not judge my brother. I need to carry out the orders that are given to me and take the correction that is offered to me. And in fact if I insist on comparing myself to my brothers in Christ, I might do better to tell myself that if I have received rebukes that my brothers haven’t, what it really means is that I’ve had an opportunity for advanced officer training.