Many of us love the theologian, priest, and author Henri Nouwen for his insights and guidance on the spiritual life. I recently reread his book, The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery. This book is Nouwen’s diary about the seven months he spent as a “temporary monk” in the Abbey of the Genesee in New York. Nouwen took this extended retreat in 1974 while he was a professor at Yale Divinity School. He did so to face his restless self and to step back from a busyness and sense of self-importance that seemed to have a hold on him. He had questions about himself and questions for God.
Nouwen’s diary is full of insights about monastic life and the Christian faith. I highly recommend it. But the part that arrested me came at the very end, when Nouwen returned to his life and work as a professor.
Nouwen reports that soon after returning to his everyday life, his “demons” returned: restlessness, ambition, illusions, and compulsions. His seven months in the monastery, he says, did not change him. Did not improve him. Did not solve his problems. Did not even quiet his heart.
What a surprising denouement to this little book! After following Nouwen’s daily life in the monastery, the reader does not expect to learn that his retreat amounted to so little. We were looking for results: big changes, a new life, a renewed spirit.
At first, Nouwen was thrown by the return of his demons, too. He he wondered if his retreat had “failed.”
Eventually, however, he came to a different conclusion. The monastery, Nouwen says, “is not built to solve problems but to praise the Lord in the midst of them” (217). What a beautiful thought. Maybe we can learn to praise God right where we are, mired in the difficulties of life, and not look to him or to our experiences of him purely to solve our problems.
I have often fantasized about removing myself to a monastery or, I kid you not, a sanatorium. I have wanted to run away from my life and its problems. I do not think that running away is what Nouwen did, but it’s what I want to do. I want to find a place apart from the world where I can have a measure of peace. A place without the pressing everyday issues that sometimes seem to tear me apart. A place where I can find myself again, and, yes, find God, too.
Recently I tried to run away from my life (not to a monastery; just away). I thought I could find peace and freedom away from it all. But it didn’t work, and I’m both pleased and apprehensive to report that God called me back. He is restoring me to my life, with all its problems.
I’ve come to realize that there is no escape from life–not in a monastic community, not at a retreat, not anywhere. We cannot run away from our problems or our selves. My life—the hurts, the issues, the chaos—is my monastery. There may be moments I can retreat, but in general, I have to learn to praise God right here. In my world, just the way it is. And to rely upon a daily measure of grace to see me through.
It is a hard lesson. I think there will always be a part of me that wants to escape. But, following Nouwen’s example, I am learning to not run from the mess but to praise the Lord in the midst of it.