Once I was graced with a sabbatical granted by my congregation. After considering several options, I chose to spend my month away in a monastery. Yes, there were monks, Gregorian chants, spartan dining, midnight prayers, deep quiet and more manual labor than I was used to. The month held a host of new experiences. I corked wine bottles, wrestled with ancient granite stones and doubled my Latin vocabulary. I was bathed in silence – so much silence that you could hear the sunset. It was a very positive experience. Why? Much of the benefit is still unfolding in me, but there is one thing I can name. I discovered a depth of joy that was new to me. Now, I have had my share of joyous moments in the past - the expected joy of a wedding day and the unexpected joy of a Seattle Seahawks victory. But, this taste of joy was unique.
For many, joy is found in the pleasures of life - a fine dinner, good music, the latest tech gadget, reaching a significant goal, connecting with friends. But are these things crucial for joy? That’s where the monastery comes in. When I entered the monastic culture, I had to surrender to the strict regimen. And believe me, monks know how to do without. There was no TV, so Sunday football went on without me. No wifi connections meant I was deaf, dumb and blind to the internet. A vegetarian diet demanded that I be satisfied to dream about burgers. (And I did.) I was restricted to the cloistered grounds so exploration took all of one afternoon. I had no one there I knew and no one knew me. I was living where the things I trusted to bring a smile to my face were absent. Everything was stripped away, leaving just me and my thoughts before God.
To be frank, about 5 days in, I thought I had made a major mistake. I was ready to jump the wall. Then something happened. Silence and solitude became my friends. The things I was missing were less important than the things I was finding. Being alone with God in a bare room lost its intimidation. It became inviting. Joy began to take root, a joy that emanated straight from God. It surprised me - but it shouldn’t have. God says that in His presence is the fullness of joy (Ps.16:11). In other words, joy saturates His footprints and sprouts from His nearness. The absence of life’s gifts or pleasures does not preclude the abundance of joy. And since God is everywhere at all times - joy is never far away.
So, what to do? While you too could visit a monastery, you don’t have to. You might choose to shut off some electronics, construct a few blank spaces into your calendar or be alone for a weekend. If in that created space you turn your face towards God, you may discover a gift. Be patient. Push through. Focus your attention. Joy is waiting for you. God is near.