ARTICLES & BOOKS   Jeremy Driscoll OSB
A Monk’s Alphabet

Moments of Stillness in a Turning World


For Paul Murray, OP who helped so much with this alphabet and who helps so much in general



Ascent of the Hill


A monk’s day is very regular. Prayer always at the same time and structured in the same way. Reading and work at the appointed intervals. Meals at the customary hour and always taken at the assigned place in the refectory. A predictable diet. Always to bed at this hour, always rising from sleep at that hour. The architectural arrangement of the monastery underlines the regularity of these monastic practices. Long corridors uniformly marked by doors to the brethren's cells and to the rooms of common living. Life goes on in the same way one day after another, week after week, for years and years. I have been living in my monastery since 1973. Not much has changed in the way I pass my days.

This terrifying regularity is not meant to drive a person mad, though it has been known to do so. It is not even meant primarily as a form of asceticism, though it does require a certain sense of discipline. It is not a repudiation of variety as the spice of life, though at first it appears flavorless. Rather, it is designed to set the monk free on a different level of his being, and generally it accomplishes just that. Once used to the exterior routine, the monk is free to live much more readily attuned to an interior life, to a realm in which the lire of the mind and the spirit holds sway. Only this can make monastic life interesting. However boring or exotic its exterior forms may appear at first glance to those who do not practice them, the exotic dimension quickly disappears for those who carry them out day after day. And yet even these dimensions retain a kind of aura for practitioner and observer alike precisely because they are the concrete forms through which one passes back and forth from one level of life to the other.

So, monastic life arranges the exterior dimensions of human existence in such a way that its interior dimensions can come more immediately to the fore. This is accomplished by establishing a thoroughgoing regularity to the exterior shape of each day. But the life of the spirit, the inner life, which emerges is anything but regular, anything but predictable. It may well be too chaotic and lead to a crash. Yet in most cases - guided by the wisdom embodied in a vast tradition handed down by monks of former generations - the interior life which unfolds produces a variety which is indeed the spice of life. What people see outwardly of a monk's life might lead them to expect that things would be different, that a monk's inner life would be dull and plain. With this book I want to testify, "Not for me, it isn't!" I want to share some of my life, not because there is anything especially interesting about me, but because the life of the mind and spirit is interesting. I feel the privilege of being able to live in such a way. And I want to bear witness to it.

This book is not a treatise on monastic life; it does not attempt to explain it. And indeed the very form I have chosen for sharing my thoughts is a kind of anti-treatise. I am employing here a genre of thought with a precedent in both ancient monasticism and ancient philosophy. This genre has been employed for millennia, from the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and the brilliant monastic theologian Evagrius Ponticus, to a figure who in some ways combines the spirit of both of these, Blaise Pascal. Those lovers of wisdom from long ago, chose, among other ways, to express their thoughts and insights in short, provisional essays varying in length from, say, three lines to several hundred. They were written to provoke thought in an interlocutor, the reader. The reader joins the search. No one has the definitive insight, the complete statement, the total resolution of the mystery. We proceed in fits and starts, bits and pieces. But by going and going on, we get somewhere. We have at least this much satisfaction: we are not sitting still before the mystery of life; we are not paralyzed by it.

What I present here is full of starts and stops. The genre allows for it. It allows thoughts on many different levels to follow one after another in no particularly significant order, the way thoughts usually unfold in our own minds. But when we intentionally employ an exercise which lets our thoughts move in this way, we discover alI sorts of unexpected connections between what is, at first glance, a series of disjointed thoughts. The many and varied thoughts come together and begin to sketch certain patterns, not created by ourselves trying to remain in control, but formed from a deeper logic which has slowly revealed itself through the thoughts being allowed to flow freely and to touch unpredictably.

In the tradition there are several possible ways of deciding how to set down such provisionally formulated thoughts; for inevitably there is a start to them all and eventually an end and then all that comes between. If the order is not significant, then how are they to be placed? An alphabet is one way, but another way was to play a number game. Evagrius, the fourth-century monk, was good at this. He would write what were called "centuries," that is, a set of a hundred thoughts. Other monks, during hundreds of years, imitated him in this form. Each thought could stand on its own, but it might also take on a certain nuance in relation to other numbers. For example, a chain of ten might play an every-otherone game of tag, linking parts of one thought to another in this way and waiting for the reader to discover the tie. Or a special due might be tucked away at the beginning, middle, and end of a chain. But no matter what the scheme, the main point is that there is no scheme. Each thought must first stand on its own and, with meditation, be allowed to work its own effect.

