Holy Cross Abbey • Berryhill, VA

The first blatant difference I noticed coming into Berryhill was the weather. It was the my first run in with the lovely winter, and I’m happy to report I was not only safe, but I also gazed in wonder like a child at the delicate snowfall (perhaps it helped that it still wasn’t as cold as Iowa).

I came to Holy Cross Abbey on a very busy weekend – there was a full guesthouse and the expectation of even more guests the following day as there was a funeral taking place. All guests were welcome to attend, so I respectfully attended the funeral proceedings.

Many assume there is pure rigidity in the monastic life. This is one of the things I beg to differ on. I have found and felt more freedom in the lives of these monks and nuns than I have found inflexibility. It’s important to note that any one of these monks or nuns can leave at any time – no one is being held captive or hindered from doing so. This is what makes these places so remarkable – each person chooses to be a part of their community, each monk or nun chooses to go to prayer, chooses to do their job, chooses to pray or not pray, chooses to live in harmony or not with their brothers or sisters, etc. Absolutely nothing in the monastic life is forced, for if that were the case, it would very clearly take away from the beauty of the community, the place, their adoration of God.

One of the main of many topics that came up here was the topic of freedom in commitment. I was able to discuss this concept with a monk who described coming to and going through thresholds in his life offering a grand sense of freedom. He talked about how he came to a point where he knew that if he dug deep into what was before him, he would find something valuable.

For some, this may be where fight/flight/freeze comes into play – for others, this may be where gut instinct kicks in – and for others, this may be where there is no stutter step or tango with a question (ahhh, wouldn’t that be nice). One of the things this makes me think of is the wall, I kept thinking ‘what do I do when I hit the wall?’ Some strictly refer to the wall as that point during participation in endurance sports where fatigue and exhaustion have the potential to take over (mind you, there’s some serious science here we’re not discussing regarding glycogen depletion). However, I’m discussing the wall as more of a metaphoric stance on when difficulties and/or challenges arise. I think it’s possible that our society has made it easier and easier to avoid, disregard, evade, be indifferent to, or even completely run from these things. I also think it’s a lot easier for me to blame society and have some avoidant conversation about what’s wrong with our world, than it is for me to look inward and question not ‘what’s wrong with me,’ but instead ‘what is this asking of me?’ or ‘what can I say about myself right now?’ More than that, I’ve found that the ‘walls’ in my life are often the points of breakthrough – whether they be via the course of heartache or elation. These ‘walls’ shape who I am and give me the opportunity to be more of who I am, be more true to who I am.

I recognize this is no new concept and all of us face these experiences regularly, for some maybe even daily. I’m just trying to face these walls in a new light – that they’re not about what’s wrong with the world or someone else, but rather an opportunity to create me AND have an increasing say in who I am/who I want to be – whether that be taking an adventurous turn down an unknown road (despite my being tired) to explore, or quitting my job to pursue a passion. I think it’s also important to note that when faced with the same ‘wall’ I may choose something different – possibly because I’ve changed, possibly because last time felt ‘wrong,’ or maybe for another reason. I don’t think this necessarily changes the core of someone, instead, I think it demonstrates growth and/or fluidity in one’s self discovery.

“Freedom of choice is not, itself, the perfection of liberty. But it helps us take our first step toward freedom or slavery, spontaneity or compulsion. The free man is the one whose choices have given him the power to stand on his own feet and determine his own life according to the higher light and spirit that are in him. The slave, in the spiritual order, is the man whose choices have destroyed all spontaneity in him and have delivered him over, bound hand and foot, to his own compulsions, idiosyncrasies and illusions, so that he never does what he really wants to do, but only what he has to do.” Thomas Merton, The New Man

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