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Before I became a monk I had several mini-careers including a couple of years in a merchant bank in London. It paid well and the work was quite interesting at first. I had gone there to get a break from academia and learn what really made the world go round: love or money. I had no desire to climb the corporate ladder but I liked my colleagues and found the personalities and interactions quite instructive about my other big question: what is the meaning of life and what happens to you over time?
It was this question perhaps that led me to decide to do a retreat – my first – in a monastery. I didn’t have much idea of what that meant, maybe prayer, silence, being alone, simple food. It didn’t turn out quite as I expected. When I arrived, I decided to fast as I thought that might prime me for higher spiritual experiences. What I received was a first night of intense nightmares which was something new for me and left me very shaken. One followed another and woke me up each time in a cold formless fear. No one in the monastery had taken any interest in me but I asked to speak to someone and an old kind looking monk came to see me. I described my night experience and he looked uncertain what to say; but when I mentioned I had been fasting he brightened up as if he had found the answer. ‘It was the devil,’ he confidently said. I waited for more information and he said ‘you see the devil saw you were fasting and decided to attack you because you were weak. Have a good lunch and you’ll be fine.’
My second and last night I went to my room after compline and was reading before going to bed. Suddenly there was a rapid knocking at my door. I opened it to find one of the other old monks looking very anxious and beckoning me into the corridor to follow him. I asked him what was the problem and as he shuffled ahead of me all I heard was ‘mass, mass. Theres’s no one to serve the mass. Quick!’ Before we got to the chapel the abbot appeared, apologised and rescued me from the delusions of monastic dementia.
Things rarely, if ever, turn out as we expect. The random games that the multiple universes play on us are infinite. It was a long time before I entered another monastery to learn from the teaching and personal example of the wisest and sanest person I have known before or since. Wisdom, goodness, personal sanity and who we learn from make all the difference to our life. But even then things never turn out as you expect.

Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2024
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