I set down my thoughts here in an alphabetical order, having given each one a title of a single word or two. This is a radical version of the genre, for it means to indicate that there is no order at all in which these thoughts need to be read. This book can be used like a dictionary. That is, although you can do so, you don't usually start at the beginning and go through to the end, as must be done in a treatise, following a complicated and carefully developed argument. In a dictionary (and also here) you can read any entry in any order. But if eventually all the entries are read, a language is learned. I want A Monk's Alphabet to work like this. I invite my interlocutor to start anywhere and go anywhere, to think with me about all sorts of things that come to mind from a way of life the monastic life - that promotes the life of mind and spirit. Like a dictionary, so with thoughts offered in alphabetical order: it may be enough to read just one entry. Or, again, as with a dictionary, consulting one entry can lead to another, either just because it happens to be on the same page or because it has brought something else to mind.

Before I begin, I must also confess to something. Although the theme of the unvarying routine of the monastic life has deeply marked my own life during more than three decades, I have also lived through a series of circumstances which contradict in part this supposed exterior monotony. My monastery is in Oregon, in a relatively remote rural scene. It was there that I settled down into the monastic way. But during many years I have also been assigned to study and teach in Rome at a school where Benedictine monks do just that. In the center of a city, in this case Rome, the regular routine of the rural monastery is able to come less to the fore. For more than ten years now I have gone back and forth: half the year in the country, half the year in the city. Ah well, there is ample monastic precedent also for this. For me personally this has been tremendously enriching. From the peace of my rural scene I am thrust into the heart of the city. From the edge of America I am cast into a center of Europe. But wherever I am, I always feel myself guided and provoked by the monastic traditions I live. I am a monk wherever I am.

But if I am a monk, that means also that I am just a man, connected with all other men and women in my time ... and in other times. I am searching, as we all do. I struggle to believe, as we all do. Life is lovely, life is hard - this is as true for me as it is for us all. That is why I thought of sharing my alphabet. Not because monks are different and so worth a visit to see them in a zoo, but because my monastic life has given me the space to think about things that we all care about and all have to face. Life poses huge questions. Terrible questions, glorious questions. We must face them. Avoiding them makes us dangerous and makes the world go crazy.

What is offered here is provisional. There is nothing normative in what is provisional. In the midst of my going on, I turn at any random moment to any random person who might be interested in joining the search. I turn and say, "Oh, think about this."



The winter night is cold and clear. I finish singing Compline with my monastic community and step out into the garden where, far from city lights, I look up to the sky and see the million stars. Verses from the psalms still move in me. "Re who dwells in the shelter of the Most High ..." (Ps. 91); "... the Lord who made heaven and earth" (ps. 134); "I will lie down in peace ..." (Ps. 4). Moving fast among the stars I see a jet plane and think with affection of its cargo of passengers. I am able to imagine from my own flying how different the same moment is for them, different from my quiet garden. They speed along somewhere, probably a little cramped and uncomfortable; and yet for all that, what they are doing is amazing. They travel at great speed to a desired faraway destination. And given the circumstances, there is relative comfort. The terrible cold is shut out, as well as the night. They can listen to music, watch a movie, drink wines from another continent, do remarkable ca1culations and other work on their computers.
As a Benedictine monk I live a tradition that is 1,500 years old, but I am not living in another time different from my own. This is my century too. I travel in planes, see movies, use a computer. It makes me think about how I think. The monastic environment, in fact, offers unique advantages for thinking in a particular way. This environment and these advantages are certainly linked to a tradition, indeed to a very old one. And yet at the same time the one thinking - in this case, me - is also a product of and a player in his own times. That is, he is involved in the kind of world of which jet travel may serve as an emblem. So like any other person living in our times, the monk is potentially a partner and player in a cultural dialogue. Re is not disqualified by the ancient traditions to which he adheres. In this fact, among other things, we have in monastic life a clear example of how any tradition works. Traditions are not lived for their own sake. They are valued and lived when they are thought to contain a wisdom still useful for our present and future. I am willing to live according to the 1,500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict because I believe it contains a wisdom useful not only for me but for my companions, my race, with whom I live this present period of human history.


