Since the theme of the pilgrimage I’m currently on through Abbey of the Arts is “Monk in the World: Pilgrimage to the Sacred Edge of Ireland,” I thought I’d share with you what it means to me to be a monk in the world. Last fall, Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts asked me to share what it means to me to be a monk in the world on her site, and you know I couldn’t help but bring pilgrimage in, too! Read the post below.
P.S.: Come back tomorrow for pictures from my Ireland pilgrimage!
Not too long ago, I moved from Missouri to Southern California. The desert landscape that would accompany us on our drive here gave me the chance to contemplate what it is like for monks to leave the world in order to devote their lives to prayer within the confines of a monastery. As we drove for hours on end, I particularly thought a lot about the life of the desert monastics and the draw of the silence, stillness, and solitude that such a vast expanse of barren and colorless landscape brings. In order to immerse themselves in the Divine, these monks left their homes in pursuit of something more.
That’s not so different from a pilgrim, really. Just like the monk, the pilgrim risks a great deal, leaving the known for the unknown, the secure for the mysterious. Pilgrimage is one of the most ancient spiritual practices, beginning with Abraham, who was called to leave home in pursuit of God. Since the time of Abraham, the faithful have journeyed beyond their borders to honor sacred encounters of the past, and also in hopes of new divine experiences and transformation.
Lacy in RomeToday, dreamers and seekers are setting out on pilgrimages with renewed interest, journeying to places like Iona or Santiago de Compostela in the footsteps of those who have gone before them. There is no doubt that a resurgence is taking place, and as with many renewals within the Church, it is moved by the breath of the Spirit. But what happens when the pilgrim returns home, attempting to integrate the rumblings of her journey into her everyday life? And what of the monastery’s visitor, arriving back after a retreat filled with contemplation, only to be rocked by the hustle and bustle of the world that he thought he had left behind?
As someone who lives “in the world,” that is where my greatest challenge begins. It is just so easy to get distracted at home, so tempting to stay comfortable, and so natural to lose sight of the sacred in things that quickly become mundane. Even my awareness of this doesn’t mean it’s not a struggle. Oh no–I wish it were that easy! For as long as I can remember, my heart has longed to roam beyond my front door, yearning for the transformation that can be found just beyond the horizon. And it’s true–inspiration and sacred encounter can happen in unique ways when we leave our everyday lives behind in order to journey. If it weren’t true, pilgrimage (and the metaphor it provides) wouldn’t be as powerful. But as I’ve learned, we all have to come home sometime.
Because of this reality, it is especially important to practice being a “monk in the world,” and for me, an everyday pilgrim. In fact, it is through this practice that I’d say I’m also an artist in everyday life. Sure, with a bachelor of fine arts degree and a website I both write for and curate, there are many traditional arts that fill my days: I’m a graphic designer and a watercolorist, a doodler-at-large and a novice knitter. I hum tunes all day and if you give me a room, I will transform it into an oasis and even come in under budget (now that’s an art!). But for me, these are just hobbies or ways to pay the bills. They bring me joy and flex my creativity, certainly, but they don’t stretch me quite like being a monk in the world and and everyday pilgrim does. To me, this is my art, and each day is my medium.
Lacy desertOf course, to the outsider, this makes it seem a lot more impressive than it really is. To practice and to create each day as a monk in the world and an everyday pilgrim is fulfilling, yes, but it is also a daily challenge. I must not only show up to the silence, stillness, and solitude every morning that comes with the way of contemplation, or the awareness and curiosity that are required for the pilgrim–each day I must also show up to face the struggles that are sure to arrive. As a monk who is not in a monastery but in the world, and a pilgrim who is journeying intentionally not just abroad but in everyday life, I am straddling two realities. These two realities are so natural to our image-bearing souls, yet in this in-between world of “already and not yet,” the monk in the world and the everyday pilgrim are still seemingly antithetical. This means that I am continuously wrestling, because I choose to stand at the edge.
This is how I know that my commitment to be a monk in the world and an everyday pilgrim is my art: because each day I show up to the blank canvas on a Spirit-fueled search, seeking inspiration and bringing with me desires and questions alike. And each day I struggle, wrestling with insecurities, whisperings of my false self, and “shoulds” and shame leftover from time that has long since passed. But, most important to the work of an artist–amidst the desire and the struggle, I stay. And I return each day again and again, because creating a life as a monk in the world honors my sacred desires, and living daily as an everyday pilgrim engages my quest. Each day, the canvas awaits, and all I must do is come with intention in my mind, inspiration in my heart, and a brush in my hand.
Lacy Clark Ellman’s two greatest loves are spirituality and travel, and she was a pilgrim long before she ever fully understood the meaning of the practice. She has a Master of Arts degree in Theology and Culture and is the founder and curator of asacredjourney.net, where she explores her two loves through her own writing and the contributions of other pilgrims. Her upcoming book, Pilgrim Principles: Practicing Pilgrimage Everyday, is a seven-week journey at home that explores what it means to be pilgrims in our daily lives. It will be released in January 2014. To learn more about the book, follow A Sacred Journey’s posts, and download free offerings, subscribe here. You can also follow A Sacred Journey on Twitter and Instagram and Like it on Facebook.
What does it mean to you to be a “monk in the world?”