Second Thoughts At The Monastery

Second thoughts as in…after the first ones. Not necessarily as in I’m “having second thoughts.” Although if I think about that for a bit maybe, I am having second thoughts. Not in that I’m doubting or regretting my decision to come here–not at all. My understanding is just evolving.

At first I came here with the attitude that I wasn’t here to make friends. I just wanted to make the most of this really unique opportunity and learn a lot. I didn’t know anyone coming into this, and to be honest I was pretty aloof the first few days. With several summer programs and one or two-week school trips under my belt, I consider myself a veteran of group travel. And group travel pretty much always sucks requires a lot of patience and cooperation. When I got here, it was pretty much the same deal over again, but with more independent travel and arrangements required of us. That, compounded with the totally awkward first impressions that everyone tends to make when they’re shoved into a strange and new social situation. Whereas I tend to become reticent and withdrawn when I’m around new people, observing before I interact, others do the opposite and put what they think are their most distinctive features out in the open–too open, if you ask me. And you also have to consider how the individuals who would decide to come to a rural Greek monastery just for kicks in the middle of the summer would probably not be the most normal. So put my type and the other type of these abnormal folks together, and it’s quite the social experiment. For example, someone might consider a story about how she once had 20 cats until her neighbor’s python gradually ate 18 of them to be a great icebreaker (true story), and I’ll be sitting there thinking, “whatthefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefuck?!”

Basically, I observed my peers and decided we had nothing in common and that I wouldn’t like them. What I’m trying to say is that I formed opinions about my colleagues pretty quickly and that they’re changing as I get to know them better. This is hard for me to say, because by doing so I have to admit that I was (am?) quick to judge and closed off. But like the sisters say, humility is the trait towards which we all ought to strive for, so I am striving to be humble by acknowledging this about myself. 

One of the participants here just finished her doctorate in Anthropology. She’s from Bulgaria, and her accent makes everything she says sound worldly. She’s been to 76 countries, so everything she says actually is worldly. She’s the president of a non-profit that starts up bread-baking houses all over the world as therapy and as a way to facilitate communication and conflict resolution between different peoples. Her non-profit works from everyone from Bethlehem to Princeton, from refugees to victims of domestic abuse. When we were talking about humility with the Abbess she said to me,

“You need to learn humility to really love. You might love someone without being humble, but that is for selfish reasons; you love them because you want to love you.” 

LET THAT SOAK IN FOR A SECOND. Do you know what frisson is? Basically, it’s the feeling of getting the chills, and that’s what I felt when she said that. It’s so incredibly true and, well, humbling. In order to love someone, you have to accept them for who they are, no matter what they’re like or what they’ve done, will do, or won’t do. And you can only do that if you have the humility to acknowledge and accept the flaws in yourself and to look upon other people with respect as equals, not from above with disdain. 

I won’t get into detail about how my relationship with every participant on this trip has changed since I first met them, but each and everyone has. But for example, I thought the girl with 20 cats (may the vast majority of them rest in peace) was totally from outer space and would stand too close to me. Actually, both these things are kind of still true. But she’s also asks the most hilariously straightforward and insightful questions and the best deadpan answers. I can’t think of one verbatim. Even if I could, I think you’d have to take in her whole persona to appreciate it and laugh about it.  I wish I were a kind and understanding enough person to have seen them for their best traits when I first met them. But hey, at least now I’ve gained that much more humility to know that although I might not have been this time, maybe next time I will. 

Other bullet pointed thoughts:

  • I never thought I’d think standing for a two hour liturgy would be fun, but it actually was. The physical challenge of standing was rewarding and meditative. 
  • It’s great to be here because people care. The sisters are passionate about their faith. We all care about gaining knowledge and understanding. The worst people are those who just don’t have a passion, who don’t care.

UNTIL NEXT TIME.

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