Monasticism does not exist as an abstraction. Buildings, Rules of Life, and traditions remain dead unless they are given meaning through human actions. Monasticism must be lived, incarnated in the daily life of specific communities of real men or women. For it is the community, not the buildings or the concept, that constitutes the monastery.
We are building a monastery in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. For this reason we came to Jacob's Falls on the shore of Lake Superior nearly thirty-five years ago, and this is why we are here today: to embrace the struggle of life in a hard place, to heed the counsels of the monastic fathers, to come to know God through personal and liturgical prayer, and to beg His mercy upon ourselves and upon the whole world.
The first Christian monks fled the world Late Antiquity some eighteen hundred years ago to take up the struggle of the desert. The world they fled was not the good world of nature, created by God and redeemed by His Son, but, rather, the corrupt and unnatural world created by men who had rejected the salvation of Christ. Confronted with the sinfulness and artificiality of our own culture, we can do no better than follow the example of their wisdom.
While not arid, the Keweenaw is for much of the year nearly deserted. The deep winter snows make travel chancy and difficult, and there is no industry. The beauty of the land draws many visitors during the fair days of summer and autumn, but with winter's inexorable return, they depart and quiet reigns again. The winter solitude and the healing presence of the Great Lake make this a good place to live out the monastic tradition.
The beauty and order of nature constitute God's first revelation of Himself to all mankind (cf. Rm. 1:19-20). In the splendor and harmony of His handiwork we catch glimpses of His glory, in earth's bounty we see His loving provision for all His creatures, and in contemplation of our own seeming insignificance beside the magnitude of Lake and sky we come to know the love of Him Who deigned to save us. In the quiet of a still night or in the fury of a storm we can feel the touch of God and come to know His peace.
At Jacob's Falls we strive to keep our lives in harmony with nature. While making use of many of the good things the Lord has provided through human genius, we try to keep our life simple and free from the world's distractions. We still heat much of the monastery with wood, we do without radio or television, and we do not follow the news. In the midst of our many activities, we take time to contemplate and enjoy the great beauty surrounding us.
As our guide in building the life of this monastery we take the "little rule for beginners" written by St. Benedict of Nursia early in the sixth century. While written for monks of a specific time and place, the Holy Rule provides an authentic witness to the ancient monastic tradition. Its precepts flow from the Gospel and from the common experience of the first five centuries of Christian monastic life.
Eminently practical, the Rule contains nothing original. It is a concise restating of monastic tradition from the time of the undivided church; the life it details is essentially the same as that lived in monasteries of the Christian East to this day. Its major sources are the Gospel, the writings of St. Basil the Great and John Cassian, and the sayings of the desert fathers. The Rule has been continuously lived for some fifteen hundred years; the spiritual and psychological insights within its pages remain fresh and vigorous even after the passage of so long a time.
Let nothing be put before the Work of God (Holy Rule, Chapter 43). Prayer is the monk's first duty. It is the principal reason for his life apart from the rest of human society. Freed from the constant distractions of worldly life, he strives to make his life one of constant prayer (cf. Lk. 18:1;Eph. 6:18).
Early monks of the Egyptian desert achieved this through the constant recitation of Psalms (most of them had all 150 of them committed to memory) and the uttering of short prayers while they worked. Both practices continue in monasteries to this day.
We find time each day for personal Scripture reading, reflection, and meditation, sometimes--particularly during the busy summer--there is little to be found. With the Jesus Prayer in our hearts and on our lips, however, the quiet routine of our daily tasks also becomes an occasion of communion with God. When we gather at nightfall, dawn, and noon for our community prayer services, the Psalms are the heart of our worship.
Life in the Monastery
Natural rhythms govern our work, as well.
The long days of summer are filled with labor as we provide jam, baked goods, and confections for the many visitors to our area who crowd into our Jampot.
The many good people we see are uplifting, and each day has its special rewards. Many of our customers are touched by the witness of our presence and add their names to our mailing list. Through our newsletter we keep them informed of our activities and share with them some of our thoughts. Thus, the light of this small monastery shines upon many hearts.
Fall brings a slowing down, as visitors depart and traffic on our road dwindles to nothing. We put up the season's harvest, bake fruitcakes in anticipation of the holiday season, and prepare the house--and wood pile!--for the coming of winter.
Winter is our time of solitude. We see few people; our income earning work of production and mail order is less hurried. Snow removal and stove tending dominate the domestic work and keep us close to the realities of life in this place. We have more time for reading and contemplation. We catch up on our correspondence. We spend a greater part of each day in liturgical prayer as we celebrate the solemn seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Lent.
Constant through the variations of season is the peaceful family atmosphere we seek to maintain in our life. We share in the common work of the house and consult one another on important decisions. We share one another's burdens in a spirit of brotherly love and raise each other up in prayer. We hope the love that is among us will come to be shared by others.