Living with monks, an ASU instructor hopes to find ways to help educate
by Eric Johnson
ASU Communications instructor William Bryant is working on his Ph.D. in educational studies from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and for his dissertation, “Contemplation and Mindfulness in Education: Between Self and Other in Modernity,” he was interested in examining how contemplation and mindfulness practices might help teachers become better teachers and students become better learners.
Admittedly not exactly blockbuster stuff, but Bryant is young and enthusiastic, and as he talks, his quick smile steers you away from the rocky shoals of Deep Thought without dumbing things down or making you feel like an intellectual featherweight. In fact, his enthusiasm proves infectious.
“One of the things I’m doing in my dissertation is trying to explain how you don’t have to remove yourself from the secular world and put yourself in a sacred space,” he says. “You can be contemplative anywhere, you can be mindful anywhere, but it takes practice.”
That kind of portable calm is certainly an attractive concept given today’s fast-paced lifestyle, but practicing it? You might as well be juggling in a hurricane, and Bryant knows it. Though he may be an academic, he’s also pragmatic enough to realize that you can’t find stillness and quietness in the midst of chaos. At least not enough to get your foot in the door.
So when the question became how do you shut down the chaos, he turned to one of the most chaos-inducing devices in today’s society — the internet — and typed in contemplation. If you like the irony of that, you’ll love the fact that one of the websites that popped up was for Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Moncks Corner, S.C.
That’s right, not only does the abbey have a website, it has email and a telephone, and thanks to all that technology, soon Bryant was spending 44 days living with monks who pray by candlelight, work with their hands and speak only when absolutely required.
“The great thing about going to a monastery to do it is you can see that type of alternative lifestyle enacted right in front of you,” he says. “The monks are truly different people.”
As society progresses, those differences become more and more noticeable. As do the similarities.
The abbey, just north of Charleston, occupies 3,000 acres on the scenic Cooper River. It was donated to the Catholic Church for the establishment of a Trappist monastery by Henry Luce and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce.
According to Mary Jeffcoat, Mepkin’s communications director, Trappist monks must support themselves by the work of their hands, which for the monks at Mepkin means growing and selling mushrooms. They also have a gift shop and a columbarium, which is a final resting place for those who choose to have their ashes stored at the Abbey, but it’s the mushrooms that take most of the work.
“In addition to supporting themselves, they do have friends and benefactors that give them donations to maintain the public portion of the monastery,” Jeffcoat says. “That would not be for the monks, however. That would be to support their external hospitality ministry.”
Though the stereotypical monastery is secluded and not exactly welcoming to outsiders, Jeffcoat says that hospitality is an important aspect of the Trappist way of life.
“According to the Rule of St. Benedict, their life is composed of prayer, spiritual reading and work, with hospitality,” she says. “Hospitality is really important to them, so you would rarely see Mepkin Abbey without one or two guests.”
Many of those guests are day visitors who come to enjoy the grounds.
“A hundred percent of the people that I talk to say the minute they come on the property they immediately feel at peace,” she says. “And if they’re religious people, they’ll immediately say they feel God.”
Other visitors are monastic retreat participants like Bryant or those who chose shorter retreats where they observe the silence and solitude of the lifestyle without living with the monks the way Bryant did.
One of the common threads, though, is silence — that stillness Bryant wants to apply to education.
“You don’t have to believe in God to understand the value of slowing down and being quiet,” Bryant says. “There have been all kinds of studies about how meditation helps us.”
It’s true, of course. It’s a scientifically proven fact that meditation can restructure your mind and help you think differently and think better.
“But you can do that in a hotel,” Bryant says. “You can do that in a cabin in the woods — Thoreau did it, for crying out loud, and he’s probably one of the most spiritual people ever, just because of the simple fact that he understood that there’s a greater purpose beyond our chaos.”
Which brings him back to the focus of his study — the application of contemplation and mindfulness in the learning process — and the source of some intellectual tension, since for the monks, the contemplation and mindfulness is directed toward a thoroughly religious purpose.
While Jesuits or Benedictine monks might teach or work in hospitals, the ministry of the Trappists is prayer, Jeffcoat says. Everything they do is structured to allow them to pray, from the repetition of their work to their adherence to a rigid and unwavering schedule.
