Sounds of Silence: ... a monk's journey

Sounds of Silence: ... a monk's journey

by Joe Kossmann

ISBN: 9781420872910

Publisher AuthorHouse

Published in History/World, History/Europe, Biographies & Memoirs

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

the beginning

I will praise your name, O Lord, for it is good. (Ps. 54:6)

I entered this world under the sign of the Gemini in the year of the Serpent, six months before the U.S. was drawn into WW II. I have come to believe that much of my life can be explained by these three facts.

The Gemini is versatile, adaptable, resourceful and changeable. Therein lies a seeming instability, a pull in opposing directions. I wanted to do everything at once, to try everything at least once, and not to be trapped by any one experience. I am a classic Gemini.

Being a Serpent at the same time, I tend to be cautious. The Serpent is wise and cunning, quiet and mysterious; like the Twins, he tends to be changeable. He has a need not to become too involved in any one thing, or with any one individual.

At least one of them, and maybe both of the Gemini, as also the Serpent, tend to be loners, solitary individuals, content to be with their own thoughts and feelings, not particularly wanting to socialize or be bothered by the demands of society.

I believe that I was destined for the solitary, monastic existence from birth by natural forces, or as some might say, by destiny. It might have been my genetic makeup, or the time of year I was born. But beyond these factors and beyond any doubt in my mind, God led me to the solitary, sometimes lonely life of the monk.

As something of a mystery, God led me to the monastic life so that I could try to find Him. After all is said and done, and beyond all that can be intellectualized, I was called to seek God at every moment of my existence. God called me and it has been an obsessive search. As a monk I was obsessed with finding God, with the ever-pressing need to keep searching for Him.

It may take a lifetime of constant seeking and searching for a monk to come even close to finding God. On the other hand, and herein lies a paradox, God wants to be found by those He has called to seek after Him. And He always provides the means necessary to continue the search. Some men seem to be more prepared than others by their very nature to adapt more readily to these means. When God calls, however, He provides the means to follow after the call. After all, how could one follow a true calling without at the same time having the necessary means? We lump these means under the name "grace."

There is only one God. He goes by different names: YHWH, the name He revealed to Moses. He is called Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, the Great Spirit, the Absolute, and the Truth. God is love and light. He is the energy that formed and keeps in existence the visible universe. He is called the Father, the name He revealed through Jesus Christ, the Son Who is equal to Him in every way. We believe that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the Savior, the awaited Messiah, and the Christ.

A monk is a witness to God's existence and presence in the world. Indeed, the world itself is an outward manifestation of God, created out of pure goodness. The contemplative monk bears witness to this with his life. He is obsessed with God.

The old Baltimore Catechism of the Catholic Church answered the question of the why of our existence: to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in the next. The monk takes this whole thing very seriously, making it the center point of his very existence. The monk has an inner need to remain focused on this end or goal of his existence: the quest for the one true God.

There have always been individuals who have found that life is a mystery, that having arrived on earth through no will of their own, they must begin at birth a journey down a path of which the destination is unknown, but which destination must be good, since most of life is good. Therefore, unwilling to trust their futures to chance, they make an in-depth study of this great mystery and seek to ensure that the end will also be good. There is no subject of such over-riding importance, and an answer to it must be sought. Should a man ride with the tide of chaos, tossed and turned about like a twig in the ocean?

I took such questions seriously to heart. I would not be content to waste my life in the pursuit of money, position, or power, and I regarded each of these as a vain quest for the mere temporal things in lieu of the Eternal Good. Even if there were no Eternal Good, I could do better and live more nobly by seeking the One Thing necessary, than those who were not seeking the answer at all.

An old monk used to say that man does not seek God, so much as God seeks man. Such is the key to the monastic life: it is an exercise in patience in order to apprehend God. If one withdraws into a monastery for any other reason, it is escapism and the basest form of self-love. Solitude for the sake of solitude is only a vile sort of misanthropy and narcissism.

The true solitary hermit is one who watches and waits upon God as an obedient servant, ready to perform His every command, anxious to do His bidding. Perhaps paradoxically His commands will generally come through other people, perhaps, again, to keep the solitary in a state of humility. It is necessary to learn the difference between good and evil, to discern the spirits, especially as it is expounded in Scripture. Indeed, unless a person has stamped indelibly upon his soul these rules and unless he has been tested in all of them, he is scarcely able to distinguish between his own good and evil thoughts, much less those that come from the exterior.

