Trip to a Monastery: Journey to Identity in Christ (Mar-Apr 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Anthony W. Arnold
March – April, 2005

Thomas Merton, in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, wrote, “Without a life of the spirit our whole existence becomes unsubstantial and illusory.”

When I booked a retreat at a monastery called Gethsemani Abbey, I had not yet read these words. I did not know that God was preparing to drive them into my heart three months later. I was intrigued by the idea of a personal, spiritual retreat. I did not realize at the time that God’s spirit was influencing me, hoping that in my free will that I would act on His exhortation. I did act and His paternal love and mercy were revealed to me those many months later.

Gethsemani is situated among the rolling hills in the middle of Kentucky well off the highways. The Abbey is surrounded by fields and miles of wooded land in which several small lakes are hidden. When you are on retreat at Gethsemani, it is almost entirely a silent respite. Your time is not directed. You are free to attend any of the eight daily prayer and worship periods of the monks with the first, Vigils, occurring at 3:15 am. You have a room with linens supplied and meals are provided. You are absolved of any duties during your stay according to Saint Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries, which states the guest represents Christ and has a claim on the welcome and care of the community. The monks, the facilities, the worship services, and the surrounding miles of nature see to it that external distractions are removed. They purposefully combine to create a contemplative atmosphere. Merton, a monk at Gethsemani for twenty-seven years, described this atmosphere as a place “to entertain silence in the heart and listen for the voice of God—to pray for your own discovery.” The purpose of a Gethsemani retreat is communion with God through prayer, meditation, worship, and personal reflection. When you are in such a setting, the Spirit will provoke you. I cannot imagine anyone having a lukewarm experience in this place.

On the second day of my retreat, a beautiful Saturday morning with the sun burning off the early morning mist, I went for a walk to the statues of the Garden of Gethsemane. The statues are two life size sculptures, one depicting the apostles sleeping in the garden and the other of Christ praying in agony.

Trip To A MonasteryA serene hike through the woods and over a hill brings you to an opening meadow. In this large, mowed meadow is a copse engulfing a small hill where the statues are located. I did not proceed directly into the woods via the statue path. I decided to walk around the edge of the thicket in the meadow.

The edge of the thicket was a deep, impenetrable wall of wild flowers with bees and insects performing a wonderful symphony of nature. I was completely alone as I strolled around the far side of the hill. As I walked, I began to concentrate and reflect on the main purpose I had for this retreat. Not a purpose I consciously had three months prior, but a thorn that had recently moved from periodic discomfort to a pain of very sharp focus.

Over the last three years, I had been struggling with stress and unhappiness, even though my religious life was more active than ever. I was more involved at church, and I had started attending a small, intimate men’s fellowship. Yet, I was not content. Job stress seemed never-ending. My marriage was not as intimate as it should be and was even contentious at times. I was searching for inner peace, but it eluded me. The only things that were bringing me happiness were my precious daughter, worship, listening to music or reading in solitude, and my men’s group. My unhappiness at work and home quickly brought me out of those fleeting moments of peace.

My crisis was that I was miserable trying to please others. I felt I could not do enough to please my wife, my boss, or the company president. Somebody out of this group, at all times it seemed to me, was dissatisfied—sometimes all three at once. This is not necessarily an indictment of these individuals; they were just the people in my life that required the most time and accountability. My self-worth and acceptance have always been tied too much to what I perceived others think. I tend to associate my mistakes with failure. Small embarrassments become lingering trauma. I worry about what my peers’ and my acquaintances’ opinions of me are. Of all the circles in which I have moved throughout my life—schools, jobs, churches, etc.—only in a very few have I felt that I truly fit. This behavior was slowly devouring me. In the men’s fellowship, we were studying simplicity and a contemplative life. I defined what this meant to me as, peace of soul: a contentment that is removed from circumstance. I defined it, but why could I not achieve it?

I had discussed my struggles with a counselor and she asked me if I thought God was ever unhappy with me? I answered most assuredly. I sin and He must get angry over some of the things I do. “Does this depress you in the same way?” she asked? I answered “no,” and she questioned, “why not?” I thought hard on this for a week. The answer I arrived at was God’s assured love for me, His grace through Christ. I have salvation despite my failings. She posed the question, “If you can see God this way and accept yourself because of it, even with sin, why do you elevate the opinion of others above this?” Merton described this paradox so well when he wrote:

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!

Coming to Gethsemani I had reached a breaking point and God knew it. I just could not survive work and home anymore basing my feelings of self on the emotions of those around me. As I moved around the backside of the hill, I began to contemplate and pray about my unhappiness, its source, and the path to healing. I realized that I was basing my identity, not on Christ, but on perceptions of the judgments of others. My minister, Tim Woodroof, had said we must find our identity in Christ and Christ alone. We are not spouses, fathers and mothers, business people, doctors, ministers etc. We are Christians. I knew it as truth but I was not practicing it. Alone in contemplation and prayer, all this came to me in internal acceptance and understanding. How often do we know a truth in our minds, but fail to accept it in our hearts?

