Fr. John O’Brien has been a monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit since 1973. He was ordained a priest in 1983. He entered the Monastery at the age of 38. He is a quiet man, very thoughtful and compassionate. He is one of our Confessor’s here at our Retreat House. He is deeply in touch with the human condition and when he gives his homilies it comes through in a gentle, loving manner.
The piece below is a talked he gave about a year ago.
A monastic presence here in Georgia
Fr. Francis Michael thought it might be helpful to our discussion if one of his monks said a few words about why we think it is important to keep a monastic presence here in Georgia when there are some voices out there that might say monasteries are just relics of the early middle ages, and they should just be allowed to wither away, since they don’t seem to be serving any useful function in today’s modern, technological society.
They are important today, not because of the monks who live in them, but for the many visitors who come to our guest house in ever-increasing numbers. Down through the centuries monasteries have always been a destination for pilgrims looking to find an oasis of peace and solitude away from the noisy, distracted world with its many stresses on the human psyche. A place where they can reflect on things which they wouldn’t have time for in their busy work-a-day world: things that the poet Wordsworth would call “deep down things.”
I suspect that not too long ago most people thought that monks in monasteries were hermetically sealed away from the world, and had no real interest in what was going on in it; and to a certain extent there was some truth in that; but for the past 35 years that I have been here it has been completely different; the doors have been thrown wide open, and when the people come into the church to join us in our liturgical services they come right into the choir stalls and sit down right beside us to chant the prayers with us.
The visitors who come to our guest house are not just Catholics, but people of all faiths, and people of no faith. Over the years I have met any number of people who profess to be atheists or agnostics; so why do they come here? Some will say that they see the monastery as set apart from the institutional church, which they may have some unresolved issues with; but mainly they are responding to a vague, nebulous rumbling in their psyche, which is whispering to them that there just might be something more to this world than just atoms in the void.
Many of the visitors who come here come with a heavy burden on their shoulders, a pain in their heart, a wound in their soul. If you pass through our church any time during the day you will see some of them sitting in the back pews, and not a few of them will be in tears. Those of us monks who minister to these pilgrims try our best to lighten their burden, soften their pain, and heal their wound; and we do it not by proselytizing, but by listening, and that is right out of St. Benedict’s rule. If you look at the south wall of our building over there, you will see sculptured right into the stone these words, “Ausculta et Inclina”, “Listen and incline the ear of your heart.”
Benedict doesn’t say the ear of your body, but the ear of your heart. Mystics down through the ages are forever talking about the thinking heart as opposed to the rational mind. One of the great works of mystical literature is a book written in the 14th. century called The Cloud of Unknowing ; the author tells you right there in the first page what the search for God is all about, “ by love He may be gotten and holden, but by reason, never.” This goes right back to St. Augustine who said, “our whole business in this life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen.”
For centuries religious philosophers have continually pictured man in an attitude of attentive listening; if we mean to find the God we are seeking we must listen with every fiber of our being, for He who actually dwells within us is often hidden from us. Seeking God, St. Benedict says, is seeking Him amid the trials of life, amid the doubts and misgivings about His existence. All of us find ourselves from time to time with our own share of atheism, which we carry painfully in the depths of our being. But we also know by experience the crucible of faith, and how the hand of God works in it to strip us of all our false idols, and it is only on coming out of this crucible does a glimmer of light begin to show itself. “I do not honor Christ as a child,” wrote the great Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky, “my hosannas have passed through the crucible of doubt.”
And all of this is contained in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. It is clear from St. Matthew’s gospel (Mt.8:17) that Christ does not bring us help through his power, but through His weakness and His suffering, which passes into our weakness and suffering, and then the healing begins, not as modern medicine heals, but in other ways.
This was clearly understood by one of the great spiritual masters of the last century, a Sufi mystic who said:
“One who searches for God does not find God,
but one who leans on God for support will
not be unaware of His presence.”
What he is saying is that before I lean I don’t know if there is anything to lean on,
but when I lean I feel the support, and the more weight I put on it the more powerfully it supports me. He is saying that leaning is believing; an experience of God comes from the leaning, and you feel the presence.
And that is what we try to convey to the wounded pilgrims who come here; but that doesn’t mean that their pain, suffering and wounds are going to disappear overnight just by staying a few days in the monastery, because its not, and they know that. But what we hope for, and what we pray for is that they will see their wounds with new eyes, and that will give them the faith, and the courage, and the strength to face them, and to know that they are not alone in their trials, that Christ the ultimate wounded one will be there with them on their journey.
And that is why we are here, and that is why all of you are here, to help us, and to participate with us in this mission to try to add a small measure of grace to a world that is sorely in need of it.