In a monastic hermitage, life is slowed down very perceptibly. The sameness, the drabness, the solitude and the rule that the hermit lives by, all combine to make events seem to happen in slow motion before the eyes. It gives a person a certain edge to his reaction to events, which naturally occur more slowly and further apart in time, allowing for preparation for these events beforehand. Some call this edge "meditation," or a form of "contemplation."

As silence surrounded me in the monastery, I became extremely aware of myself. I began to form a true picture of myself. For a time the clamor of my thoughts seemed to scream and chatter like so many birds disturbed in a forest full of trees. I began to think of my true inner self as the only sane inmate in a lunatic asylum, which was the outside world. It was all very confusing for a time as I became more and more conscious that I had little control over the thoughts that bombarded my imagination and memory. I had to take charge of these thoughts if I was going to avoid becoming a raving madman.

I learned the difference between a saint and a schizophrenic. A victim of his own dominating thoughts, the schizophrenic reacts to them regardless of how irrational they are. But the saint brings his mind gently back to thoughts of God through the reading of Holy Scripture and pure prayer. He does this gently and repeatedly until it becomes such an ingrained habit that it becomes a part of his nature. Bad habits are replaced with good habits. With the passage of time we forget the past, and begin to live in the present. We learn that the future is in the hands of the God. We abandon ourselves to God.

When I had learned to live comfortably in the present moment, I planned my work carefully and tried to do it in the most perfect manner possible. I considered it my divinely appointed mission of the moment, no matter how lowly it might have seemed. After all, action is but the product of thought, and if my actions were not good and holy, then how could my thoughts be dwelling upon God?

The Christian monk seeks God with Jesus ever as his model. Jesus is the perfect man, the perfect model, and the living way. The monastic tradition based on the lives of the "Desert Fathers," those third and fourth century hermits of the Egyptian desert, speaks about seeking God, about union with God. The tradition rarely specifically speaks about Jesus, though it is obvious that the utterances of those men (and women) mirror and paraphrase the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. They were obsessed with finding God and living in constant union with God. In the later Christian tradition seeking union with God speaks of union with Jesus as "the Bridegroom of the soul."

Man's quest for the One True God through solitude has its roots in antiquity, from Elijah's cave on Mount Carmel and the monks of Qumran, through the hermits of the Egyptian and Syrian deserts, to the modern quest for answers to the eternal question in Eastern and non-Christian religions. Oneness with God has always been the principal goal of the monk.

In the Christian tradition it is attained by following after Jesus, by imitating Him who is the very image of God. By following the example of Jesus, therefore, the seeker-monk logically arrives at union with God. Man can only return to his Maker, short of dying, by the solitary search into the depths of his own soul.

I lived the life of a cloistered monk for almost twenty years. There are various orders of cloistered monks in the Catholic Church, and I was a monk of the Carthusian Order. My life experience will differ from that of other monks just as I am a unique individual among other unique individuals. But the essentials of my Carthusian monastic journey will be similar to others who have been called to make the same journey. It can be summarized in these words taken from the rule of life that I was called to follow:

To the praise of the glory of God, Christ, the Father's Word, has through the Holy Spirit, from the beginning chosen certain men, whom he willed to lead into solitude and unite to himself in intimate love. The founding Fathers of the monastic life were followers of a star from the East, the example, namely, of those early Eastern monks, who, with the memory of the Blood shed by the Lord not long before still burning within them, thronged to the deserts to lead lives of solitude and poverty of spirit. Accordingly, the monks who seek the same goal must do as they did; they must retire to deserts remote from men and to cells removed from the noise of the world, and even of the monastery itself; and they must hold themselves, in a particular way, alien from all worldly news.

Just like those men living in the early Christian era rejected "the world" of their time to embrace a life of solitude and silence in the deserted wildernesses of Egypt and Syria, I too rejected the world in my search for the living God. They were rejecting not only the moral corruption of the early centuries after the birth of Christ, but in a positive and all consuming way, seeking an experience of God. They were thirsting after a spiritual reality. As a means to living in this spiritual reality, they were disciples of Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The Carthusian rule of life, The Statutes, explains that: this same Lord and Savior of mankind deigned to live as the first exemplar of the Carthusian monastic life, when he retired alone to the desert and gave himself to prayer and the interior life; treating his body hard with fasting, vigils and other penances; and conquering the devil and his temptations with spiritual arms. Jesus, whose virtue was above both the assistance of solitude and the hindrance of social contact, wished, nevertheless, to teach us by his example; so, before beginning to preach or work miracles, he was, as it were, proved by a period of fasting and temptation in the solitude of the desert; similarly, Scripture speaks of him leaving his disciples and ascending the mountain alone to pray. Then there was that striking example of the value of solitude as a help to prayer, when Christ, just as his Passion was approaching, left even his Apostles to pray alone - a clear indication that solitude is to be preferred for prayer even to the company of Apostles.

