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Forty-Eight Hours with a MonkBy Dave Scheider
“Oh, thank goodness,” I thought to myself as I saw that Brother Curtis’s plane was delayed by half an hour. Strangely having to wait has become an oasis for me. Every now and then my life gets so full that I welcome time to sit in an airport (or anywhere).
Brother Curtis, from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, had left a very chilly Boston early that morning to visit Seminary of the Southwest in balmy Austin. He had served as the Superior of the community for nine years and now runs Emery House, the community’s retreat center near the border of New Hampshire. The Society of Saint John the Evangelist began in England in 1866 and came to Boston in 1870. It was the first religious community of men in the Anglican Communion since the Reformation.
The minute we met at the bottom of the escalator I sensed his calm. We had never actually seen each other except on Skype when we planned the details of this visit. As a representative for the school’s committee on wellness, I had asked him to lead us in a retreat in the midst of our busy seminary schedule. The intent of the retreat was to stick to our normal routine of classes and worship, but to have him speak at our morning prayer, evening prayer, and Eucharist. We wanted to see if he could help us move more deeply into the already established rhythm of our life rather than imposing a new one that we probably could not sustain. The principle behind this type of spirituality is not to move out of life to find God, but to move more deeply into what we have to discover God has been there all the time anyway.
Many of the seminary faculty knew him from previous visits or other intersections in the life of our denomination. Brother Curtis, I discovered is for them a monastic celebrity representing a life for which many long. The common reaction of those who know him is a slight rolling of the eyes upward in a blissful manner and words such as, “Oh, I just love Brother Curtis.” Perhaps I had been conditioned by their impressions, but I found that I instantly liked this man standing in front of me. For the next 48 hours I would have multiple short discussions with him as we walked from his guest suite to the chapel or classroom. The following are a few gifts I received from these visits, presentation, and conversations.
- Slow down. Immediately I noticed how slowly he walked. Initially, I resisted the pace, wanting to go faster. Then I settled into to his speed. Soon I felt relaxed and could enter into the moment, savoring the encounter and conversation. A recent discussion with an area spiritual director helped me embrace this measured pace of walking, talking, and performing. She told me that she manages her busy schedule by living at 35 miles per hour. She asks herself before making any commitments, “If I say yes to this invitation, will I still be able to live at 35mph?” Most things, except exercise, are more enjoyable if we slow down. I also noted that this monk’s speech was slow, deliberate, and measured. It was not stilted or awkward. He took words seriously, even when he was being funny.
- Enjoy what is. Brother Curtis offered talks on how to end a day and how to celebrate the day before us. Using the imagery of live entertainment, he reminded us that at the end of a performance, the audience always claps. I imagined him leading a standing ovation to the day God had made as an act of prayer after reflecting on what had been. In a similar manner he encouraged us to welcome each new day with awe and gratitude. What a wonder it is to be able to do the small things of getting out of bed, having food… the list could go on endlessly recounting the amazing things we have. Unfortunately we often focus on what we don’t have and feel miserable. Brother Curtis caressed the fronds of a fern as he told me how wonderful everything is. He had learned this in a drive across West Texas with a bishop who kept stopping the car to show him things in the desert. Brother Curtis confided, “After that I was converted.” He explained that he had new eyes to see reality and because of that was often filled with gratitude.
- You are the apple of God’s eye. Brother Curtis taught several classes as a guest lecturer. In my class he shared a set of guiding principles for spiritual directors. For anyone with a negative self-image, he prescribed Psalm 17:8 “Guard me as the apple of the eye.” He looked at the class and asked, “Do you know what the apple of the eye is?” The apple of the eye is the image one sees when a loved one is so close that one can see his or her own image in the iris. Babies see this in their mother’s gaze. Lovers see it in the intimate, longing eye contact that is close but not close enough. He told us, “That is how much God loves and longs for you that you are the apple of God’s eye.”
On the drive to the airport for his return trip to Boston, I asked Brother Curtis for the greatest gift monastic life had given him these last 30 years. He thought for quite some time and then responded slowly. “Forgiveness…Yes it has been forgiveness. I know that in another place I would have hidden from people I hurt. In the monastery there is no place to hide. You have to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Yes, forgiveness has been the greatest gift this life has given me.”
- What is the greatest gift your life has given you?
- If someone walked with you for a day what life lessons might he or she glean?
- Who has loved you so deeply that you were the apple of his or her eye?
- How would your ability to enjoy your life increase if you slowed down and lived at “35 mph?”
Dave Scheider is the Director of the Loise Henderson Wessendorf Center for Christian Ministry and Vocation at Seminary of the Southwest. Prior to joining the faculty of Seminary of the Southwest, Dave served as an Army Chaplain for 25 years.
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