By Richard A. Ortez
Recently, in a conversation with a friend who had lost his wife, as the subject turned to the concept of "moving on," I surprised myself when I uttered these words: "I was not able to 'move on' until I found a new identity." Now, I don't mean to imply that one ever really "moves on," but one does adapt, and what I suddenly realized was that, in my case, that process had been aided by finding a new identity. Now I have been many things in my short life, and continue in many of them: a human person, male, son, husband, father, teacher, researcher, farmer, cook, etc. But, to this list I must now add a new one - monk.
Let me explain! A couple years after Mary died I went on retreat to a monastery in New Mexico. This was not something new; I had gone on retreat regularly when Mary was alive and in good health. But towards the end, her health did not let me get away so easily, and it had been a while.
While there, I discovered a little book in the gift shop entitled: The Inner Room: A Journey into Lay Monasticism, by Mark Plaiss. The concept of monasticism was not foreign to me; I had been in seminary before Mary plucked me out to make me, in her words, "a father of a different kind." I found this concept of somehow wedding secular life with a monastic one very intriguing. So, on returning home, I wrote to over twenty men's religious houses within a days drive of Glencoe, OK inquiring if they were familiar with any such programs as described in that book; and if yes, was there something available at their institution. To make a long story short, only three of the twenty replied and only one of them positively - Assumption Abbey, Ava, Missouri. That was in 2004, and that marked the beginning of a journey that reached a high point on May 31st, 2009 - and shows no signs of letting up. On that day I made temporary profession as an "External Oblate" to that abbey; vowing to live the life of a Cistercian (Trappist) Monk "in the world." And that is the new identity, which now shapes everything I am and do. The picture below was taken on the occasion of that profession, the moment when I received the habit of a Cistercian External Oblate.
A word about monks in general and Trappist monks in particular! Perhaps the broadest definition of a monk is simply: one who seeks God through some level of withdrawal from the hustle and bustle of the world into one of greater quiet and solitude. A narrower definition is: one who seeks that quiet and solitude within a community of like-minded persons, within an enclosed structure called an abbey or monastery. Such are the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappist) monks who founded Assumption Abbey; they seek a particular balance in life between prayer and work (often agricultural). However, Assumption Abbey has become value-added, supporting itself by making and selling fruitcakes (125 a day, six days a week, and 11 months a year). As an External Oblate, I have vowed to live a comparable life style while remaining "in the world." However, two or three times a year I make two-week visits to the abbey where I live within the enclosure, and follow the daily routine of the core community. These are periods of great spiritual growth as I meet frequently with a spiritual advisor to discuss: where I am, where I'm going, and how best to get there.
I have been reluctant to share this beyond a small circle of very close friends and advisors for fear of appearing arrogant; but now I feel I must, and hope everyone will understand. The reason I must now share it is because I have reached a point beyond which I can not grow without making some significant changes in my daily routine. You see, secular life and monastic life run on very different clocks, and seek very different ends; and, eventually come into conflict with one another in someone trying to live both. I am at that point, and have decided that some of my secular activities must give way to allow for expansion of those more closely associated with the monastic/contemplative life style.
I plan no abrupt change; I will continue to farm, cook, and run the business; and I certainly have no plans to "leave the world" entirely (fleeing permanently into the desert of full monastic life). However, I do plan to gradually withdraw from many other current activities in order to make more time and energy available for prayer/reflection/contemplation. You will begin to see less of me, and I want you to understand why. Know that I love you no less, in fact more; and that this withdrawal from the world is to allow me more time to pray - for you, as well as for myself.
Please pray for me, you will be in my prayers always.