Saint Romuald was the founder of the Camaldolese monks (of the monastery of Campo Maldoli, in Tuscany) one of the Italian branches of the Benedictines, in which the eremetical (hermit) life is combined with life in community. He died on this day in 1027, after a life of prayer, silence and rigorous penance.
As a young boy in the early 1960's I became aware of a softcover book for Catholic young people called The Guidepost. This book contained black and white pictures and descriptions of all the religious orders of men in the United States. I put my three single dollar bills in an envelope (no one worried about putting cash in the mail then) and a letter to Washington, D.C. asking for a copy. I wasn't much of a reader in those days, but when it arrived it became my book above any other, including my school textbooks.
The orders which most intrigued me were contemplative or monastic orders: Trappists, Carthusians, Cistercians. I remember the picture of the young Camaldolese monk: wrapped in a white mantle, sitting on a wooden straight backed chair in a stark room, bearded, shaved head, silent. That spoke to me, as they say. But when I told other people of my interest in that life of silent aloneness with God, they dismissed it.
My mother had been a Methodist and didn't understand monastic life at all. She thought it was a wasted life and directed me to active religious orders. I eventually joined the Franciscans in the crazy late 1960's - left in a year, pursued a degree in education and began teaching grade school in Harlem. In time I found my way to seminary and its four years of study. But all along the way, this image of the Camaldolese monk niggled at me. I told a priest-friend that I felt I should leave the seminary and go to the Camaldolese, where I could become the God-alone monk with the mantle by the wood stove. The friend told me, "If you go to the Camaldolese I'll write to the prior and tell him you're psychotic." That's kind of funny.
As we stepped over the threshold, through the gate and into a high walled hermitage garden, I thought I was in heaven - entering a very deep inner place that God had ignited or awakened in me as a boy. But I was at once taken by how poor and rough the hermitage was: the twin bed with the ordinary mattress in an alcove, the shower stall with the hot water heater which held about three minutes of hot water. The little chapel (called an oratory) was disappointing. There was only a small table for eating, studying and working. I imagined at once how I'd fix up the place and transform the garden into my own little Eden.
After visiting the hermitage ( or cell as they're called) Father Basil and I sat in a small parlor and talked. I told him about my work with young people in recovery, about the retreat house I'd created, about the parish I was pastoring. At the end, when I took a breath, he said: "It's clear to me that you don't have a vocation to this life." I was hurt, as if a door had just been slammed shut. But then he added: "But it's also clear to me that you don't pay enough attention to your contemplative aspect." He may have said, contemplative dimension. Instantly, the crisis was solved; the niggling left me. I understood at once what he meant and began to wonder how I might live in this insight. Indeed, there is a little monk in each person of faith - that place that longs to go beyond what's earthbound and to make the discoveries that are to be revealed only in silence and aloneness with God.
Some people are fascinated by monks and nuns who live isolated lives of work and prayer, but we become terrified at the thought of any prolonged silence or aloneness for ourselves. Parents with young children say they crave aloneness and quiet, but when they are away from their families they have to phone home and if they are out with just their spouse for an evening they often can't talk about anything except the children. Recently it was reported that 70% of young people said they couldn't be without their phones for more than 24 hours.
Many of us claim to have no alone or quiet time, yet we surround ourselves with sound even when we're alone. A group of young people said they'd forfeit their gift of smell if it meant keeping their phones! I stayed in a hotel room once that had a phone and a radio in the fancy shower and a television next to the toilet. Many of us can't drive in silence. And non-stop talking seems to be on the increase. When I was chaplain to a school for young people in repair it was common for a student to talk non-stop for even up to twenty minutes or more. And as soon as I would start to respond, the young person's eyes would glaze over and they'd start looking around the room at the stuff on the walls. One time I asked, "Can you tell me what I just said?" Negative.
We might have a look at that engaging story of Samuel, found in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) 1 Samuel 3:1ff. Then simply sit and be still.
"But it's also clear to me that you don't pay enough attention to your contemplative aspect."