The Adventure of the Undergrad Weekend Monastics

Changing our minds.  That’s not something we look on favorably.

In politics, if someone changes his or her mind on an issue, that person is labeled with the unflattering term “flip-flopper.”

We equate changing our minds with being indecisive, weak, unable to plant ourselves on firm ground and stand up for what’s right.

I think all the bluster around changing our minds is probably covering up a deeper simple fear of change.

The chief priests and elders are certainly stuck there in our gospel story this morning.

They feel like they have to defend the integrity of their tradition and hierarchy against Jesus, a stranger who is coming in and offering the word of God  and healing people without permission from anyone.

They can’t change their minds in front of the crowd.

They can’t look weak and indecisive by admitting they were wrong about John the Baptist.

But they do end up looking weak as they fall neatly into their own trap that they had set for Jesus.

Jesus is recommending that we change our minds, and he tells us a parable about it.  We have the one son who says he’ll help but doesn’t, and the son who says he won’t help in the vineyard but changes his mind and goes and does it.

Everyone immediately understands which son did the will of his father.

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’”

“You did not change your minds,” Jesus says.

You saw something great, but you did not allow it to act upon you and change your mind.

Because the changing of mind Jesus is talking about is far bigger than simply making a different decision.

The fate of our eternal souls does not weigh on changing our minds from preferring hamburgers to hot dogs.

Jesus wants us to change our minds in the sense of our minds themselves being comprehensively altered, our minds being acted upon by the Holy Spirit and recreated in the image of the indwelling Christ.

I had a powerful experience of that this weekend.

The program that the undergrads I’m teaching at the University of Indianapolis are enrolled in has a retreat built into every semester, so I of course as the instructor was the leader of the retreat for the second-year students.

As I embarked on this new adventure of being adjunct faculty, sleeping on a cot in a cabin with 18 undergraduate girls all in the same room was not exactly what I had in mind.

It’s somewhat hard to maintain any kind of professional professorial image with your students when they’ve seen you in your pajamas with crazy bedhead, but anyway, that’s life sometimes.

So the course I’m teaching is called “Monasticism, New Monasticism, and Rule of Life.”  For the retreat, I decided to have them live a day in the life of a monastic, praying the monastic offices in community, etc., according to the rule of St. Benedict that they had studied.

You can imagine the reaction of these college students when I told them they were going to be monks and nuns for a weekend.

Although they had read Benedict’s rule, they were really struggling to picture monastic life, to understand why anyone would want to live under this spiritual discipline, how on earth this would actually enrich anyone’s life and connection with God.

So I had them watch a movie.

It’s called Into Great Silence, by German filmmaker Philip Gröning.  In 1984 he wrote to a Carthusian monastery in the French alps, asking if he could film their daily life.

They said, “Give us some time to think about it, we’ll get back to you.”

In 2002 they wrote back and said, “Okay, we’re ready, come and film.”

These monks in addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, also take a vow of silence.

Aside from prayers in chapel and a break once a week to talk to each other for an hour, they do not speak aloud at all.

The film is an artistic masterpiece, like being immersed into a great painting or a great symphony.

It washes over you and the spirit of the monastery and the peace and humility of these monks draws you in so you really feel like you’re taking part in their devotion.

At least that’s how I feel about it.

The undergrads were not buying it at all after the first session on Friday night.

It’s a three hour movie and so I broke it into three one-hour chunks. But by the end of the first session they were rolling their eyes.

In our discussion at the beginning of the second session on Saturday morning I asked, “Okay, who was bored last night during the movie?”

Every single one of them raised their hands.

“Okay,” I said, “That’s fine.  This is probably really different from anything you’ve ever seen before.”

And then I tried to explain to them that this is about going beyond our own need for entertainment and stimulation, letting God act upon us and entering a contemplative, meditative state.

I’m asking you to exercise spiritual and mental muscles that you may never have used before, it’s probably going to feel strange and uncomfortable, I told them.  Let’s give it another shot, I said, and try to simply let your mind rest in the beauty and holiness of what you’re seeing.

End of second session, still a bust.

