This article first appeared on David's Blog.
I have moved to the United Kingdom to become a monk. More specifically, I live now in Lambeth Palace in the heart of London and have joined the Community of Saint Anselm. It’s a religious order of young people devoted to prayer, study and service to the poor started by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2015. It involves community living with a diverse, small group of young Christians from around the world and is a yearlong commitment.
It’s radical and outside the norm. There is satisfaction in recognizing that others have certain expectations around how life ought to be lived, deciding I don’t care and living my life as I want to regardless. I don’t fit into cookie-cutter social categories. Born with a birth defect and having grown up with avoidant personality disorder, I have lived a divergent path and am not afraid to continue doing so.
But why become a monk? If you want a simple answer, here you are: this path provides a fullness of joy (and it allows me to continue seeking answers to life’s greatest questions). That was my experience in Taizé, where I volunteered for two and a half months. I want more of the joy and insight that comes from living in that somewhat intensive spiritually focused community living. Taizé is a well-known ecumenical monastery in the French countryside that attracts thousands of young people each week. In February, I left Canada to live there and when I came back, I was planning on returning. Then I decided that the Community of Saint Anselm is the better choice for me.
If you want a better answer as to why I am on this journey, then keep reading.
My story begins when I was a teenager, when I lived a life of constant angst and discontent. I dealt with my circumstances through fixating on a destiny I dreamed for myself – that I would become a famous author and have a PhD. The future possibility seemed so certain and reassuring. To get there, I put a huge amount of effort into school, much more than necessary, but this effort only served to reinforce a sense of inadequacy. My ambition was meant to help me but was hurting instead. Even so, I kept pursuing it more and more, clung tighter and tighter to the point where nothing made any sense and I had little else.
I went to university and I spent the last two years grappling with the terrible realization that this longstanding obsession with academic success was a hopeless mistake. I had put in all my effort so I could reach goals that were unobtainable and yet, in the process, had sacrificed too much. I had almost nothing – no fruit from my labor and not much of a life. Moreover, I saw that I had been living a sheltered life of learned helplessness and had no concept of personal agency. I could hardly identify what it meant to be authentic towards myself.
So, I let it all go.
I learned firsthand that this pursuit of prestige and personal greatness could be empty and toxic. I saw that this idea I used to have about being destined towards a special and excellent life was a parasite that sucked out my life. I could tell that similar pursuits around money and other types of success are equally hollow, that almost everything we seek is meaningless and that therefore life is what we make of it but regardless our existence is mostly absurd. I learned then that we have the power to shape our lives as we see fit. The biggest factors in our lives are our own attitudes and beliefs. Beyond that though, what is the significance?
After I graduated, I continued to try to make something out of myself in some capacity or another. I obsessed about my place in the world, and how to be enough. I wanted life experience, so I went tree planting and then went overseas to teach. Then I came back and tried to become a teacher, then quit that path and found a good office job. In those couple of years, I learned more and more to let go of previous expectations around my life. I discovered different strengths I had not noticed and continued to let go of faulty assumptions. For example, the question of whether we have to succeed at things in life. Do we?
Let me bring up a separate topic.
I grew up a faithful, conservative Evangelical Christian. I used to be full of certainty and passion. Then my time at university crippled my Christian faith, plunging it in and out of life support. Many of the attitudes and beliefs no longer made sense to me. At times, my faith was fully dead. Last year, however, I saw a resurgence of belief in my life. Through reading books by Anglican and Catholic thinkers and practicing Ignatian Spirituality, I saw that my faith did in fact make sense and did feel real.
At the end of January this year, a great thing happened to me: I lost my nice, competitive office job. At that moment, I remembered about my difficult teenage years, my undergraduate crisis, my failed efforts at being as ‘successful’ as I wanted, and how my faith was alive again. I thought about how absurd everything was and the uniqueness of my own path. I saw the opportunity. The timing seemed perfect. The next day, I decided to go to Taizé, France.
My choice to go was clear. I was still young and free and had nothing holding me back. Other goals were illusory. So, I went.
Going was one of the best things I have ever done. I was happy beyond words.
What did that place do for me? First, it allowed me to abandon fully my expectations and pressures around needing to be successful about anything. I accepted the truth about how we are all inherently fine as we are. Moreover, it showed me that I could go further with that old lesson about the value of letting things go. Dropping ambitions not meant for us is good, but there may be a deeper truth; an idea that I want to further explore: the abandonment of our ego, of our own wants and drives in general is the path to true joy.
Taizé allowed me to taste the water of life. There, I saw for myself the profoundest of truths: that God surrounds us. Through silence and prayer, I can feel his presence through discovering the depth of love that exists within me, a presence that is a reflection of that divine source of all love. While there, I drank from the reservoir of frequent communion with the divine, and it filled me up like nothing else ever had. It was blissful and I left transformed.
I trust that that same connection with the spiritual realm exists elsewhere, as it should (and does). With this in mind, I am about to join the Community of Saint Anselm for a year. This community is similar in that it revolves around prayer and communal living. It is different from Taizé in that it is more study-focused, has an element of serving the urban poor and is much smaller – that same ebb and flow of guests does not exist. I am sure I will some of the same joy, though realistically a year in any place will have its challenges too.
I go with an attitude that may be the truest form of faith. I do not pretend to know exactly what the truth is, and am skeptical of (or disagree with) plenty of the tenets of Christianity, but I know there is truth in this religious tradition, and I want to both have more of that relationship with God and to understand my faith better. I move forward out of trust – trust and spiritual thirst.
So here I am, off to become a monk for a year. I will be back afterwards. I will, I swear. Personally, this monastic path does not interest me as something permanent. I am full of optimism and enthusiasm for the great things in store for my future and I sense a year is a perfect amount of time. It will be. That is why I am becoming a monk.