“I cannot bring myself to say congratulations when I see one of my friends get married, because they haven’t done anything yet!” Chico preaches flamboyantly under a big tulip poplar at Jubilee Partners on a brisk November day. My friends Corey and Lauren sit at the front of those gathered, listening to this challenging wedding sermon. “Marriage is a call to suffering! It does not save us from ourselves as our culture supposes, but rather is a school for conversion in which to learn the way of love in a world so filled with violence.”
The monastic impulse can take on a variety of expressions, but it is something we all possess. Feelings of anxiety are often described as feeling “unsettled,” and what truth this speaks to our physical life and our need for stability and limits. The monastic impulse is a response to the unsettled feeling we all hold inside when things do not quite line up in our lives, when we functionally believe that we are without limits. This creed is so much a part of the culture in which I was raised. Parker Palmer captures it well when he writes, “Like many middle-class Americans, especially those who are white and male, I was raised in a subculture that insisted I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, if I were willing to make the effort. The message was that both the universe and I were without limits, given enough energy and commitment on my part. God made things that way, and all I had to do was to get with the program.”
How often my thinking has fallen in that track and misplaced my agency as a human being. The monastery is the place where we settle. “Our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you,” St. Augustine writes in his Confessions. By placing the limits of place, people, and practice upon one’s life the voice of God, our vocation, becomes gradually clearer. The monastery is the place where we learn that our freedom comes from the confines of orthopraxy, the holy drone that becomes the foundation of the creative project of God speaking into our lives. The psalter sings to us: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Later in the afternoon I take Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw to look at a house in Comer, the small town where Jubilee is located. They have been eagerly anticipating moving here for months. A man from the local Baptist church is the landlord and comes over in his pickup to opens up a little white house behind the Kangaroo, the largest gas station convenience store in town. It is small but nicely finished inside with new carpet, freshly painted beige walls, and not a cockroach in sight. They look around for barely two minutes before nodding at me.
“Na hso ga mo dee leh—What do you think?”
“Ya hso ga mo bah—I think it is right.”
They sign a yearlong lease the next day and we plan the move for the next weekend. A deep joy unfurls inside of me knowing that my brothers and sisters will be in this quieter, safer place where they will be seen as people. Just the previous day I thought there would be no housing options here for them to look at as I had promised we would this weekend, but here they are to my surprise committing their lives here for the next year. Just a few blocks away in Comer, my friend Eh Kaw and his family recently purchased a home where they will soon move.
We often deny ourselves the things we need most. It is my Karen friends who are signing leases and putting down roots, while I wrestle with an eternal spiral of questions regarding vocation and relationships. Yet I desire to discern these things in community with my Karen friends working in poultry plants, most of who are married with several children, and offer a much different perspective. I want to crucify this white savior complex I possess and vanish into obscurity, embracing the holiness of “no.” At what point are we ready to say enough already, leave the world of the mind, lay down on the earth, and let the Kingdom rise out of our hearts and come into consciousness like a cloud shape?
I am staying with Lesley, a gracious friend who opened up her house in Clarkston to me while we are figuring out the next step. Bernard and Amber, my friends from Jubilee who recently moved back to Georgia are staying there also. There are quite a few of us former Jubilee volunteers, now in the vicinity wondering what we are doing with our lives, most of us jobless, yet knowing there is life in our connection with the Karen people whom we know, knowing that there is something true growing in the places we inhabit.
I made the decision not to move to Comer with Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw at this time because of my own limits—my need for fellowship with my cultural peers, as unsettled and frustrating of a bunch as we might be. I am not the same person as when I moved in with Hei Nay Htoo and Baw Baw five months ago. I have learned courage and hope in the face of uncertainty from the love of their family. Baw Baw speaks much more English and I much more Karen now from countless hours of joking and conversing.
The first week living with gaw lah wah again, I purchase my first ever package of monosodium glutamate. Bernard and I go into Kroger together dressed in our Karen longyis. I will never be Karen, but my life speaks the desire to commit to this obscure ethnic group, to bring meaning to such jargon as “Christian” and “American” through a life together.