I arrived at the University of Stirling in 2005 for study abroad craving Scotland’s warrior legends. Stuff like Wallace’s sword, Bruce’s rugged statue at Bannockburn, and the haunting stillness of Culloden Moor. That was my idea of Scottish history, because that was how I viewed my Scots ancestry: fight the English, drink the whisky, chase the lasses and wear the kilt.
But a deeper look at Scotland’s history gave me a surprise. I found myself being drawn to the crumbling ruins of Scotland’s medieval abbeys and monasteries, the holy places with Celtic crosses covered in moss and mist. Most were torn apart during the Reformation, but the peaceful spirit of these quiet places seemed to be floating around me, unaware that nobody had been home for hundreds of years.
Unlike the battlefields and armor, I didn’t focus too much on the historical specifics of each holy place. What really caught me was the monks’ prayerful lifestyle, the idea that they only stopped praying to sleep. For their entire lives.
“How could someone do that and be happy?” I wondered. “Seriously?”
We like to think of medieval monks just sitting around, maybe bored, maybe sleepy, probably drunk, and for sure sexually deprived, wearing uncomfortable wool robes and eating tough bread and stale cheese.
I’m not so sure that’s true. The monks weren’t just mumbling Latin into the atmosphere, I realized, but rather meditating on God in order to open their minds to a more peaceful presence with the Spirit. And just like their warrior counterparts on the battlefield, monks needed an immense, radical courage to trust God in the sanctuary. I think most of them were probably happy and confident with their choice of lifestyle, because all of those prayers seemed to have soaked into the stones of the buildings, still echoing peaceful vibes, centuries later.
Now, living in the ruins of a North Philadelphia neighborhood torn apart by drugs, violence, and poverty, I crave that prayerful peace. Working with the homeless as a Jesuit Volunteer, I often worry about clients like Tony, blind because a hooker stole his glasses, or Jordan, who got beat up outside of a bar on Ridge Avenue for the thirty bucks in his pocket. I worry about them without praying about them, and so I forget that Christ is in us and helping us.
Without the spiritual safety of an abbey cloister, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, seems to have expected that his followers might get disillusioned from time to time. So remembering his advice to “Find God in all Things,” – a simple statement which unites everything under God’s love – is what helps me find that courage for God, the ancient calm brought about through peaceful prayer. And just like Ignatius expected, his spiritual exercises are giving me that monastic peace in my homeless ministry. This radical dependence on God, which those medieval monks developed and the Jesuits adopted, is how I worry less and love more.
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