This is my far occasion of sin. As I watch a choir monk enjoy his meal, I look at my life, and I am greatly tempted to walk away from all of it. What do I have that I cannot do without? I am not content. I entertain a desire to switch places with this other man and live a different kind of life.
By Chris Lesley
21 May 2019
I bear the weight of a terrible temptation.
Its source lies in the French Alps, the Grande Chartreuse of the Order of Saint Bruno, and takes the form of a man.
If you’ve ever seen the documentary Into Great Silence, you will find this man, a choir monk, eating lunch in the doorway of his garden.
Look a little closer. The filmmaker, Philip Groening, offers an associative montage of the monk enjoying his meal as what appears to be a commercial airliner flies directly overhead. He remains focused on his nourishment, as if the spectacle of modern technology were of no interest to him.
I watch him eat, though it seems impolite, and wonder when I last enjoyed a meal like he is doing.
I sit at my desk before another modern miracle, a flat screen monitor, powered and updated by a yet another, the most powerful tool ever devised by human beings—a computer. I use it to send and receive emails, read books, play games, write letters, apply for jobs, watch movies (the very documentary I’m talking about, in fact), anything I might imagine that can be carried on a copper wire or a fiber optic cable.
I do all these things, and I am not content.
Have another look. Have you ever seen anyone relax that way? I feel certain I could pick him up by the scruff of his neck and he would go limp like a kitten held in its mother’s mouth. He could be having the worst day of his life, and none of his brothers would ever know about it.
Sometimes, when I have a bad day, I make sure someone else knows, whether he or she wishes to know or not. I always regret it later. I come back to this documentary, to this scene, and I wonder if this good man ever regrets anything.
I look at my life. My job, my bills, my possessions, and I am greatly tempted to walk away from all of it. What do I have that I cannot do without? What chains do I bear, and why, when the keys to my freedom lie within my reach? What pearls, however dull and artificial, must I sell to buy the inner peace the monks of the Order of Saint Bruno enjoy for nothing?
My choices and their consequences. My obligations. My friends and family. Sometimes I am tempted not to sell them, but to give them away to anyone who wants them. How could I keep them, when a life of perfect peace awaits me, perhaps within a monastery in the French Alps?
Thomas Aquinas identified this temptation, to look at one’s life and find little or nothing worth doing or being, to be always bored with the present task or obligation. To be always peeking over our neighbor’s fence, admiring the brilliant green of his lawn, comparing it to our own dry grass, dying of thirst and neglect.
The Desert Fathers knew of it too, seeing their brothers grow bored and listless, perhaps themselves growing tired of sand and lizards and sun-baked stone.
I look once more at this young monk in Philip Groening’s documentary, eating lunch in the doorway of his garden, and wonder if he ever grows tired of the view. I wonder if he is ever tempted to change places with someone like me.
Then it occurs to me that this man is a spiritual hero to me not only because he is content but because he is content with what he has. And what he has is everything, daily paying the price, never counting the cost.
I think about these things, and the temptation to leave my modern life behind fades like the contrails of a passing airliner.