In last month’s column, I announced a major business transition. Three months ago, I sold all five of my shops. Now, I’m learning to live in the very different world of starting again. But before launching too quickly into all that is next, I wanted to take some time away to reset, to reflect, to plan. So, I decided to go back to something I used to do when I was a pastor: a monastic retreat.
Monasteries have hosted people for hundreds of years. In Europe, they were essentially the first hotels and intentionally separated by about a day’s walk so Christian pilgrims would have a safe place to stay en route to their destinations. In fact, hospitality is hard wired into the “rules” of most monasteries. The monks were to receive guests unconditionally. They were instructed to welcome each guest as if God were visiting the monastery.
I remember with a real fondness my yearly times at a monastery in Kentucky. All meals were prepared and eaten in silence. Guests were invited to participate in the daily cycle of prayers in the chapel. But it was optional. And I was pretty much left alone to do as I pleased. I typically used these retreats to catch up on sleep and plan the upcoming year. Out of curiosity, I occasionally popped into one of the prayer times.
But this time I decided to try another monastery. This time, I wanted to enter more fully into the monk's schedule of prayers, and spend more time in the chapel. I mentioned this to my friend Ralph who has completed several retreats at this particular monastery. I was slightly proud of myself as I announced I may even try to pray on schedule with the monks.
Ralph made it very clear: “Oh, you will participate with them. It is expected that if you’re there, you enter fully into the life of the monks. You eat what they eat. You pray when they pray. And if you stay more than a couple days, they will put you to work as well.”
Surprised, I asked, “What is their schedule like?”
“Every day they pray from 4 a.m. ’til 7 am before breakfast. They eat all meals—mostly vegan, by the way—in silence and there’s prayer time before and after each meal. So, prayers resume at noon and again at 5 p.m. After the dinner meal, there is a bit longer final time of prayer as well.”
I did the math in my head: that’s three hours each morning, an hour at each meal plus extended time after the dinner meal, totaling six hours of prayer each day. Oh, and they stand for all prayer times. Whoa! Thankfully they have chairs in the back for guests who may need to sit down (that’d be me!).
While this ended up not being exactly what I envisioned, it was definitely what I needed! Here are five lessons I want to carry into this new season:
- I can do hard things. In fact, I should! I survived the 4 a.m. prayers and the vegan meals. Monasteries are not designed for comfort. They are designed for a meaningful life; meaning and comfort aren’t really compatible. Staying in a comfort zone never leads to meaning. My goal needs to be living a meaningful, purposeful life. While rest and rejuvenation are needed, seeking constant comfort can be a distraction from a more meaningful life.
- My life needs a singular focus. A monk's purpose is to pray and to seek God in silence and simplicity. I need to rediscover what my singular focus is in this new season of life. There will always be a draw toward complexity. Choose simplicity.
- Humility matters. For 20 years in this industry, I’ve been in leadership positions. Everyone on my team wanted my opinion. They needed my direction. They sought my attention. Now, I’m just a guy. And that is a good thing. It doesn’t mean I won’t lead again in some way. But I have no need to seek it out. And this season feels like a needed break from the spotlight and pressure cooker of leadership.
- Don’t be in a hurry. Build habits that lead to incremental change. I used to think about the big leaps of growth. Acquisitions; process breakthroughs; new technology and tools; growth hacks and shortcuts. Now, I’m more interested in the power of repeated incremental actions and daily habits. The Grand Canyon wasn’t a breakthrough. Yet, look at what a little water over some rocks for a long period of time can do.
- Embrace the beauty of austerity. Monks don’t need a lot. Just simple meals. Some prayers that have been prayed for centuries. The same outfit every day. A schedule that doesn’t change. What is contentment worth? Learning to be content with little is a big win.
Will I let these lessons resonate in the months and years ahead? I hope so. There is a lot in normal life to distract me. There’s the outside forces of technology, the peer pressure of keeping up with others and the internal drive and ambition to not settle for less. But in the end, a monk-ish life of simplicity, humility and deep meaning currently sounds deeply satisfying.