The need to follow Jesus as the first exemplar of the Carthusian monastic life generates other needs that will help the monk remain focused on the goal: celibacy, solitude, silence, detachment, and stability. It is very important to keep in mind that these "other needs" are the means to remain faithful to the inner calling of this search for God. They are not and should not be ends in themselves. Solitude, for example, is not lived for its own sake, but as a privileged means of attaining intimacy with God. Nor is the monk defined as "the celibate." Celibacy is another of those means necessarily associated with the unhindered seeking of the Absolute.

The monk is always alone before the living God, a solitary seeker of the Truth, a man intent on only one thing: finding the Truth. This was my calling. The journey itself was in a real way the end of my existence as a monk. I came to this awareness as I traveled the journey, always seeking the truth, ever seeking God in a real way.

The Truth shall make you free, if you have been true to your calling. You will experience a true inner freedom of spirit, a spiritual fulfillment, as I have. To know oneself - to be true to oneself: this is the nature of the journey. As you progress toward the truth, you tend to become a spiritual being. Truth is a spiritual reality, and the pursuit of a spiritual reality (or Spiritual Being, if you will) entails becoming a spiritual person.

In many obvious ways, spirituality is a fulfillment of religiosity. Being "religious" means following a set of binding rules, rules usually placed upon us by a respected religious authority. Professional religious people live the greater part of their lives in monasteries and convents under rules by which they publicly vow to abide. True religion, if practiced with a sincere and pure heart, should eventually lead to spirituality, a spiritual fulfillment of the human person, and a union of sorts with the Spiritual One. Religion will almost always be the necessary and preliminary framework, but may sometimes tend to take a secondary place as we advance in the spiritual life.

Chapter Two

the calling

The Lord said to me, "I chose you before I gave you life, and before you were born I selected you." (Jer 1:4-5)

Our parents and our early upbringing form us to a great extent into what we will be in later years. I was fortunate to have parents who were not only dedicated to each other, but also entirely devoted to their children. Growing up in an atmosphere that was at once loving and genuinely religious influenced my later life choices.

Everyone who knew my Dad called him "a good man." He was a devout Catholic, worshipping the Lord with a strong and simple faith. He always went to Mass with his prayer book: Key of Heaven: A Manual of Prayers and Instructions for Catholics. Inside the front cover he had written his name and the words, "Got May 28, 1923." As the oldest son of his family, he had a chance to get only a rudimentary education and went out to work early in his life. He was always interested in the automobile, and I am told that he would spend hours working on his cars. Mom once told me that he was almost late for their wedding because he was tinkering. Whatever else he had worked at before I was born, his occupation is listed as "automobile mechanic" on my birth certificate.

My impression is that Mom had a stronger personality than Dad. She also was a devout Christian, having been raised in the German Lutheran tradition. I remember her as the disciplinarian. She had control of the family finances and did the shopping, in the beginning of her marriage under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law.

Mom and Dad seem to have experienced a jolt of love at first sight. I don't know how they met, but I think it was a kind of blind date arranged by mutual friends. Dad was five years older and had a good job. Mom was so good looking that she could have become a movie star. She became a Catholic for Dad and Dad's family. When growing up she had entertained thoughts of becoming a missionary, and probably would have, had it not been for Dad. I had the impression that Dad's parents and sisters didn't like Mom much because of her Lutheran background. But after I was born, their first grandchild, they became more accepting of Mom.

Dad's father, my grandfather, was a carpenter and building contractor. His father, my great-grandfather, had come to this country from Germany in the 1860s with two of his brothers. My grandfather married a girl whose parents had come from Ireland. They settled in what was then the German-Irish section of Queens County on the Brooklyn-Queens border.


Excerpted from "Sounds of Silence: ... a monk's journey" by Joe Kossmann. Copyright © 0 by Joe Kossmann. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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