The light hit me in this meadow, my road to Damascus. God said to my heart, “I am your identity, accept it. Let go of what others think of you, or worse, what you think they think. I let my Son die for you. What more do you need to know about yourself?” (Romans 5:1-5) Tears flowed. I am okay; not perfect, but loved by God. I need to love myself as His creation—Christian love, not vanity. More importantly, it is only through Christ that I am made perfect, and He loved me enough to die doing so. [Jn. 16:33]

I proceeded back to the statues and entered the wood to view them. I knelt down to pray in front of the sculpture of Jesus on his knees, head lifted heavenward, hands clasped over his face, praying in agony. I lifted up a prayer of thanks for God’s revelation and the peace I was feeling. I began by petitioning the Lord to empty me of myself and to fill me with His Holy Spirit. I then asked God to help me not focus on the people at work, to let me not judge myself through them, to help me be a good father, a good husband, and to . . .

I realized I was immediately falling into the same ironic trap by praying for assistance in being those things that are not my root identity. They were not necessarily bad things to pray for, but off the mark at that moment. I emptied my heart. I prayed, “Let me focus on being your creature.” If I can do this, then I cannot help but be a good father, husband, or employee. If I know my root identity, I will act from it. I had taken the first infant steps toward contentment that is removed from circumstance. I tried to record my emotions and contemplation in a psalm.

A Prayer of Supplication and Identity

Prayer and Lamentation
O Lord God, I came to you burdened and alone. My spirit pained; torment and ridicule haunted me.

Am I not a good husband, a loving father God? Am I not diligent and concerned at my work?

O why then, Father, cannot I make the world happy with me? Why do those surrounding me chastise me, O Lord?

Why am I not satisfied with myself? Why do I despair in my heart and beat upon my own soul?

O Father, it is not because I have turned from you! I worship and pray fervently. I serve you in more earthly ways than ever before.

Lord, my sins are fewer and less frequent than times past. Yet Your peace eludes me!

Why cannot I put on Your mantle of love and wear it like armour?

Your peace and love I taste at the plate of worship. Yet I cannot carry the fullness of the feast outside your Church.

The stomach of my soul growls with emptiness when I return to the world.

Revelation
In the solitude of Your splendor, Lord, You answered me.

Do I not love you!

Do not My blessings and grace sustain you!

Stop searching for worldly approval and human justification.

It is I who justified you through creation. It is I who justified you through My only Son.

He gave His life to earthly death, was crucified for you. What other justification do you require?

Wake up child and become a man in Christ! Your identity is found solely in My Son and Him alone.

Let the feast of His sacrifice fill you and sustain you forever!

I had not read Merton’s comment on a life removed from the spirit when I booked the retreat. Actually, I read it several weeks after the retreat as I made my way through his autobiography. Yet those profound words succinctly express what God revealed to me that weekend. Although I had been a Christian all my life and had a strong relationship with the Father, I still was not truly living in the Spirit. I had not completely undergone the spiritual transformation that is available to us when we accept Christ as our crucified and risen Savior, the One who died so that we might live eternally. That transformation for me is not being a Christian as a statement of fact, but being unable to separate my Christianity from myself anymore than being brown-eyed or being male. That my behavior and acts of charity are no longer motivated by Christian duty, as a favor to God, but become an uncontrollable sharing of the overwhelming gift of grace. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you

Because I was not fully living in the Spirit, I was still a broken man. The truth is that much of my mental and emotional suffering was self-inflicted when I placed my identity in anything but Christ. I could not possibly achieve lasting peace and contentment independent of circumstance, because my life outside the spirit was not substantial and so much of what I thought I was, or supposed to be, was an illusion. Furthermore, I had never had a permanent movement of my will toward God’s will. Thus, my morals, my ethics, my actions, although sincere and good were at risk of being dead in the flesh, not alive in the Spirit. What is my purpose outside of Christ? What meaning does my life have outside the Spirit? What lasting impact will it have on the world if it is not driven by the will of God? Apart from God, my life is insignificant and meaningless. However, when I accept my identity as a child of God and turn my will over to Him, my life can effect eternal change. If my actions, directed by God’s will, bring just one soul to Him, then I have been an instrument in a most glorious, eternal consequence.

The struggles with my identity and my purpose are inevitable. They come as I try to be in the world but not of the world. The busyness of my life, even in my Christian activity, can allow Satan to systematically and covertly rob me of my true identity and cause me to seek justification through worldly actions. The primary avenues of his attacks are pride and the absence of stillness in my life. Only through regular removal of myself from earthly matters to periods of contemplative prayer and meditation, can I retrench to the fundamental truths and renew myself in the Spirit—the result is that I re-dedicate my will to His will. Even Christ, in all His power and perfection, needed such time with His Father. Who am I, as a weaker creation, to need less?

So it is with all of us. We must constantly root our identity in the firm foundation of God’s living grace. Brothers and sisters, when you struggle with your identity, when you feel assailed and embattled by the world, I encourage you to take solace in Psalm 62:1-8 (NIV):

My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

How long will you assault a man? Would all of you throw him down – this leaning wall, this tottering fence?

They fully intend to topple him from his lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken. My salvation and my honor depend on God; he is my mighty rock, my refuge. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.

New Wineskins


Resources
What has influenced my Spiritual walk in addition to Scripture . . .

My wife and daughter, who show me what Christ is and what I am not.

Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp

Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

No Man Is an Island and The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

The New Economics: Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming

Anthony Arnold’s Blog [Tony Arnold]

Anthony Arnold (and daughter)Anthony W. Arnold is a business and engineering professional who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife, Anita, and four year old daughter, Maria. He enjoys an eclectic range of literature and music, playing his guitar, sports (a die-hard, die-often Vanderbilt fan), and science and astronomy. He enjoys times of solitude and quiet in nature and retreats for spiritual renewal (the quiet part surprising people who know him).

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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