I’ve retreated to New Norcia this weekend – a monastic town a couple of hours north of Perth by car. I come here often for quite reflection, recalibration and refueling. Basically the equivalent of a car service…but for the soul. Sometimes it’s that stuff I come away with. Other times it’s more serendipitous.
Eating with the monks is always a treat. Aside from the silent nature of the meals, there’s always something on the reading list to pique the curiousity. It’s monastic practice not talk during meals, but to have one of the monks read. The meal is considered an extension of the prayers that precede the meal. Tonight it was Colossians 4 then 1 Thessalonians 1 and then into “‘May it please your honour” – a book on Western Australia’s legal system from 1829-2005. A natural segue, I thought.
At the meal’s end, the reading monk runs over the ‘necrology’. For those who don’t delve into a necrology after each meal, it’s a recounting (in this context) of the various monks of this order who died on this day (May 18) over the years. They are cited for remembrance and prayer (some interesting theology there but we’ll keep moving). The necrology tonight remembered, among others, a monk from Subiaco in Italy who was a ‘retired abbot’. This got me thinking: abbots retire. In an order where a vow takes 3-5 years to genuinely ‘begin’ – and then lasts a lifetime – the abbot (the father of the community) can retire.
Outside of the dining room where it’s fine to resume normal conversation, I approached the Abbott. “According to the necrology, Abbot’s retire”, I said.
He replied: “Yes, at the age of 75, the Abbot offers his retirement to his superiors in Rome who then consider if they will reject it or, if they consider there may be grounds for change, they will put it to the vote within the local monastic community”.
He continued: “This is interesting for me…I’m 75 next year”.
Failing to betray my transient evangelical piece of turf, I enquired: “Do you have any sense of what you’ll do?”
A great reply returned: “I am a monk. It is not for me to think about these things. If they have thoughts on it, they will let me know”.
“You serve at His pleasure”, I added. He nodded knowingly.
As I walked away, the first verse that came to mind was Paul telling the Corinthians that he was a ‘slave to Christ’. In an age when we deliberate over the ways we can be most effective for the Kingdom or seek out opportunities where we can shine our light the brightest, the Abbot in four words reminded me of my purpose. I am a slave…to Christ. It’s a not a slavery to fear, but a slavery to freedom. I’m tethered to freedom. But I’m tethered, for His pleasure.
Beyond all else, followers of Christ exist for His good pleasure and His glory. Wherever we find ourselves or see ourselves, it is our honour to serve the Master. Sure that service will take on many hues, textures, and flavours, but they are all informed by humility and servanthood.
(originally published May 18, 2007)