“There’s something terribly wrong with spirituality today,” he said gently and sadly. “It’s as though the materialism that has a death grip on this culture has taken our spirituality as well.”
BY AUGUST TURAK – I was sitting in Father Christian’s small office at Mepkin Abbey monastery in the fall of 1997. I was early for our appointment, but just as I expected, he soon burst in.
As he greeted me warmly, I marveled once more at the vitality of this lithe 85-year-old man. Under his arm were a couple of books, one obviously a textbook. Casually curious, I asked about it, and was amazed to find it was a textbook on Quantum Theory. He proceeded to say that, much to his embarrassment, his knowledge of physics was decidedly “anachronistic,” and he considered it high time to “bone up” by solitarily working his way through this impossible-looking book.
As he began to update me on his progress, I was still thinking about the mystery surrounding this man. I couldn’t hold the contradictions together in my mind.
On the one hand Father Christian is one of the most sophisticated, even urbane, human beings I have ever met. He comes from a wealthy family in Washington D.C, and is as comfortable discussing the relative merits of exclusive New England boarding schools as he is discussing the weather. He has PhDs in philosophy, theology, and Canon Law, and was already a successful lawyer when he decided to become a Franciscan priest. His prodigious memory peppers his points with quotes from Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins and a host of other authors and poets, and as he does he moves effortlessly among English, French, Latin and Greek as his source demands. He continuously reads St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in the original Latin, and has told me almost sternly:
“Listen, if you want to get anywhere spiritually you must be soaked in St. Thomas.”
On the other hand he is the epitome of a silent, contemplative, Trappist monk. No one is more stringently dedicated to the letter of the Rule of St. Benedict. I once asked if he ever fell asleep between the pre-dawn services of Vigils and Lauds when by rights monks and monastic guests like me were all in our rooms engaged in either meditation or the discipline of Lectio Divina – the slow, methodical, mindful reading of sacred scripture. The searching, severe way he scanned my face left no doubt he had divined the motive behind my question. Then he growled.
“Now I won’t say I’ve never closed my eyes in all these years, but you could count them on one hand. Remember, to God go the first fruits.” Then as he strode away he felt compelled to clear up any lingering ambiguity by emphatically repeating, “The first fruits.”
Ascetic in his habits, he eats next to nothing, is as lean as a famine year, and avoids the high-octane coffee that seems to fuel the monastery. In all the years I have been going to Mepkin Abbey on retreat, I have never known him to miss one of the eight communal services that make up the monastic day. After the last service before retiring, Compline, you will find him in the chapel kneeling, deep in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
He virtually never leaves the monastery for personal reasons as his vow of “stability” precludes it. Even at 85 he remembers St. Benedict’s admonition to physical labor. We once teamed up and extracted hundreds of the monastery’s shrieking hens from their cages as they defecated all over us in protest. He is punctual to a fault and once ran the almost half mile from the cloister to a meeting in order to be on time.
As he wound up a short lecture on Quantum Theory, my curiosity boiled over and I decided to risk rebuff by asking a deeply personal question. Why had a man of his ubiquitous interests and talents, his love of learning, people, and, most of all conversation, decided to become a silent contemplative in one of the strictest monasteries in the strictest order of the Catholic Church?
“I made a mistake!” he fairly shouted. Then his amazing blue eyes screwed closed, his chin fell to his chest, and he doubled up in his chair beating a musical tattoo on the armrests. He laughed so hard that when he finally stopped, I saw flecks of spittle glistening in his long grey beard until he wiped them away with a handkerchief.
He told me that after years as a Franciscan, he had visited a Trappist monastery in Canada out of curiosity. “Well, while I was taking the tour I made the mistake of asking myself a question. Anyway, after years of wrestling I realized that fool question had me pinned. Next thing you know, I found myself here.”
“What was the question?”
“What would it be like to give myself totally to God?”
Instantly something sucked all the air out of the room. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach, and this surging presence burned my cheeks and filled my eyes with tears. I wanted to throw myself at it but was frozen in place, and just as quickly as it came it was gone.
Whether Father Christian was moved by his admission, my reaction, or both I cannot say. But we sat for a good long time in silence as I tried to regain my composure. Finally he lifted his chin off his chest and opened his eyes.
“There’s something terribly wrong with spirituality today,” he said gently and sadly while pointing at the other book he had brought to our meeting. “It’s as though the materialism that has a death grip on this culture has taken our spirituality as well. Most of what’s called spiritual is actually humanistic if you think about it. People don’t want the adventure of God on His own terms and for His own sake. They want a better world, a happier life, better relationships, and all the trimmings that go along with it. Most of it isn’t spiritual; it’s sweetly comforting and sentimental. It’s merely edifying.”
He said “edifying” like he was disposing of something toxic with ten-foot tongs.
“Now don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “Our Lord meant it when he commanded us to love one another. I spent several years in Uganda, and my experience there remains crucial to my life. What I never expected was that those wonderful people had so much more to give than I did. I learned the spirit of real charity in Uganda. Real caritas – charity – means all you have to give is not enough; you long to give more, and find tender humility in that fact.
“What I mean is the way in which modern spirituality has made God the means to an end and not the end itself. We’re urged to love, serve, and seek God because this or that human good will come of it. People don’t realize “because” implies the end is the human good and Truth merely the means. Human desire becomes the false god in this equation. That’s why I always turn to the church fathers, the saints, the mystics. People who climb spiritual mountains simply because they’re there to be climbed, and it’s our destiny to climb them. St. Bernard said it best: ‘Amo quia amo, amo ut amem.’”
Four years of high school Latin failed me and I looked at him quizzically.
“I love because I love, I love in order to love,” he translated. “Take St. Thomas Aquinas for example,” and he lit up with the innocent enthusiasm the mere mention of St. Thomas always produced.
“He’s a doctor of the Church and in the Middle Ages almost single-handedly resurrected Greek philosophy. He was so darn smart he could keep the thread of five different books in his head at once. Five clerks took dictation so he wouldn’t have to wait while they wrote.
The Summa Theologica, his masterpiece, is 3,500 pages long, but did you know it’s unfinished?”
I shook my head.
“One day he just stopped writing. His secretary kept asking when they would resume work, and he kept sending him away. Finally the fellow got up the courage to ask him what was going on and Thomas said, ‘I’ve had an experience of God and I now know that everything I have written is mere straw. I will never write another word.’ And he never did.”
“Every time I pick up a modern book I’m left wondering, where is the mysterium tremendum, the agape, the Fear of the Lord? Where is the power, the wonder, the majesty, the glory, the supernatural, the fear and trembling, the abject awe? Where is the transcendence?”
Again we sat in silence.
“I think I know what you mean Father,” I finally whispered, though I was terrified that I never would. “The difference between a person who has actually experienced the mystical union with God and one who has not must be…well…”
“Infinite,” he said, supplying the word I was groping for. “The difference is infinite.”
August Turak is a seeker, writer, and speaker who has dedicated his life to teaching others how to prosper spiritually, professionally, and personally through his philosophy service and selflessness. Winner of the Grand Prize in the John Templeton Foundation’s Power of Purpose Essay Contest for his essay Brother John, he is a frequent contributor for Forbes.com and AdvertisingAge. He is currently working on a book based on his highly acclaimed article Business Secrets of the Trappists that chronicles his fifteen year journey living with the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey as a frequent monastic guest. For more, visit AugustTurak.com, follow him at Forbes.com, or email August@augustturak.com.
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