Monastic retreat as path to community

William Claassen's spiritual journey has led him so far and wide that he admits to being a "nomadic pilgrim."

But it has also taken a distinctive tack due to an early, moving experience of religious community - a holiday back in 1973 spent on monastic retreat, which taught him the power of silence and of communal spiritual practices. It was the writings of Thomas Merton, he said in a recent interview, that spurred him to visit the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky.

Ever since, this Midwesterner raised in a Protestant family has made monastic retreats a regular part of his life. And recently he spent 2-1/2 years traveling the world to explore the monastic settings of various faiths - Christian (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic), Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain.

In his first book, "Alone in Community: Journeys into Monastic Life Around the World" (, Mr. Claassen shares engaging glimpses into each of these traditions - into the surprising commonalities among them and the intriguing differences.

At the Monasterio de Santo Domingo in Spain, he finds exhilaration in "the power of chant" when invited to worship with the Benedictine monks whose CD, "Chant," became a global hit. In Greece, he joins a crowd of pilgrims on the peninsula of Mt. Athos - "the world's only autonomous republic of monks" - for insights into the place of icons in Orthodox worship.

In the Egyptian desert, he prays in the cave where St. Anthony, the father of Christian monasticism, spent 40 years of his life in the third century. Born into a well-to-do family of merchants, Anthony was moved by Christ Jesus' admonition to "sell your possessions ... and follow me." He later told the community that developed around him: "Let us not look back upon the world and fancy we have given up great things. For the whole earth is a very little thing compared with the whole of heaven."

Claassen finds meaning in the dramatic rituals of the Mevlevi order (the Whirling Dervishes) of Sufism in Turkey, and the ritual libations of the Jain faith in India. He participates in a training session for Buddhist monks of the Tendai sect in Japan.

In Thailand, he visits a "forest monastery" dedicated to treating drug addictions, and finds camaraderie at an international community set up to teach Westerners the Buddhist faith.

Convinced by his travels of the oneness of creation - what he also calls "the bigness of God" - Claassen says that the individual monks he met along the way taught him that the "key is my willingness to 'die to self.' "

"Each monk I encountered had willingly entered into a disciplined journey of losing self," he writes, taking vows that assumed "a total commitment to God ... [and] to live alone in community."

And living in community is no small task. "One of the hardest things is to learn how to live with the others," he says during a stopover in Boston. "I can choose who to socialize with - they don't have that choice."

Claassen has enthusiastically exercised that choice in his own peripatetic experience - working on a kibbutz in Israel, serving in the Peace Corps in Kenya, planting trees in the Northwest, doing development work in Latin America. He has now settled on freelance journalism, taking a degree from the University of Missouri.

While deeply drawn to the contemplative life for respite and nourishment, he realized that he could not commit to a single place and routine - or theology.

Yet he clearly relishes "expanding my religious boundaries" and encountering "that unmistakable sense of unity amid diversity" that his journeys foster. He found many universal practices, such as the use of prayer books and beads, the chanting of scriptures, and daily worship schedules. And, of course, "listening in silence." (Claassen's concern is practices; his book is not a place to explore a faith's spiritual teachings.)

Religious community is fostered, Claassen says, by the shared routine of prayer and chanting; daily work responsibilities - creating a cottage industry to ensure community survival; and most important, the sense of spiritual calling. And more and more, he adds, "they have the sense of mission of being in hospitality, of providing a space for outsiders to come in."

Hospitality has always been a monastic virtue, but, for many, it has become a constant responsibility as the interest in spiritual concerns has burgeoned. Monasteries across the United States, in the Egyptian desert, on Greece's "holy mountain," and on the outskirts of Japanese cities are welcoming growing numbers of pilgrims.

"It's harder and harder to find silence in our culture," Claassen says, and he hopes his book will help readers "give themselves permission to take a retreat - to find that silence and the importance of listening."

The value of listening also relates to other people's religious and spiritual experiences, he suggests. As a Presbyterian, he had little familiarity in his youth with religious ritual, but it has enriched his perceptions in many ways, he says.

The use of meditative techniques such as lectio divina (focusing deeply on a biblical verse or specific words within it) and the practice of chanting, for example, have "taken me deeper into my spiritual self and integration with the creator."

Contrary to the idea that monastic life sets itself wholly apart, Claassen sees an impact beyond the walls: both the ripple effect of people on retreat going back into their communities, and the influence of the monks' prayer and spiritual living on the world as a whole.

"The power of prayer and the power of chant - I have experienced both personally," he says. For him, it rings true that "a monk is he who separates from everyone in order to unite with all."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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