The monk is not a special kind of person; everyone is a special kind of monk, because the central and deepest human impulse is monastic. Monos means one, and the wayfaring human person finds oneness only by tracking Christ through deserts and dark nights into Glory. Nevertheless, a culture needs a sacred center, and the monastery provides an entry to that center, from which society derives essential clues to the mystery of its destiny.
I would like to establish as deeply, clearly and existentially as possible, the relationship between the desert and the city, the relationship of monasticism to society. It is terribly important to understand and embody that relationship.
One of the outstanding Christian writers of the twentieth century was Ignazio Silone who died in 1978. He believed, with the main character of his most famous novel, Bread and Wine, that one person saying no to injustice and oppression breaks the unanimity on which all dictatorships — proletarian or otherwise — count for their power. The hero of the novel, a revolutionary disguised as a priest, tells a young peasant woman; “Just one man, even any little man at all, who continues to think with his own head, puts the whole public order in danger.” This marvelous statement by Silone expresses superbly and succinctly the meaning, purpose and vocation of monasticism, as it was in the beginning, as it expressed itself down through the centuries, and as it ought to be now,. and the effect it ought to have on the world.
The Role of the Tracker
Vatican II teaches clearly and trenchantly that the Church is a Pilgrim Church. St. Augustine used the image of the wayfarer, the peregrinator, to express mature Christian existence. If the Church is indeed a Pilgrim Church we need good trackers. Augustine was a good tracker. John of the Cross was a superb tracker. In his poetry he is always tracking the Beloved, finding footprints, vestiges, and scents of him everywhere. He said that Christ passed through the thicket of the world and left his imprint on everything.
A good tracker is infallible. When I think of the importance of trackers, the infallibility of the Pope does not seem so outrageous. In both novels and historical accounts, trackers are taken very seriously and regarded as infallible. Even when there are no tracks, a tracker looks up at the sky, sniffs the air, and says, “That way.” And everyone goes that way! It’s a kind of infallibility. A Pilgrim Church needs infallibility because it needs good trackers, especially when it stands as it does today, at this difficult juncture, on the brink of the dark night, where instinctively it does not want to take another step forward; it is repelled, frightened, and paralyzed. All of that must be overcome by inner grace and the infallible authority of the tracker.
We must, as the people of God, and as individuals, pass over: participate fully in Christ’s own Passover. The passover is the full experience of death and resurrection: self-transcendence. It is what the whole Judeo-Christian tradition is about; it is the essence of the gospel.
Monasticism must be a sign for the Pilgrim Church in the world today. It saved civilization in the dark ages. It has introduced whole new eras into the world and uplifted the Church when everything else was going down. So the question is: how significant, how good, how clear, how meaningful, how plangent a sign is monasticism today?
The history and social function of religious orders needs to be recast and re-understood in a fresh way. Our hagiography is improving but is still not good enough. Unfortunately even some of the most recent hagiography is terrible. Take the case of that recently canonized Lebanese hermit Sharbal. A saint can live for thirty years in the desert in an exciting confrontation with the living God, and once in the twenty-fifth year people hear him swear at the devil and that takes up one chapter! Then in the fortieth year he goes into his hermitage and finds a roasted lamb, a bunch of grapes, and wine poured into marvelous crystal and that takes up another chapter! These are two isolated, extraordinary and probably legendary events in his life. The real sinew of his life, the flesh and blood of daily existence, we know nothing about. Today we need a socio-political and psychological analysis of how these famous, extraordinary figures and their movements dissented from and in a strange way blessed their times, and were never co-opted by the powers that be.
There is an intimate relationship between real, live monasticism and the socio-political world. Seen in historical context, the vows of obedience and poverty originally represented ways of transcending and criticizing a conventional loyalty to status quo power arrangements and the reification of people in servitude to an unjust economic system. In the past the monastic vows exemplified a quality of relationship and communal equity undreamt of by either, the oppressed victims or their masters.
Politics is, after all, the science of the possible. Monasticism should be a real alternative, and thus make an enormous contribution to the future direction of political and economic organization.
Chastity is the capacity to honor committedly the face of God in another. Historically chastity was a dissent from the dominant styles of Roman and feudal culture which treated women as chattels, and from procreation as a way of building a personal dynasty. The purpose of chastity, and the concomitant lifestyle of celibacy was a more complete and human eroticism. The monk should be liberated by his or her vows of chastity to be more erotic, not less.
What does celibacy convey today? We do not take the vow of chastity for exactly the same reason as the monks of old. The sign value of contemporary celibacy is unfortunately very weak — it is hardly a sign at all. Celibacy repels most young people in America today, and those whom it beckons, it beckons half-heartedly. People want religious life and grudgingly put up with celibacy. Celibacy should be dynamic in itself, a sign so strong and meaningful that the world is changed by it.
St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross knew a kind of eroticism of which even today’s most “liberated” people remain ignorant. Teresa’s and John’s sexuality was neither repressed nor sublimated. In their relationship to God and their relationship to one another they were downright erotic!
