Echoes in the Abbey Church

NicholasTangen / August 25, 2016

“We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another”          – Thomas Merton

I became an Oblate candidate at St. John’s Abbey in January of this year. An Oblate is someone who is “living in the world according to the Spirit of Saint Benedict”*. It’s like cosplay for the monastically inclined. I don’t have a tonsure. I don’t wear a habit. I’m not celibate. I’m just trying to engage the world prayerfully, with humility and simplicity. This is easier said than done, which is why the support of the monastic community is so important.

As an Oblate I am connected to St. John’s Abbey through prayer and community. This connection offers support and direction, and also physical space as a destination for retreat. Retreat really is the perfect word here, because as the days pass, and tasks and responsibilities pile up, I find myself tempted to just fade into the wilderness. The Abbey is a place where I can turn off my phone, set down my checklist, and embrace some silence. It’s healing. It resets me, and ensures that one day I won’t simply wander into the Superior National Forest, leaving my wife to wonder where the hell I went. This is a good thing.

In June I was at the Abbey for the annual Oblate Retreat. Oblates and candidates gather from around the state and country to pray together, to eat together, and discuss Benedictine spirituality. Check-in wasn’t until the afternoon, but I decided to take advantage of every minute I had. I got up at 5 A.M. and began driving in hopes of making it in time for morning prayer. I wanted to start the weekend off on the right foot. Pray the Liturgy of the Hours with the brothers, spend some time in contemplative prayer. That’s what I needed, and that is what I intended to get.

At first the drive was nice. Clear roads, coffee, and Otis Redding; just as God intended. I was making good time and even felt confident enough to stop for a refill on my coffee cup. As I approached Hwy 15 traffic slowed. Brake lights. Brake lights. Then traffic stood still and the detour signs appeared. I had forgotten about the construction on 94. Morning prayer was approaching and I wasn’t even moving. There was no way I was going to make it on time.

After following the detour I pulled into the Abbey parking lot at 7:04-four minutes late. Frustrated, I tried to fight down my feelings of rage at being late. All that waking up early for nothing. I had already begun down my well-worn path of all or nothing. The morning hadn’t gone exactly as I intended it, so I was ready to just throw the whole weekend away. Screw it! Just get back in the car, drive home, and spend the weekend watching season after season of The Office. Luckily, I had just enough determination to open the door to the Abbey Church and walk in.

Just walking into the Abbey Church, I could feel some of tension begin to fade. The gray stone reflected the colors from the immense stained glass window at the back of the sanctuary. The brothers had already begun. The Liturgy of the Hours is prayed from the choir stalls at the front of the sanctuary, but not wanting to disturb I took a seat in the very back pew. I strained to listen as the brothers, oblates, and guests, prayed the Psalms and chanted the Benedictus, but all I could hear was the muffled echoes of their voices. The words were lost in the vast space of the sanctuary. That twinge of anger started to surface again. I took a few deep breaths and closed my eyes. I decided to just settle into the space, and let the muffled sound of prayer work as white noise. I’m going to get some peace dammit!

I took a few deep breaths, but found myself still fighting against a torrent of negativity. All I wanted was to get here in time to start the weekend right. Couldn’t even get that. Now I can’t hear a single word. Could’ve slept in. Could’ve had more coffee. As I wrestled, a brother stood and walked to the lectern and began to read. His voice continued to echo and I was still unable to make out any words he spoke. He read slowly and deliberately. I closed my eyes again. I’m not going to be able to hear any…

And then…I heard them. Six words broke through the echo. I heard them as clearly as if the brother had been sitting right next to me.

“Seek first the Kingdom of God.”

Each word had been enunciated so carefully and their tenor hung in my mind. The brother continued to read, his voice once again echoing off the walls, muddying his words.

Seek first the Kingdom of God. I’ve encountered these words from the Gospel of Matthew countless times. This simple line follows Jesus’ admonition not to worry. Don’t worry about your clothes, your food, your body. Before that Jesus reminds us that we cannot serve two masters. Seek first the Kingdom of God (The NRSV translates it as strive first for the kingdom of God) feels dismissive. It’s a vague answer to very specific concerns. I worry about all of the things Jesus says not to worry about, and Jesus telling me to chill out because God’s going to handle it all is not comforting or reassuring to me at all. This has always been one of those verses that made me think “Does Jesus actually mean this?”.

But, on this day, sitting in the back pew of the Abbey Church, these words struck a different chord for me. The first thing they did was knock me out of my sad little pity party. Why was I at the Abbey in the first place? Was I there to get my quick fix of peace and relaxation? Or was I there to participate in community and spiritual practice? Whose kingdom was I there looking for?

The second thing that struck me was the implication of priority and identity in these few words. This is not a command to accomplish the kingdom of God. It doesn’t even offer very clear directions for how one might accomplish this kingdom. It says seek. It reminds me that as someone who considers themselves a Christian my call is to seek, search, strive, and imagine what might be. Seeking does not necessarily imply finding, but it does imply persistence. It is this persistence and this search that helps me to create meaning in the face of often overwhelming meaninglessness. I think it is important too, that Jesus does not say seek only he says seek first. It’s as if he’s saying “Let this seeking define the rest of your experience. Let it be the lens through which you see the world. It doesn’t mean that somehow now everything will be sunshine and roses, or that all of a sudden you’ll understand everything, but it does mean you’ll have a place to begin looking.” And it is this always beginning that I think is the work of the Christian, of the seeker, and the skeptic. Always seeking so we might arrive once again at the beginning and start the whole damn thing over.

As I sat in the pew I ruminated on these words. I let them swirl around my mind until they echoed like the voices in the sanctuary. I sat with them all weekend and found myself repeating them silently to myself when I encountered other oblates, candidates, and brothers. I repeated them as I waited for the bells to ring for the daily office. They were my prayer before meals, and the words I said before I fell asleep. When I left the Abbey on Sunday afternoon, I brought these words home with me. I kept them close as I talked with my wife, as I returned to work, and as I engaged in daily practice. These words are with me now as I write. My hope is that this small corner of the internet can be a place where I can explore what the hell these words mean, because I honestly have no clue yet. I know that the kingdom of God refuses to be static, and that the moment I think I’ve got a handle on it is the very moment I’ve lost it. I hope that there will be others to help me wrestle and discern. I hope that the act of seeking itself will encourage and challenge me to seek even more. And I hope that it might encourage others to do the same.






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