Good Zeal

Vocation and memory

I recently made the long drive back to Cullman after visiting my family in South Carolina. Along the way, moss-bedecked coastal oaks slowly gave way to pecan orchards and pine plantations, miles and miles of corn and cotton, bright white gashes of kaolin, and finally the hard-scrabble hills of southern Appalachia, with small town after small town after small town strung like lights along the quiet, meandering roads.

Roadways in the rural south rarely follow straight lines and seldom intersect at pure right angles. They rise and fall and rise and fall with the gentle motion of a carousel as they wind their sinuous, sloping way along the gently curving earth, meeting at the intersection of geography and memory in an endless array of leisurely angles and dogleg turns as one road unwinds into another with the vine-like languor of a summer afternoon.

My route was a slightly different one than I usually take, and it was my first pass along some of these roads. Nevertheless, each road felt familiar, as if southern roadways meander through my internal landscape like gently twisting strands of DNA. Somehow, the landscape and roadways of the southland are part of me, clinging to my memory like wisteria in the trees of summer.

As I drove, I wondered what this familiar landscape of the piedmont-coastal plain has to do with my presence in a monastery up on the southern tip of the Cumberland Plateau, living by a rule of life written by a long-ago monk in a far-away land. On the one hand, it may seem to beg a version of Tertullian’s famous question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” But on the other hand, monasticism seems to inhabit my internal landscape like a strand of spiritual DNA, imbuing my memory like the southscape that is part of my cultural heritage.

When I read the Rule of St. Benedict for the first time, it immediately made sense to me, as if it matched some already-existing interior landscape of how to seek God. It was as if I recognized the road, even though it was one I’d not yet traveled. A monastic sensibility was somehow already part of my spiritual landscape and heritage, relating me to generations of others whose longing for God was quickened by Rule of Benedict. The Rule seemed familiar, in the deepest sense of the word.

The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin ‘vocare,’ which means ‘to call’, and indeed we rightly think of vocation in terms of listening for God’s call. Perhaps this listening is, at least in part, recognizing the road that is already meandering through our internal landscape like a gently twisting strand of spiritual DNA, a path that already seems familiar – in the deepest sense of the word.

For me, finding a rule of life written by a long-ago monk from a far-away land was kind of like turning onto a road I’d never traversed but somehow already knew. And now I find myself in a monastery, planted along a southern road. Both cling to my memory like wisteria in the branches of summer, bringing to blossom the seeds God has planted in my heart.

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