If we name a month and the number of a particular day of the month, we are naming a certain position of the earth in relation to the sun, a position the planet held 365 days previous and will hold again that many days hence. I find this marvelous. I am grateful we have language for this fact and can name it, even if it occurred countless times before ever there was a human species around to speak it. Anniversaries are not purely an arbitrary human construct; there is a real cosmic logic to such remembering. What was this place a year ago today when the sun and the earth were placed just so in relation to each other? What was it at this hour and the next hour, with this light and the next light? What was it a thousand years ago or a hundred thousand? Today is a day that has much about it that has been like this before, and that is much of its intrigue and beauty. Still, there has never been this particular day, this March 21st of this particular set of 365 of them. The uniqueness is likewise wonderful. Today is the anniversary of many, many things - things unknown to us but whose memory is held and cosmically awakened by this particular tilt and slant of earth toward sun as it is just now, today. And what happens today will have its first anniversary a year from now. No one need know it; no one need remember it. It is enough that something happen and that the earth and sun hold its memory in their firm and constant hands.


When I think of the many kinds of pain and tragedy that people are suffering and that we hear about every day - wars, random violence, floods, earthquakes, painful deaths from diseases, accidents - and when I think of lives interrupted and cut short and then the pain for those who loved them and are left behind, I am struck by how, comparatively speaking, such pain has not approached especially near to me, even if it seems I feel rather deeply the pain in others that I hear about. Then parallel to this is the beauty that I see and hear about: wonderful things and wonderful people in the world; day after day, glorious stories.
Perhaps the view from my room here in Rome, at the monastery of Sant'Anselmo, is an emblem of all this. For nearly 3,000 years we know of people living on this same space of land. So much sorrow, so much death has seeped into the ground on which my monastery now stands. And yet so much beauty as well, and the ever-renewing springtime with its cleansing rains and its warming sun. Right now, in the evening twilight, I am looking out on houses where great happiness and great sorrow are unfolding. For the moment, in my personal life, I am between the two; and that too is a position to be lived. I want to live it prayerfully, thoughtfully; that is, without knowing the details, I want to be in communion with whoever is out there, to suffer with them, to enjoy with them. And doing it from here, from this one window, with these people, whoever they are, I want to join myself to the whole history of my race, to the history of my times, and thereby to the history of other times. I want the life of Christ and the mind of Christ to be strong in me so that my quietly being here, even apparently not especially involved, might in fact be a sort of port of entry for Christ into our spaces and our times. Then I will have served a purpose - randomly perhaps, like some accidental death, but a purpose nonetheless.

Ascent of the Hill

My monastery is on a hill. This makes quite a difference. All of us who live on the hill have come up and down it many times; but every ascent of the hill recalls, on a sliding scale between subconscious and conscious, the first time this upward climb was ever made. That first time was filled with a dizzying range of emotions, for a person comes to live on this hill in order to seek God and is inevitably and all at once excited by the adventure, ready for dedication, and afraid that his strength may not match the hope.
To turn the comer at the bottom of the hill and start the ascent is to turn a comer in life. As you climb upward rather steeply and enter quickly into the bank of trees, a separation from a life left behind is quickly effected. The trees are splendid, beautiful, tall. They are like a word from God that whispers and waves a message over you: "you are in a new place," they say, "and life will be different here." The climb is a passage, a space that must be come through in order to reach what you have come for in the first place: the monastic wisdom that points a way toward God.
The actual physical ascent here is an indistinct combination of both steep and gentle. And so also is the way toward God. Although this is not the climb of a rugged mountain or a sheer cliff, it nonetheless requires some effort, but an effort that is paced and ultimately modest. At the top you suddenly come into the open and its beyond: the church, the monastery, the other buildings gathered round the green, and the views in every direction to the valley and to the mountains close and far behind. An inexpressible fullness fills the heart. A place has clearly been established here; something is definitely going on. For the passage I have made, for my ascent, I am invited in; I am bid to share in it. I feel peace, and I want to be a part.
A place and the lives that unfold in a place inevitably interpenetrate, and there is a reciprocal exchange between them such that each composes the other and accompanies the other. Affection grows. Monks love their place, and the place loves its monks. As the years of my searching for God in this place pass, I love the place more and more because  progressively its features and details are gathered into my story. This love stirs in me with every ascent or descent of the hill. If I go down the hill, I am on my way elsewhere and I feel the difference as I descend. If my absence is to be a long one, the emotion of leaving what I love is more sharply borne. On returning from afar, however far, it is in the start of the ascent that I know I am returned home. In the short time it takes to mount upward to the top, all the complicated emotions of what it means to live in this place flash through me and resolve themselves in the climb.