Monks Get Up Early

Monks get up early. This is one of those things that my teacher told me matter-of-factly. He regularly describes doing what’s needed in the moment in the same fashion: if you’re hungry, eat; if you’re tired, rest; if you see a piece of trash on the ground, pick it up. So, monks get up early.

He expanded on it a little with an example. On Black Friday, people get up early to wait in line at department stores to get the best deals. They are motivated to get up early so that they can be at the front of the line, ahead of all the other shoppers, and therefore have the best selection of things to buy at the best prices. They get up early, and they wait in line.

Monks get up early to wait in line, too. But they are not interested in getting the best spot. They are not interested in getting the best prices. They get up early to wait in line because that’s where the people are. The people are in line, waiting.

Monks get up early so that they can be at the front of the line. They are not interested in getting through first. Actually, they aren’t trying to get through at all. At the front of the line, monks can help others through the door.


There is another reason monks get up early, and that is because it is a conducive time to meditate, while the rest of the world is still sleeping or just waking up. I was reminded of this today while reading the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, having just healed a woman with a fever the day before, goes out into the pre-dawn darkness, to a place in the wilderness, and prays.

Early in the morning, at a remote spot, Jesus makes time for his practice. He starts his day with prayer. Then, when he is done, he can be at the front of the line, helping people through the door.

This was a helpful reminder for me. When I live my life in the world, my tendency is to get to bed later and then sleep a little later to get sufficient rest. This has been the pattern for me over the past month. I had forgotten that monks get up early. Now I remember.

The Issue of Institutions

I feel most comfortable at the edge of institutions. On the outskirts, I can remain free of the interpersonal drama and bureaucracy that so often exist within institutional structures, but I can still benefit from the things that these structures offer: education, networking, employment, and other opportunities. The edge is a comfortable place to be.

Locating myself at this margin has worked for a long time, but is now being challenged. Monks are ordained by institutions. Scholars receive their degrees, funding, and employment from institutions. Seeing as I am heading in both these directions, it seems that I am on a necessary collision course.


Iliff School of Theology, an institution on whose margins I hang out

I don’t like being told what to do. Organized bodies specialize in rules, charters, guidelines, protocols, mission statements, and ethical standards. This all feels rather stuffy and claustrophobic to me. I like to wander freely, think and do what I want, have flexibility, be independent. At least, this is how I’d largely led my life until a few years ago.

Marriage changed things for me. My marriage vows were the first vows I had ever taken. Upon speaking them, I committed myself to something bigger than me, something that spread out, not only to my partner, but even further than the two of us. This process of expansion continued when I received the Zen Bodhisattva precepts, which are vows for living, being, and doing.

I now feel myself being drawn into the institutions I had always avoided. My scholarly and monkish tendencies are one force. My vows are another. And yet another force is our current political climate. I feel compelled to act and be involved when I witness the kind of widespread suffering I see around me today. Hanging out on the edge no longer feels right. So I am gingerly dipping my toe into the institutional sea.

I have started this process by becoming more involved in my temple and at my university. I received training in Sustained Dialogue a few weeks back, which is a model of dialogue that aims to build relationships, be changed by what you hear, and work toward action in the community. Through this training, I hope to help people and groups in conflict come together, understand one another, and move toward change, both on the University of Denver campus and in the greater Denver area.

In what ways are you getting more involved? Or not? And why?