“Great occasions for serving God come seldom, but little ones surround us daily.” Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622)
“You know well that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, as at the love with which we do them.” Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897)
"Each small task of everyday life is part of the total harmony of the universe.” Saint Therese of Lisieux
‘Lord, I praise you for your beauty revealed in the morning light, and the majesty of your sun reflected across the snowflakes. This day, may I live in remembrance of your love, seeing your image and likeness in all I interact with today.’
Every morning, we start our day as a community with Lauds (morning prayer). Towards the end of Lauds, we have a time of spontaneous prayer called ‘praise and intention.’ Though we don’t have a script for the prayer, almost every day I end up praying to stay aware of God’s love, or to see God in others. It’s a simple prayer, and an intention I need to re-set every day. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a broken record, especially when I couple my morning prayer of intention with my daily prayer of confession at Vespers, which is often something like ‘Lord, I confess forgetting your love this day, and failing to see you in others…’ Then the next morning at Lauds I pray again to remember. Day in, day out, our life is a task of return and remembering, coupled with forgetting, and then returning and remembering again.
It can feel tedious, and quite humbling to regularly bring my awareness to how often I fail at my most basic intention each day. Yet, I’m convinced that this quest to remember, to remain in God, and to return when I fail is at the heart of the Way of Christ. Gradually, often in spite of my resistance, Christ draws me deeper into God’s infinite love. Our whole way of life is simply an effort to support this movement of the heart.
Why we live the way we live
Recently, several people have asked how we’ve set up our little experiment in lay contemplative life. I’ve tried to formulate an answer, but I’ve realized that I have to explain why we’re doing what we do before the how makes much sense. What we’re doing doesn’t make sense from a materialist perspective, and it probably doesn’t make sense from a purely psychological perspective either. That’s because the primary focus of our life is not physical or psychological, but spiritual.
Simply put, the goal of our individual and human lives is to enter into union with God through following the Way of Christ. This may sound elated or exotic, but it’s merely a paraphrase of the opening of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, followed (at least in theory) by 1.3 billion people:
“God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created people to make us share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to us. He calls us to seek him, to know him, to love him with all our strength. He calls together all people, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites us to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.”
So, being a Catholic means that we’re called and invited by God to enter into divine life. According to this most basic Catholic teaching, God in Christ pursues us! Therefore, our relationship with God is primarily about receiving. We’re simply opening to our divine Beloved, who is seeking us more than we are seeking God. The greatest love is already given to us, but we’re ‘scattered and divided’, and have to learn to come home and receive anew what is our rightful inheritance. We are made in the divine image and likeness, yet we need to rediscover this wonderful reality. The Way of Christ is this return project – by following, knowing, and loving Christ we undertake the process of being restored, by God, to our original divine nature. This is a simple thing. We do not need to remake ourselves, but humbly allow ourselves to be remade. It is not easy, but it is simple.
Our project at Metanoia is an effort to be intentional about return and consent to God. In our Catholic Christian tradition, as with the Orthodox Christian tradition, there are well articulated pathways for a life of intention, discipline and progressive transformation in Christ. These are most clearly expressed in the monastic traditions of these ancient churches. The path of transformation in Christ for lay people is considerably less well articulated. In pre-industrial times, I suppose this may have worked out okay for the humble of the earth. For much of history, more than 90% of a rural Christian population would have spent 90% of their waking hours with their hands in the soil and engaged with Creation. Steeped in the rhythms of God’s good Creation, living at a natural pace, and with an uncluttered mind, knowing a few simple prayers (the Our Father and Hail Mary) and weekly worship at Mass/Divine Liturgy might be enough to orient one’s whole being back to loving relationship with God through Christ.
We are not so fortunate. We live atomized, disconnected lives. Most of us are isolated from other people, from the land, and increasingly even from our own bodies and physical matter itself in an increasingly fragmented, digital world. I’ve become convinced that weekly church attendance and some short daily prayers tacked onto a full participation in late-stage industrial life are nowhere near enough to combat the numbing, ego-elevating, isolating patterns of our time. The forces pulling us away from God, from Creation, from one another and ourselves are too strong. A stronger, more deliberate response is needed if we hope to live in the fullness of life, both human and divine.
