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you’re a … monk?

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Co-workers speak of “our monk” when they mention my services to patients and their families. It’s one of the ways of inserting the S-word (spirituality) into the hospice discourse. We find that many people are cautious when it comes to being visited by someone with “chaplain” or “pastoral” on their name tag. For many, the R-word (religion) is problematic, unless they have an established faith practice. However, when faced with persistent pain, medieval monksdeclining mobility, and impending death, a spiritual crisis can easily arise.

Being seen as “our monk,” and especially “our Buddhist monk” allows me to step through doors that might otherwise remain shut … actual doors (to patients’ rooms) and metaphoric doors (to deeply-felt fears, doubts, and hopes). It could be that “monk” is such a non-threatening term–it evokes images of ordinary men and women living extra-ordinary lives in the service of others. Etymologically such words as “hospice” and “hospital” and “hospitality” are linked to long-ago refuges, hermitages, alms houses, and places where the sick and unwanted found care and shelter.

Colleagues and visitors (yet rarely patients!) occasionally express puzzlement about this monk-thing. Aren’t you supposed to live in a monastery? Don’t you have to wear a habit, or whatever it’s called? Are rollercoaster monksmonks allowed to … well, you know, have intimate relationships, eat meat, dance, play, joke, and flirt? Aren’t you supposed to be in silence?

Someone said that “a monk is someone who lives the life of a monk.” Raimon Panikkar speaks of the monk in all of us, of the inner monk as essential to the human, an archetypal part of each person. The late Wayne Teasdale, himself a monk in the Christian and Hindu traditions, describes the traditional monastic—female or male, East of West—as one who aims to transcend the values, attachments, and obligations of world existence, whose “commitment is absolute and final,” who withdraws from the world by living in waynecloisters and monasteries, in caves and forest or desert refuges, in order to focus their life and energy on an eternal quest of transformation and nearness to God. And then there’s the monk in the world as exemplified by Br. Teasdale who writes that …

… in our time, with its special needs, we require a spirituality of intense involvement and radical engagement with the world. It is in the real world that people live their busy lives, and it is in the real world that the wisdom of the monk must be made accessible. It is in the real world that their awakening and development need to occur, not off in remote solitude.

sources: Panikkar, R. (1982). Blessed simplicity: the monk as universal archetype. New York: Seabury Press, p.10. Teasdale, W. (2002). A monk in the world: cultivating a spiritual life. Novato, CA: New World Library, p.xxiii.

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