Not all alternative lifestyles are suspect. Take the monks of New Melleray Abbey in Iowa. Theirs is about as alternative a lifestyle as you can get?#34;a strict regimen devoted to prayer, work, and community living.
Just returned from my fifth annual visit to the monastery, where I chiefly engage in the 3 R's?#34;Readin', Writin' and Reflecting. It's located about a 15-minute drive south of Dubuque, a river town in the northeast corner of the state that promotes itself as "The Masterpiece on the Mississippi," a very un-Iowa kind of aggrandizement.
New Melleray is a good place to think. The pace is slow and the only noise comes from the combines out in the fields harvesting 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans. There are no media distractions here, which means nobody is trying to break into your consciousness and tell you what to think (or buy).
This alternative lifestyle will never become an epidemic. But I suspect more and more people out here in "the world" will find it increasingly appealing as modern life grows more stressful and neurotic.
Our society is overstimulating?#34;too fast, too complicated, too everything. People don't have time to think, much less reflect, and the results are predictable.
Which is not to say that our civilization needs to adopt the monastic model. But there is plenty we can learn from them.
The hotel industry, for instance, could learn a lot from the low-overhead, no-frills, yet comfortable and welcoming guest house which hosts hundreds of visitors every year for $30 a night (meals included). The food's a lot better, too.
But the monastic lifestyle has plenty to teach those of us who are time-starved, meaning-starved and, most of all, authenticity-starved. We live in a society dominated by media-savvy manipulators, salesmen, marketing and public relations. Everything is hyped. Nothing is as advertised. Our society is literally built on lies.
Whether you're religious or not, Christian or not, most people respond to the sheer authenticity of a group of men (or women) who actually live by what they believe.
Most of us couldn't adopt this lifestyle. The monks take five vows?#34;Poverty, Chastity, Obedience, Stability and something called "Conversion of Manners," which essentially means breaking with your former life. I'll never join because I'm a heretic at heart, I could never take the vow of obedience.
And the daily regimen is certainly more taxing than most of us are willing to adopt. The monks rise at 3:15 a.m. and until 8 p.m., they're mostly praying, reading, or working.
New Melleray is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. It was founded in 1849 by Irish Monks escaping the potato famine. The newcomers came up the Mississippi from New Orleans. Six died of cholera on the way, leaving only 10 to establish the monastery. The community swelled to 150 monks in 1960, thanks to the influx of vocations following World War II. Today, they're down to 35 or so, and most are elderly. Once self-sufficient, they get more and more help from outsiders. A young layman with an advanced degree in both agriculture (and theology) runs the farm operation now. The monks contract projects out?#34;such as the new handicapped accessible ramp and soon-to-be-installed elevator?#34;and they get plenty of volunteer assistance. Neighbors are drawn to the place because it is anything but life-denying. It's one of the happiest, most affirmative places I've ever spent time in. These monks are clearly doing something right.
As modern life continues to spiral out of control, the simplicity of monasticism looks more and more attractive?#34;maybe not for the rest of your life, but as a welcome sanctuary from the insanity of the world at large.
Ultimately, it won't be the number of new monks that guarantees the monastery's survival. It will be the fact that the outside world needs places like New Melleray to exist.