What with everyone from truck drivers to tree surgeons trying to raise, expand and/or stretch their consciousness as if it were made of some new miracle polyester, the search to give life meaning has been raised to the level of a national pastime. Given all the crazed paths people careen along looking for the heart of the matter these days, the Trappist monks, who are the subjects of ABC's thoughtful documentary "The Monastery" (tonight at 9:30 on Channel 7), seem to have found in their ancient order the way to take the soundings of their souls.
"We're all here together seeking the same thing," says one of the monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass. "We're looking for love, but there's enough to go around, so we don't have to fight each other for it . . . when there are people to love you, you don't have to strive after that stuff that will make you feel better, make you hurt less." It's enough to make you wonder where to go to enlist.
Still, the documentary does better at casting light on the world these men have left than it does on the one they have embraced. The monks describe their pasts with piercing honesty, from the man from the Massachusetts mill town who came to the monastery seeking a refuge from his confusion over his adolescent sexuality to the others who drained the cup before flinging it away. One monk talks of his life in the New York jet set -- "people seeking fame, fortune, power, influence, seeking after excitement to allay the boredom, everybody seeking after themselves" -- while another describes his life on the street, in the Tenderloin district of San Franciso: "When you've reached the bottom, and there's nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, you've done everything, it's worship or suicide."
The men are most poignant in reciting their individual litanies of the doubts and regrets that a life of renunciation and sacrifice inevitably entails. A middle-aged monk who entered the abbey 20 years ago because he wanted something "more romantic" than a "9-to-5" job describes how he misses not being married and having children more as he grows older. But, he says, "I'm happy I did it. I hope that He's happy I did it for Him. But then again, all I can say is 'maybe' to that . . . A lot of times I wonder if God really exists . . . A lot of times."
The documentary is told almost entirely in the words of the monks themselves, in spare and austere fashion, accompanied by lots of lush and luminous photography that verges on the cloying, as if the cameramen had been mainlining Titian prints before heading for the abbey. At 90 minutes, "The Monastery" is about a half-hour too long, and moves at times with a funereal pace. But the insights and reflections of the monks themselves, what they have to say about the nature of love and of commitment, are moving and thought-provoking. "We're out there in a wild world, and that aura they have about them, I wonder if it will rub off on me," says a firefighter who has come to the monastery with his coworkers for a weekend retreat. After listening to these monks, one hopes that some of that aura will filter through the TV screen as well.