Thursday, April 2, 2009

Monastery Sleep vs. Parochial Insomnia

Here's a mystery for you. Why is that when I'm at the monastery I can easily go to sleep at 9:30 or 10 pm and wake up 8 hours later without a hitch, but when I come home the insomnia is on me like a cheetah? If Acedia is the "noon-day demon" (as the Desert Fathers called it) then surely insomnia is the "plague that stalks in the darkness" (Psalm 91:6)*. As soon as I'm at home the anxieties mount right back up again I'm restless with thoughts of all the problems besieging me and mine. I might feel better if I talked about some of them, but alas almost all are far too classified to share here except in the most vague and useless ways.

When I was at Holy Cross this morning I watched the river pass by as the sun rose--sipping my coffee on the Cloister waiting for the Mattins bell. I thought about Siddartha (the book by Hesse, not the historical Buddha per se). At one point the eponymous character spends many years ferrying people across a river. Hesse says that the river teaches him wisdom. Staring at the Hudson as the sun gradually rises--seeing a doe some hundred yards away grazing in the meadow that slopes to that river--I totally understand what he means. The river flows by, and we look at the river and not the noisy, busy waves nor the barges bringing fuel oil to Albany. Enlightenment seems so easy when you are staring at a metaphor at 6:50 A.M. with a good fair trade organic coffee warming your palm.

Back in Toronto, worrying about a dozen things, it ain't so easy. Many years ago when I was getting ready to leave the Monastery after my first extended retreat (Lent 1998) I asked Bede whether it was possible to preserve the mindset created by monastery living out in the conventional world. He replied that the only people he has known able to do it had deeply cultivated meditation practices. A few years later I would meet Susan T. and others whom have done precisely this--but it's hard, very hard. I know from experience that the barrier is not having "enough energy" or time, but rather the willingness to make great and fearless self-sacrifice. In my own case I suspect, secretly, that I choose not to pursue such a peace because it would mean abandoning delusions I'm still quite fond of.

Sometimes I'm tempted to say that being a parochial priest with parish responsibilities works against having a contemplative practice, but I know that's false. The truth is that the only thing that works against having a contemplative practice are our attachments. The problem is that many of these attachments go so very, very deep. It takes great patience and love to penetrate so deeply--which is why even in Buddhism enlightenment in rare. Luckily Christianity doesn't ask so much of us, and we are promised perfection through Christ in some later time. The point eschatology is not fireworks and a moment when we can say "see--I told you so," but rather the promise that given enough time, every conflict that needs to be resolved will be resolved.

One of my spiritual teachers once told me that the reason intractable conflict exists among certain people is that some personalities need to encounter each other in conflict. The conflict is somehow necessary, but that doesn't mean it's helpful, merely necessary! One thinks of those steel balls that collide to demonstrate Newton's Laws.

So is the conflict between a parson and the things that keep him up at night similarly necessary? I know some who say they are. The roof will always be on the verge of leaking. There will never be enough money. There will always be a sermon to write. Yet the anxiety that hovers at the corners of these thoughts seems to be about something else entirely, something that has little to do with roof repair, stewardship, nor homilies. Something about me.

I'm sorry to say I can't push that insight any further tonight. But I do know that I'm home...


*That reading of Psalm 91 isn't reaching as far as a glance might suggest--the various difficulties listed in psalm 91 ("the arrow that flies by day," "the sickness that lays waste at mid-day," etc. were actually understood, in Hebrew, to be particular demonic entities and not such poetic ways of saying random violence, fever, et. al.).

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