02 April 2011


Locus Focus: Take Forty-Seven!

Welcome to the "Places of Prayer" Challenge!

First of all, a big thank you to everyone who made last week's Middle-earth Day such a great blog event--not just with your posts, but also with your comments! If you missed anyone's contribution, please check back so that you can pay him or her a visit. =)

Today, we're about to enter the fourth week of Lent, so it's about time we had something "spiritual." =P

I had had the following "setting" in mind for last year's Non-fiction in November Challenge--but it fell through when I had trouble rereading the book. But I guess it was all for the best. I'm rereading it now and am delighted to have another of those "right book at the right time" experiences.

Genesee Abbey
The Genesee Diary
by Henri J.M. Nouwen

Sunday, 3 [November]

"The monastery is the centre of the world." This drastic statement by [Abbot] John Eudes in Chapter this morning reminded me of exactly that same statement made by Thomas Merton when he came to the Abbey of Gethsemani for the first time. The monastery is not just a place to keep the world out but a place where God can dwell. The liturgy, the silence, the rhythm of the day, the week, and the year, and the whole monastic life-style with the harmony of prayer, spiritual reading, and manual labour, are meant to crate space for God. The ideal of the monk is to live in the presence of God, to pray, read, work , eat, and sleep in the company of his divine Lord. Monastic life is the continuing contemplation of the mysteries of God, not just during the periods of silent meditation but during all parts of the day.

When Father Henri Nouwen entered a Trappist monastery for a seven-month sabbatical, he intended the journal he kept during his stay to remain private. He was the kind of person who needed "to chew up" his thoughts in writing in order to understand them fully, and keeping a diary was essential to the "digestion" of all his experiences. Accordingly, The Genesee Diary is one long, luminous rumination that brings together everything from the international headline news of 1974 to the author's analysis of his own psyche, and shows that all things can indeed fit under the roof of a humble monastery.

While he was there, Father Nouwen did his best to immerse himself in the life of the monks, joining their communal prayer, wearing a modified habit, shaving his head, keeping their hours, sharing their meals, and taking part in the surprisingly heavy work it takes to maintain a self-sufficient religious community. The Genesee Abbey is famous for its "Monks' Bread," so he had some memorable experiences in the bakery, helping process hundreds of loaves a day. It was a unique opportunity "[to] meditate on the sentence 'With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread" (Gen. 3:19). Bread and sweat had never been closer together in my life" (!!!).

Later, as these upstate New York monks fasted in solidarity with persecuted Buddhist monks in Vietnam and prayed for starving farmers in Nigeria, he found himself living the concept that a cloistered contemplative community, far from being cut off from the rest of humanity, can become a prayer centre of the whole world.

All these are things that must be lived and not just studied--and I've been fortunate that my vicarious experience of his monastic sabbatical has had surprising parallels in my own life. My brother Cue-card Boy was in hospital again the other night; and since it was a government hospital with the rule that a "watcher" has to stay with underage patients at all times, I spent the night with him. Anticipating boredom, I brought several books with me: Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Vampire Island by Adele Griffin, the Write on Track handbook, and this book. Why so many? I'm not sure.

So just imagine the self-recognition prompted by this paragraph from Father Nouwen's very first journal entry:

Back in my "cell" I unpacked my suitcase and was surprised by the collection of books I had decided to take with me: A Spanish Bible, the works of Saint John of the Cross, a history of the United States, a book about common weeds, and the novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe this selection is the expression of my subconscious fear that I might get bored in a Trappist monastery.

Uncanny!!! (LOL!) And perhaps a hint that certain settings can be recreated in spirit and truth wherever the soul finds itself.

Now it's your turn!
Leave the link to your Locus Focus post in the linky
and take some time to check out and comment on those of others.
I can't wait to read what everyone has to say! =D

Image Source: The Genesee Diary by Henry J.M. Nouwen


Birdie said...

What a lovely locus focus. I'm going to have to "up" this book on my reading list. Perhaps I will place it at Advent this year as it seems a particularly good way to remind myself of penance and simplicity.

This week I've ended up focusing on a place of potentially ineffective prayer--Claudius' attempt at prayer in Act III, Scene III of Hamlet

Enbrethiliel said...


Advent will be a good time because the diary runs from June up to Christmas. One time, I tried to reread it one entry at a time, on the exact calendar dates; but since I wasn't also praying, working and living in a monastery, that exercise didn't quite work. =P

Thanks for joining this week, Birdie! =)

Michael said...

How interesting. I have been in a monastery in upstate New York since the beginning of Lent (old calendar). Funny thing about that work thing...I'm sure many pilgrims think they will come and just study and pray, but the abbot made it very clear that anything over three days and you will be doing obediences with the rest of the community.

I got a "breather" during the first week of Lent since we were all worshiping 10 hours a day, but after that I was fully into the swing of the normal cycle(s).

Best thing I ever did on my way from Moscow to another work assignment in Canada (since I had to fly through New York anyway) was decide to delay my assignment so I could spend at least a part of Lent going through the entire daily monastic cycle.

I also have brought along a few books but things around here are anything but boring. :-)

Enbrethiliel said...


I kind of like the idea of places that seem great for reading--because they're so quiet and peaceful--and then turn out to be hives of essential activity that keep one so occupied that books become an afterthought. And yet, paradoxically enough, doesn't reading feel more quiet and peaceful when one has a proper place for it in the schedule of a full and meaningful day?

(Now don't tell anyone, because I'll lose my book blogger cred, but I find all this leisure time we have to read books, coupled with the astronomical number of choices, to be awfully decadent. I'm sure I'd get more out of reading a single book during one Lent of living, working and praying in a religious community than reading a whole bunch of books during a Lent that has to share its unfolding with the the cycles of the secular year.)