This is why we are committed to creating an alternative, lay contemplative way of life. It’s an experiment, and we’re making plenty of mistakes along the way. But our guiding intention is clear – we want to live in the fullness of life in God, and to open our hearts and our whole lives to God’s redeeming love. Put another way, we want to become saints! We humbly acknowledge that only God can accomplish this great work, yet we also remember that God longs to make us holy and whole.
If this is our goal, how are we seeking to accomplish this at Metanoia? We have three simple tools to help remain open to Christ’s transforming power: Prayer, Simplicity of Life and a Life of Connection.
Prayer: As I shared in The Conversation Between Heaven and Earth, our day is centered around prayer through the Liturgy of the Hours. Prayer, or conscious relationship with God, is the structure around which the rest of the day is oriented. It is our ‘first fruits’ that we give to God first, and then we let the rest of life ‘fill in’ around the commitment to prayer. This is not always easy, especially with active young children. However, it’s the essential bedrock that makes everything else here possible.
Simplicity of Life: We seek to live with enough spaciousness to allow ourselves to listen and remain receptive to God. There’s always more to do on the land, and more good works that could be done in service to others. Yet if we overextend ourselves, we lose the receptive attitude that makes work spiritually fruitful. This also involves stripping away many of the things we have come to take for granted in modern life, to make space to remain attentive to God. We’re still exploring how this plays out in daily life. So far, it means no TV, disciplining our time on any screens, being intentional about commitments off the homestead, simplifying clothing, and (for most of the year) living without electricity and running water in our dwelling. Lisa has shared with me a teaching that the devil’s best tools are noise, hurry, and crowds. We seek to minimize all three in our way of life.
A Life of Connection: As we find God in reality, we seek to live in authentic relationship with the land, with physical matter, and with others. This means prioritizing raising much of our own food and cutting our own fuel, even in circumstances when it would be cheaper to buy them in. It means prioritizing direct work with our hands, even when we could make more money on a computer and hire in contractors. It means prioritizing a few intimate face-to-face relationships over virtual engagement with wider numbers. It means being involved in our local church and inviting others to join us on our land to work side-by-side. Many of our choices in this realm are ‘inefficient’ by the world’s standards, but taken together they lead to peace in body and soul, and a grounding in reality that opens the doorway to encounter God in all things.
A Refuge for Everyday Sanctification
Just as a monastery provides an environment of greater spiritual focus for monastics, we envision our lay contemplative homestead as a place where people can practice the Way of Christ with fewer distractions. Our hope is that it is something of a refuge, where we can practice the work of everyday sanctification in an environment that is suitable for families, children, and lay people. I love the monastic model and vision of life. And if we take the universal call to holiness seriously, we need to build places where it’s easier to follow the Way of Christ with depth and integrity, including for the large majority of Christians who do not have a celibate vocation. Our experience is that it doesn’t take that much to create a little subculture where the work of sanctification can be well supported. We’re currently a residential community of three adults and two children, with an additional three adults supporting us on our board. This summer, we will probably expand to either five adults and two children, or six adults and three children. Yet there’s a distinctly different feel of life here than in ‘the world’ – it’s a place that is built around prayer, simplicity, and connection. We’re figuring it out, and making lots of mistakes along the way. We don’t have to be perfect (thank God!) to have this be a place that is profoundly good, and where people are able to receive God’s abundant blessings.
This is why we are living how we live. It’s basic Christianity, lived with intentionality. Our aim is to support the transforming work of God within us, and within all those who choose to come and walk with us here on this land. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. That’s the why of our way of life.
There is, of course, a great deal of work to be done in the journey of sanctification within the confines of this way of life. For this, we’re learning to lean on saints like St Francis de Sales and St Therese of Lisieux who emphasize the work of doing small things with great love. It’s the little, humble path that is potentially available to every Christian, in whatever state of life. Our way is designed to create the space to live our limited, ordinary lives with great love. Once we take this ‘little way’ of sanctification seriously, the Kingdom of God indeed draws near to us, as every moment is an infinitely precious opportunity to live in God who is love.
This is great. What you are saying here is entirely in line with the Benedict Option, Wild Christianity, etc. What we often lack in all of this is the concrete, practical steps based on actually living it to start to put it into action.
Novice Br. A here at the monastery said the other day he became interested in monasticism because he didn't see how he could live a Christian life otherwise. This may become increasingly true for more and more people. I look forward to hearing more.