A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a pastor friend, and he was telling me of a situation in one of their small groups. The discussion was on hearing God, and one of the new folks involved gave a simple, honest prayer request: “If God is really speaking to me, could you ask Him to turn up the volume?”
As my friend calculated a perfect response in his mind, one of the other folks in the room chimed in and said, “Maybe instead of God turning up the volume, you need to turn down the noise so you’ll be able to hear him.”
Turn down the noise.
We all intuitively know this wisdom to be true, but it’s pretty difficult for us to grasp how deeply true it is in the culture we live. I have been on a journey to live out a more sustaining and abiding life in God. That abiding and sustaining faith that Jesus promises us in John 6:35 is found when we come to Jesus as the source for all life. For me, one of the purest and most challenging examples of people devoting themselves to the constant abiding in Jesus has been those who leave all they have for him, who radically deny the pleasures of earth for treasures in heaven, and in the midst of the watered down gospel we see all too often in the western church, this call beckons to many of us today.
The inner call into a monastic life that many have felt throughout church history has been simple: leave the burdens of this life to know God in a simpler and quieter way. Our theology and practice have been deeply affected by those who have lived out a monastic life throughout the centuries. Whether it is the Christian mystics of the medieval times or the desert fathers of the 3rd-5th century, all have affected the trajectory of the Christian faith.
The desert fathers lived in a time when Christianity was becoming increasingly accepted, as the church and state merged into one entity. The church was no longer full of those risking martyrdom, so these “desert fathers” headed to the deserts around them to seek a life of monastic devotion to God after they had become suspicious of the general rhythms of the Christian life in their day.
So what do we, as 21st century Christians who want to turn down the noise of life, have in common with a 3rd-century monk?
Well, I think quite a lot.
We are looking for rhythms that more deeply and authentically connect us to God and others. We want to live out consistent lives of love that don’t leave us feeling empty and hollow with our Christian faith practice. And I am here to tell you there is hope. It is possible to live more deeply connected without moving to the Scetes Desert in Egypt.
The “everyday monastic” life is one of turning down the noise.
I am going to give you 4 key markings of people who live in normal homes and don’t wear brown tunics that also happen to live out everyday monasticism. Actually, I think in some ways it’s important for us to see the value of not physically moving to a desert to seek God.
First, at the core of the Christian faith and even more specifically everyday monasticism, is a life lived from and for the presence of God. Our first and final call is to abide in God. The mission we are called to and the gifts we carry all come secondary to this one thing. Jesus addresses Martha’s worried, busied words about her sister who chose to sit at His feet by saying that Mary chose the “one thing” that mattered.
Here is the deal about the presence of God: to live in the presence, you must live in the present. We cannot live in continual anxiety about the future or shame about the past. Actually, much of our pain is related to an improper connection to the future and the past. We interpret past failures and pains and live from the shame and disappointment of those experiences. We often worry about the future or, for some, set unrealistic life goals and plans that we don’t have much control over. The call of Christ is not to figure out the past or future, but to surrender to Him day by day. Being a child of God, one abiding in Him, is not just enough, it is absolute fullness.
The key to a life given to the presence is prayer. There are two parts of prayer that we learn from: structure and spontaneity. For structure, I begin my day with a liturgical reading, incorporating mostly the same prayers and scriptures every day. This orients my heart toward His presence for the rest of the day. I don’t view this prayer time as having an ending; rather I view it as the opening statements of a prayer that lasts all day. The second part of prayer is spontaneity. As we remain in silence and commune with God throughout the day, as we play with our kids, take walks, read books, God is continually speaking to us and walking with us. As we let our hearts become open, He can fill every space in the entirety of our day.
Secondly, those devoted to a life of “every day monasticism” live out rhythms of life that reflect the rhythms of Jesus, that are by nature counter-cultural. In Mark 8, a teacher of the law comes to Jesus and wants to follow Him. Jesus’ response? “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” What is Jesus inviting the man into? It’s certainly not “Pray a prayer and just believe in me.” No, He is inviting him to alter the rhythms of his life to follow Him.
Our call is to follow Jesus, to lay down our rhythms and take up his. While Jesus may not be asking you to sell your home and make you wander the streets with your family, He is 100% calling all of us to make radical adjustments to the rhythms of our lives that will be counter-cultural. Everything must come under examination before him; our work schedules, our relaxing mechanisms and even our kids’ extracurricular activities. This isn’t to lay a heavy burden on us. Actually, the ways of Jesus alleviate the worries, stresses and burdens of this world.
Third, a life given to community is at the core of our calling. There is an illusion in our western culture that we are called to be independent. We are not called to be independent, but rather interdependent on the people of God around us. In our decisions, in our daily habits, in our choices, in all that we do, God has designed for us to be creatures walking out the trajectory of our lives with the gift of deep and transformative family and friendship. Humility recognizes our need for others and orients our lives to appropriately connect ourselves.
The fourth marker is this: people living out the lifestyle of everyday monasticism do not leave the problems of this world, but rather remain with an ever-present love. The God who revealed Himself through the incarnation of His Son, Jesus, is a God who came to do his work among us, with us, as us. Those living out the life of everyday monasticism enter into the pains of this world. They press into the traumas of people’s lives, they sell what they have and move into the tough neighborhoods. We are not called to simply retreat into our worlds of isolation and protection. We are to see that God is a God who prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. We find the places of darkness and become the vessels of love present in those places.
In these days, I believe that God is inviting us to hear the same call the desert fathers heard, the same call Jesus put into words, “my kingdom is not of this world.” If we turn down the noise and listen to the voice that framed the world into existence, we will hear the invitation to live a little differently, to live set apart yet present with the persisting agonies of this world. In that place, we will find the one thing that sustains, the one thing that matters…His Presence.
Photo by Hartmut Tobies