Bells over Mountains

This is my second quarantine.

The first time I isolated myself from the rest of the world, only two other people participated.

It was March of 1998. The world I had known, the career I had planned, the life I had expected to live had just crumbled.

I had been serving in the Army as a Chaplain’s Assistant, but after an injury to my foot, I received a medical discharge. I had just enough money to get by for a couple of months. I was suddenly unemployed. Uncertain. Frightened, honestly, to reenter the civilian world without any sort of direction.

Instead of jumping back into the world, I withdrew. I had learned of a Trappist monastery in Oregon so, on March 1, 1998, two other men and I began a 30-day monastic life retreat. I had a friend drop me off, knowing that if I had a car available to me, I would likely leave if I got bored.

And I was bored. Lord, I was SO bored! Coming from the hustle and bustle of the noisy Army base to the slow and silent life of a monastery was torture. There was structure, just like the military: I woke early every day but instead of running and doing push-ups, I shuffled silently into a dim chapel and chanted. Instead of rushing through a shower and breakfast and jumping into a busy training cycle, I found myself with two or three hours of idle time, interrupted only by a 30-minute meditation session. Stillness interrupted only by silence.

I was going nuts. I wanted to DO something – anything, really – to push away the boredom. The lack of urgency was maddening to me; my entire adult life had so far encouraged me to rush from one activity to another. High school, college, jobs, the military: there was always pressure to get more done in less time. Even leisure activities were centered around being busy: run faster, play harder, watch more TV, fill up every waking hour to push away any sense of boredom.

The most exciting part of my day was when I would get to pull the rope that rang the bells in the steeple calling the monks to lunch. When I was first told I would get to do this, I envisioned a great, thick rope trailing down from bells so massive they would lift me off the ground as I clung to the rope, but it was just a cord hanging in a small closet off the main hallway. The bells sounded nice, but the process was about as exciting as ringing a doorbell.

After I had been there a week or so, I complained to one of the brothers that there was nothing to do. He told me something I have never forgotten: “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

“Don’t just DO something – SIT there.”

The entire point of the retreat was to encourage me to sit and calm the urge to occupy every waking moment with activity, to seek and find stillness because, in that stillness, I might hear a call.

God says, “Be STILL and know I am God” (Psalm 46:10). He does not say, “Hurry up, rush around, keep busy and know I am God.”

I decided to embrace this idea and, after a few weeks, found that I could be quiet and calm enough to sense something. It’s difficult to put into words, but I sensed a call to serve. It wasn’t specific – there was no “Noah, build me a boat” or “Abraham, take this old woman with you and I’ll give you some land” sort of detail, just a call to serve in a community.

I left the monastery a few days before Palm Sunday. I had entered agitated, uncertain, and fearful of the future. I left calm, quiet, and trusting.

I entered with the focus on me. What would happen to me? What would I do? Will I be safe, will I be happy, will I make enough money, will I go hungry? It was all about me.

I left with the focus on we. I left with a desire to serve others. A desire to serve a community. A desire to serve that does not need to be specific – it’s not a task to check off a list, but rather an arrow on a compass that points toward a life filled with joy.

I found through quarantine what Leo Tolstoy wrote about in his novel, Anna Karenina: “There was no solution, but the universal solution that life gives to all questions, even the most complex and insoluble. That answer is: one must live in the needs of the day – that is, forget oneself.”

It’s tempting for me, as I participate in this great worldwide timeout, to fill my days with work. The temptation is there to binge-watch shows on Netflix or throw myself into a new side-hustle. I’m taking classes already, but I could easily fill up every waking moment with activity to push away boredom. I could worship at the altar of busyness.

But I am choosing to find time to sit. To listen. To renew my spirit and look for opportunities to serve a hurting world.

Our greatest joy, you see, is found in service to others. In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama explain “that the way we heal our own pain is actually by turning to the pain of others. It is a virtuous cycle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.”

Yes, the world is in disarray right now. It’s frightening. It’s uncertain.

But I am certain of this: the path ahead is abundant with opportunity to serve, which means that the path ahead can lead to great joy.

We have so much opportunity to bring comfort, healing, and belonging to a struggling community as we emerge from the shadow of this virus. I fully believe that we will not only survive, but thrive, as we seek to help others. I believe the words of John Morgan, the former CEO of the YMCA whose vision led to the organization we have today that serves so many and will, once again, serve many more. He once said, “At the end of the year, when all is said and done and things have gone well, members have been served and we’ve impacted the community, all that means is that we’ve earned the privilege to try the hardest we can in the coming year to do the same.”

We have the opportunity.

We have the privilege.

We have the skill, the heart, and the passion to serve.

And we will have the joy.