The faith chronicles

Saturday, September 03, 2011


Desert monk in the city

Sometimes I wonder if I have a calling to be a monk, although I often brush aside the very idea out of fear. I’m afraid of the monastery and all the requisite holiness it implies. I know I am far from holy, for I often harbor worldly thoughts, including impure thoughts that often turn into impure desires. I struggle constantly with egocentrism, so how could I wear a monk’s habit and be self-preoccupied? I panic at the thought of silence, frightened at the mere thought of coming face to face with God to make an account of the work I have done, then seeing plainly how worthless and vainglorious everything has been. I have to have my daily dose of being needed, relevant, busy, updated, informed, and on top of the heap. I'm afraid I still need to learn fully the distinction between being and doing. I feel ashamed to come to the Lord as nothing, and yet a needy nothing. Maybe it’s because I’m not fully convinced I’m something or someone with God, doubting that my real identity, my true self, resides in Him. Good thing I’ve read an author below the caliber, literarily speaking, of the highly esteemed but largely inaccessible Thomas Merton: someone named Carlo Caretto, a monk who once enjoined the worldly to give monasticism a try even while fully immersed in the hustle and bustle of a fallen world. Henri Nouwen's account of his sojourn in an American monastery plus my readings of John Keating's books were an influence, but the Italian monk in the desert of Algeria has made me see, without too much reading effort on my part, how the secrets of the desert may also be unlocked as a source of inspiration by any urban dweller willing to be a seeker of alternative riches and accomplishments.
If I need a desert in the Philippines, I need not look far -– I need not seek Pampanga’s laharland nor Ilocos Norte’s sand dunes. I just had to content myself with this ‘godforsaken’ piece of earth I rent under the fierce Manila sun. It is a mere six by eight square meters and I can’t even claim it to be mine, especially since I’ve been increasingly unable to pay my mounting arrears for about two years now. Still, I can look at it as a blessing in a roundabout way. For one, others are a lot worse off, and I’m not sure if I could endure their lot if I exchanged places, but I am not referring to this shallow form of consolation of logic.

The opportunities of monk life come aplenty in my desert, even if I am in possession of this laptop I am now using to write. (Incidentally, a friend said the brand I am using is high-end, of which I am not aware.) The refrigerator I had invested in years ago and the washing machine I inherited from my cousin who had moved to the United States are long out of order, so I could now honestly say I qualify for the status of being poverty-stricken, way below middle class. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, I know, and that’s the point. The daily humiliation of deprivation afforded by the lack of supposed basics in modern urban living is unquantifiable, and there is certainly monastic merit in that.

These ‘privations,’ to borrow a quote oft-used by the long-suffering saints and visionaries, in the midst of a neighborhood whose occupants seem to outdo one another in material advancement force me to discover hidden merits where there seem to be nothing but curses and punishments on the surface.

These sufferings are compounded by many other lacks, giving me the right to say I am not trying to be poor, I am really poor, but the truth is I choose to be poor in the sense that I refuse to be pressured by this ultramodern society's toxic shoulds these days: flatscreen TV, videoke, air-conditioner, satin bedsheets, state of the art DVD player, and other earthly wishes they alliteratively call ‘creature comforts.’ As if being a ‘loser’ in this regard isn’t enough, I can easily turn my attention to my address, which is laden with the hardships necessary for a hermit’s existence. Traffic to and from my place can be purgatorial at certain times and days. If I don’t take to the relative comfort of those air-conditioned vans that ply the route in a limited duration, that means I have not much choice but take the very uncomfortable, because too jampacked, jeepney.

The jeepney alone is a great opportunity for sacrificial love, whenever I find myself giving up half of my seat, out of guilt and shame, to a child, a lady or any woman or an elderly who happens to be the last passenger entering. In cases like this, the poor passenger is bound to find that the only remaining space is half-empty, and as ‘fate’ would have it, the other half is to be found in the bordering space that I have occupied.
The drone of airplanes flying to and from the nearby airport is a constant source of irritation to me, too, the kind that makes one nearly go crazy each time. The cramped feeling in this third-rate 'village' built from an empty grassland in an allegedly irregular construction deal (or so I heard one engineer who claimed to have worked on it) is also unnatural – discomforts galore for the would-be urban contemplative.

I have a TV set that I can choose to dispose of, if not for its usefulness in times of typhoons, coups d' etat, and similar "acts of God" and men. I have just one cell phone, the kind that even the lowliest worker in Manila can afford. Among the last luxuries I could boast to be mine include a perfume a friend now based in the States gave me, the Stateside shirts my uncle and cousins gave, some of which are secondhand and not my size, and perhaps this laptop I have bought from a friend on a two-year installment. I still have a landline phone, but I seldom use it, if at all.

