MTV’s reality television show The Real World has been airing almost as long as I have been alive. Perhaps you are familiar with the infamous narrative given over the opening title sequence: “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped … to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real … The Real World.” As I was growing up, the show’s intriguing cast of characters permeated weekly conversations: from the Four Square (box – ball) court at recess in middle school, to the cafeteria at my high school. Originally, the show sought to immerse itself in the reality of the day’s youth and define what was most real for this core audience. It did so by attempting to depict the tensions between controversial topics such as race, religion, sexuality, politics, and substance abuse. The producers understood that there was a need to include these conversations on television, and highlight both the divisiveness and beauty of these issues.
In contrast to its origins and beginnings, today The Real World has developed notoriety for 1.) dramatic relationships between cast members and 2.) wild party scenes. For many, it seems as though this ‘reality’ television show has lost touch with reality all together.
So, what does The Real World have to do with monasticism? Allow me to indulge…
A few weeks ago, I traveled less than two hours from the chaos of New York City to visit the Monastery of Our Lady of Beatitude in Livingston Manor, New York. The monastery of nuns is part of a larger group that forms the Family of Bethlehem, the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno. Living in seclusion and silence, these monastic nuns live a life which some would call quite removed from the real world. Despite their physical separation from us, their lives are not at all devoid of what is most real in this world, but in fact, immersed in it.
I feel that all too often, we forget that this ascetical way of life remains. The daily routine of a monastic is set up quite intentionally. It can be best understood as a paradigm crafted for living an ordinary life extraordinarily well.
The typical day for the nuns at the monastery in Livingston Manor is structured with specific time allotted for lectio devina, personal prayer, meals, work, sleep, mass, and devotion. Monday is a day of complete solitude and on Sunday there is a meal together with a gathering for a chapter meeting and spiritual conversation. The way I perceive it, their daily routine is not simply a list of directives but rather a way of life that attends to others and to the world.
In the fourth century, the first Christian hermits abandoned cities of the pagan world to live in solitude. Since then, religious have been retreating to the ‘desert’, much like Christ did, in search of salvation. I believe that those who enter into the monastic life have a clear understanding of who we are as humans and how our souls are constituted. Their daily life calibrates their mind and body to being attentive to their own spiritual thirst, as well as to the prayers and intentions of the world.
When I was in the monastery at Livingston Manor, I walked up the stairs to the loft of the main chapel. Beside the staircase was a book where visitors were asked to write down their intentions, for which the sisters would pray. I wrote my intentions and sat down in a chair overlooking a sacred space with such simple and austere beauty. There was one nun silently kneeling in a stall, transfixed before the Blessed Sacrament.
Her body was motionless; her gaze direct and intentional. There, in the midst of so much silence and isolation, she remained still. My mind kept shifting between images – picturing scenes of the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the Central American deportations, the refugees grasping for food on Mount Sinjar in Iraq – then back to her, a hermit in silent prayer. These are the ineffable moments of life – when you cannot quite surmise such destruction and hope in the exact same moment. As Mary Oliver says, “… it will always be like this, each of us going on in our inexplicable ways building the universe.” These monastics are not aid workers, teachers, or doctors, but with a world in desperate need of this type of simplicity, they are saving us in another dimension. Their continued presence is more of a reflection of the real world than any television show could offer. To stand in solidarity with those all over the world in a moment of prayer, is truly to immerse oneself in reality.Many would argue that the monastic life is truly “other worldly” and that their radical separation from society creates a division between them and the struggles that plague our world. Yet, from my visit to the monastery, I have come to believe that these hermits in fact insist on remaining human and ordinary. These women do not reject our reality with proud contempt, nor do they place themselves above us. This may seem to be a paradox, but it is very important. If we reflect for a moment, we will see that to enter into ascetical life in order to be extraordinary is only to carry the world with you as an implicit standard of comparison.
So today, on the Feast of the Assumption, I am in prayer with these women on their feast. Let us remember that this call to solitude is not a relic of the Church’s medieval past, but a presence that continues to vivify our world.
Meg Stapleton Smith is a MAR candidate in Ethics at Yale Divinity School.