This last term of the academic year in Durham is quite peculiar – and rushed. We’ve barely settled back again and the exams (and the effective end of term) are right around the corner. I didn’t even bother to unpack this time round.
It is especially peculiar for me given the stark contrast of pace with the preceding weeks. I spent much of my Easter break living the monastic life: a weekend at Quarr, Holy Week at Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, and almost two weeks on Papa Stronsay way out north. The monastic life is, as one may expect, one of restful peace, quiet, and contemplation. When I was at Papa Stronsay, I met a Dutch priest who was a postulant in the community there. It was actually quite an unusual sight: seeing a priest being at the bottom of the pecking order, tasked to do the lowliest jobs. I asked him one day what made him decide to seek the religious life. He answered with a childlike earnestness that seemed particularly characteristic of the continentals, “I want to be a saint!” But of course, what other reason could there be?
The monastery is quite like Mount Tabor: the eschatological sign of the kingdom to come. It was for me what Leon Bloy’s house was for the Maritains, a place beyond whose threshold “all values were dislocated, as though by an invisible switch. One knew, or one guessed, that only one sorrow existed there – not to be a saint. And all the rest receded into the twilight”.
Most of us, however, will never enter the religious life. We find out, as St Peter did, that we’re not allowed to pitch our tents there at the peak. Somehow we are asked to return down the mountain and called to be saints anyway. Figuring how to go about that is quite the narrative of many a Christian life.
There is a certain deadening immediately after the mountaintop experience. Life goes on, old habits creep back in, I find myself sinning again those sins that I thought I’ve finally gotten control over. But you never do, of course. Or, not for a long while at least. One eventually realizes that the only recourse is to abandon oneself to the mercy of God. St Catherine of Siena spoke of building her cell within her mind, bringing it wherever she went. The intensity of peak experiences will fade. But they do so after having accomplished their purpose: to shock the soul in stupor, to open our eyes to the presence and reality of God – that we may live constantly in the presence of God, coram Deo, even through the everyday.