As my rented place (which I can’t even call an apartment, but one-fourth of a quadruplex of houses) is also my current workplace, where I keep irregular work hours, I can assure myself of the luxury of silence and prayer time, which are absolute necessities in monastic life. There is surely something to contemplate too, a la The Cloud of Unknowing, from the loneliness of being alone most of my waking hours but for the company of a neighborhood cat. I can easily attempt to mouth my beads nonstop for hours if I wanted to, if I couldn’t take the mentally active quiet time required by a Lectio Divina (the Ignatian practice of Biblical reflection). Those who know the pains of living alone must know how punishing the shame and loneliness of aloneness is. I can choose to revel on this particular cross or thorn, and perhaps produce more than enough suffering to ‘bribe’ God for the conversion of sinners, not the least me.

Aloneness with the Master will afford me to meditate on loneliness' difference with solitude, although strictly speaking, a local theologian has already beaten me to it, saying “Loneliness implies an inner emptiness, while solitude implies an inner fulfillment.” At any rate, I am afforded the luxury of choice in offering prayers of intercession, interceding for petitions sent in from all over, and even spreading my embrace to include the conversion of the most irritating and offensive people I encounter.

My tasks for the day will be ordered in such a way that my workaday will be exquisitely boring: wash clothes, sun-dry them, iron, go to market, cook, wash dishes, clean bathroom, wax floor. I shall have a routine that will be calculated to be as exciting as watching poured cement turn hard. The following all-important contrast should be also highlighted at every turn: I, a lover of fine things, should learn to live with making do, enduring not just the horror of silence and aloneness and the banality of the quotidian, but most especially the ugliness of lowly and homely things, possibly for the rest of my earthly existence, unless I am suddenly called to work on special assignments that require re-immersion into the outside world.

The lack of prestige of my cloistered lot, the hiddenness of it all, plus the loss of the opportunity to show off, keep up with the Joneses, ‘jockey’ for a ‘cushy’ corporate position, and play dirty political games, is made more complete by having people deemed by society as the lowest types as the only people I deal with from day to day. They are the downtrodden of the earth: garbage collectors, ambulant vendors of all kinds of ware and food, beggars, handicapped, scrap buyers (some ‘street children’ don’t pay me at all), and bills delivery men. With them, I feel no need to remind the world who I am and what I have accomplished according to my own overestimation, for I am a mere home occupier and potential coin donor to them, and they couldn’t care a whit if I happened to be a movie superstar who’s trying on the sly the low life of a cockroach for a change.
Certain beggars can even give me plenty of opportunities to practice charity in the exquisite variety that St. Therese of Liseaux, the “Little Flower,” describes in her autobiography, Story of a Soul. I am always irked at how some of them could be so rude in tapping at my window in the middle of a writeup, only to ask for a donation for the blind or some such. I wish they could be more creative by asking for help unintrusively and in advance, but I now realize that that is exactly the mode and this is exactly the time and the place I’ve been looking for as a personal desert and loving self-chastisement for this wannabe city monk. It is a perfect opportunity, I realize, to give love to and exercise the virtue of patience toward someone who can’t give it back and yet even sounds so grating at it.

Among other long-standing concerns under my urban desert right now that are a potential breeding ground for higher-order virtues are the following: a leaking roof, with the number of leaks increasing every two to three years; the state of dilapidation of the front, window panes and screens; and a room left unrepaired after it was severely attacked by termites. These little things are like little curses at me, as though someone was angry at or opposed to my stay in this little corner. There’s also the problem of difficult neighbors: Someone is too noisy at and oppressive to her own kids. A nearby couple ignores me when I meet them on the street. One particular family is giving almost-regular trouble, with their melodramatic shouting matches at night sometimes, waking me up needlessly. A dog owner has this irritating habit of leaving his two toy dogs on the street, exposing passers-by like me to the threat of dog bites and rabies, which said owner routinely dismisses when confronted gently (“No, they don’t bite at all,” he calmly says, to be fair to him.)

Finally, I have health problems too that I can choose to routinely submit to God and struggle to view with gratitude as my own body’s signal that something is amiss in the unseen connection between my mind, body, and soul/spirit. These little illnesses are an effective way of reminding me that I am not a citizen of this world, that the life I am arrogantly trying to take control of using hard science ultimately belongs to God and should be submitted to whatever purpose He deems best at the moment.

As I busy myself with the drudgery of the unsung, I can hope to learn to embrace my monastic city life enough as to wholeheartedly say, “I love it here – what more can I ask for?”

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