This is not working, I thought.

I have dragged these poor kids out here to the woods and they are going to leave here hating monasticism even more than they did when they got here.

This time they were not just bored but actively critical.

“These monks are so selfish,” they said. “Abandoning their families to go off and hide in this poky little monastery and do nothing.”

“Okay, that’s a valid critique,” I said. “But I’m not trying to convince you that we should all be monks.  I’m asking you if you can see the value of contemplation and silence and quieting our minds in prayer, getting below the noise of the world and our own needs and desires to enter a new type of communion with God.”

Blank stares.

As part of the retreat I had built in some unstructured time for them.

Ora et labora, pray and work, is the Benedictine motto.

I wasn’t going to send them out to harvest crops or mop the floors of the buildings like you would do in a real monastery, obviously, so I just told them to go outside in the woods and do at least one physical activity and one mental activity. So go for a walk and read a chapter in your Bible, for example, I told them, and try to do all of that with a focused spiritual attention like they saw the monks doing in the movie.

I went out and stomped around the woods in a fugue, angry at myself and angry at them.

Why can’t I get through to them?

What am I doing wrong?

Are they not ready for this?

Am I just that bad of a teacher?

Finally as I was sitting on a bench and watching the sun come through the leaves, seeing how beautiful and perfect even one small tree is in the early autumn woods, the question came to me, “Whitney, you’re trying so hard to teach them.  What is the Holy Spirit trying to teach you?”

I heaved a big sigh, instantly realizing how out-of-focus I’d gotten.

Consumed by my own fear of failure, I was trying to force these kids into this specific realm of spirituality that maybe they weren’t ready for, maybe they simply weren’t interested in.

They might leave with this feeling like a wasted weekend, but they will have been exposed to something completely different, and that’s valuable in and of itself.

Who knows, a seed might get planted in one or two of them, and years down the road, something we talked about or they observed this weekend might come back to them or nudge them toward something different in their faith lives.

The monks in the monastery know that many of the most important changes in our lives come in simple, small and humble ways, and most of the time meaningful change is very, very slow.

That’s the whole reason they slow down enough to observe God working in the world.

So I got back to our meeting space for our final session thinking, “Well, even if they hate we’ve done this weekend, that’s okay.  I’ve done my best and God will be acting in them no matter what I’ve done, good or bad.”

But this time, something was different.

It was like a switch had been flipped.

I asked them to tell me what they’d done on their time outside, and they talked about seeing spiritual significance in the tiniest of details.

They talked about God acting through each other, seeing God help them through the presence of others in the group.

They talked about listening to silence for the first time and finding that it wasn’t scary or boring but rich with the sounds of nature and the loving tide of God undergirding it all.

My jaw dropped.  They were doing it!  They were exploring contemplative spirituality and functioning as a monastic community!  I couldn’t believe it.

We watched the last section of the film, and they said they saw it completely differently after their experience in the woods.

They heard the birds sing outside the windows of the monastery as the monks studied scripture and it was just like the birds singing in the woods while they had read their Bibles.

They saw the monks as human beings, just regular people hungry for God the same as them.

They ended the day saying that monasticism wasn’t for them, but they could see the value of silence and contemplation and wanted to try to add it into their own lives a little bit at a time.

Praise God and hallelujah!  That was exactly where I was hoping to end up with them!

But it only worked because both the class and I had our minds changed.

And we didn’t do it to each other.

No matter how passionately I spoke about contemplation, I couldn’t change their minds at all.

It was their direct experience of God that changed their perspective.

And just that happening wouldn’t have been enough, if I had stayed stuck in my own ego and desires and needs.

I had to have the Holy Spirit act upon me, to help me let go of my agenda and trust that God would be working in me and in these kids no matter what the tangible result was.

All of us had our minds changed, and it was such a blessing.

Jesus encourages us today to let our minds be changed, to let them be transformed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

In our Philippians lesson today, we see how Jesus poured himself out for us, giving himself away and emptying himself.

He needs someone to empty himself into, and that can be us, if we’re willing to let our minds be changed.


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