“Work and their life becomes such a routine that it becomes automatic for them,” Bryant says, “and when things are automatic, you can focus your mind on other things, and what they try to do is focus their mind on praying. They consider themselves part-time workers and full-time prayers.”
And the goal of their praying?
“They see their job as praying for the world, trying to heal the world and trying to heal with people in it,” he says.
That’s one of the reasons behind the extreme hours. Monks at the abbey start their day at 3 a.m. by praying.
“What they say is that they’re going on watch,” Bryant says. “In other words, the secular would is all asleep at that time, but they rise and they pray in order to keep ready in case Jesus Christ is to return to Earth. That’s the whole reason they get up at that hour — so that someone is always on watch for the Lord to return.”
Often, people speak of prayer in casual terms, something that’s more pleasantry than prayer. Not so with the monks.
“It made me so appreciative that people like the monks exist,” Bryant says. “You hear people sometimes say they’ll pray for you and you’re thinking they probably won’t, but when they receive a prayer — it gets prayed for.”
He describes a large map prickly with pushpins representing prayer requests received either by letter or by email. Passing monks pause and read and pray.
“Whether or not it works, who’s to say, but the point is, I think it’s a positive contribution no matter how you look at it,” Bryant says. “It’s about them giving up themselves and giving up their time to want to help others, and I think we can all learn from that. If we could all do that in our lives, if we could put ourselves aside so that we could help others — they’re perfect models of that.”
Obviously, Bryant, a Catholic, came to the abbey further down the mindfulness path than most of us are, but practically speaking, he was also there as a researcher, which makes him far different than the average monastic guest. So what kind of people were the other guests?
“I think introspective people, people that are really curious about their meaning and what it’s all about,” he says. “Or people that just need a break from the chaos of the world and are looking for some stillness and some quiet. I don’t know if I can describe what that type of person is, but I would say that they’re the type of people that I think that we could all use more time being around.”
Though most of us would admit to wanting an occasional break from all the distracting noise in our lives, most of us also structure our lives so that we are never really alone with our thoughts, never have to think the hard thought
“These monks are completely silent, and when you’re in an environment where it’s silent, you’re left alone with yourself, but your mind doesn’t stop,” Bryant says. “You have this internal dialog that’s going on and going on, and so all kinds of stuff came up inside of me — what am I doing here, why am I spending 30 days here?”
He’s also married with two children, and he chose to spend his time at the abbey over Christmas break, so there was a mixture of longing and guilt, too.
“It was very difficult for me to be away from my family, but I thought it was important for me to entrench myself within those times to understand that those connections to the world are very important to me,” he says.
Just as it took him being at the abbey to realize how much he appreciated what he had at home, it took him being back in the regular world to understand what the abbey was really all about.
“I don’t think I ever got comfortable on my first trip there because everything was just so foreign and so different,” he says. “It was just such a different way of being that I didn’t get comfortable. But on the second trip, I think I did. Everything they do is just so mindful and so calculated. You can’t really put your hands on it, but they’re different. I’m not saying they’re better, I’m not saying they’re worse, they’re just a different type of person.
Though admirable, personal growth wasn’t necessarily his goal, however. He was there looking for ways to apply all this to a learning environment.
“I’m interested in how I can take the monastic practices of contemplation and mindfulness, silence and solitude and incorporate them into the process of education,” he says. “What does that mean and what will come out of it — will we have better understanding in the classroom, will we have better rapport with our students? Will our students have better rapport with us? Can I replicate that type of experience in a secular space?”
Now, in spite of all that time he spent in silence, you can see the chaos starting to creep in. He wants to combine theory and action and develop a real-world application for all these things he’s realizing, but he’s not quite there yet.
“I think I have a better understanding of it theoretically, but how that theory can inform practices, I’m still working on,” he says.
He’s willing to be patient, however.
“I really do think this will be a major part of my scholastic studies in the course of my career,” he says.
And you believe him because it’s obvious he enjoys working the problem. Whether or not he’ll ever be able to wrestle it into submission is, in some ways, beside the point, and he seems to know it.
“Ultimately, it’s a stimulant for people to realize that they can live this way,” he says. “Then they go back to their lives and take a piece of that monastic existence with them to whatever they end up doing.”You Might Also Like:
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