The passage from eros into agape is another way of discussing the passover of birth, death, and resurrection. Most people never get as far as eros. They are so undeveloped, dehumanized, and disorientated that there is no eros. We’ve got to begin with eros. We must become highly refined in our eroticism so that it culminates in agape. Agapraction is our goal: a state of non-utilitarian love that unites contemplation with a critical role in society. It is not enough today for the contemplative to contemplate. Hp must become a critical sign for the whole of society.
Mystical eroticism culminating in agape is impracticable unless we sharpen our critical appraisal of those structural alliances between business, government, media, and education which deny the possibility of union with God. We are whistling in the dark if we think that we can be contemplative in this day and age without sharpening our wits and expressing some critical appraisal of those institutions and conventions that make it impossible for people to reach the heights of realized union with God.
St. Augustine believed that there were few great lovers in the world, not because of bad will but because of the deformation of what today we call the subconscious. He did not realize that the uncivil socio-economic order of things has a deep, distorting effect on our psyches that only mystical experience can heal. Only the experience of God can cure us of our distortions. Nothing else can. Contemplatives who are steeped in mystical experience are therefore responsible for eliminating a certain degree of socioeconomic disorder.
A Rite of Passage
The power base of monasticism is other-worldliness. This is the distinctive function of monasticism in society: to know firsthand the passage between this world and that other beyond the imagining of ordinary consciousness and to give the secret away freely. We need first-hand knowledge of the passage. We’ve got to follow the trackers carefully: the popes, the mystics, the magisterium and all the great spiritual leaders down through the ages. We’ve got to follow carefully, get over there and return to share the secret. We need a discipline for communion with God, and a discipline for communicating the secret. If we neglect either the spirituality or the communication we have failed as contemplatives.
If the secularization process that has occurred since Vatican II forces us to get to the bottom of things and see them as they really are, we have redeemed the calculated risk of the Vatican Council. But if secularization means merely a lessening of our aspiration, an abandonment of that other world and a contraction of spirit to the pathology of everydayness, the gamble will not have been worth the price. And good Pope John will be in a big, heavenly bad fix.
Monks are involved in a rite of passage: a structured way of redefining and integrating the transit from one mode of being in the world to another, higher mode of being. Our rite of passage maps out an antidote for the anti-heroic spirit of the modern age. Psychologist Ernest Becker maintains that the purpose of society and social institutions is to set the stage and create the optimal conditions for heroism. The Church has lapsed into the spirit of the times; it no longer sets the stage for heroism. In the face of a society that has come to frustrate human growth rather than foster it, the Church must cling to its own vision and restructure life radically, to create the optimal conditions for death and resurrection, the passover into self-transcendence.
A rite of passage involves a descent into our own hell (the purgative way), an ascent into heaven here and now, to the extent that we consciously come into the presence of God (the illuminative way), and a renewal of our cosmic connection, that is, living in harmony with the whole universe (the unitive way). Finally, a rite of passage reintegrates us into society at a new psychic and social level.
I once attended a bizarre conference in California on drugs and mysticism with a group of doctors, psychiatrists, and religious experts who claimed that the mystic was one who went over and never came back. The truth is exactly the opposite. The mystic is one who goes over to the other side, participates in the passover, and then returns to be reintegrated into society. His fulgence and his lambent personality can light up the world and change the socio-political atmosphere.
Anthropologist Victor Turner divides the spiritual journey into three phases. The first is a separation from normal structured social existence. The second is a transitional or liminal phase where symbolic death and rebirth occur, The third phase is the re-incorporation of the person into society with innumerable new responsibilities. Monasticism is an attempt to create the optimum environment for people to pass over readily, quickly and surely. The monastic situation keeps us continually in transit, in via, on the move, so that we will not get stuck or regress. And it does this within and yet somehow outside the norms and routines of society.
The end result, according to Turner, is community in the deepest, full, and pregnant sense of that word. Only people who are whole in themselves, rooted and anchored and integrated enough to have something to give can create community. Here again we return to the relationship of solitude to community. The first commandment is to love God; the second, to love our neighbor. The first commandment is lived out primarily in solitude but is tested and fostered by the second commandment, loving one another in community.
Although creating community and loving the enemy is not the end, it is the finest, surest, and final test of the end, the sign that you are in the end, that you have passed over. The New Testament asks: How do you know when you have passed over? When you have love for one another. That is the final proof that in your solitude you have touched God (or that God has touched you at the core of your being), and you are enjoying what St. John of the Cross calls espousals or transforming union with God.
The monastic vows set us free. Only out of that freedom can we learn to define and identify ourselves. We cannot define and identify ourselves by our work, a terrible tendency in our post-Vatican II Church. Since the Council, religious orders have changed their work and tried to define themselves in terms of their new ministries to no avail. Religious orders have become more and more frustrated, downcast, and discouraged. The remedy is to remember:’we become defined and identified by who we are, and that beingfulness overflows into effective doing. In the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience we renounce the tyranny of “normal social differentiation” over the determination of human identity and worth, the attitude that teaches: “Without my job I am nobody.” We take vows to overcome the slavery of modern utilitarianism. Most of us are enslaved: we are workers instead of men and women.
Monastic life ought to be the most dangerous, the most difficult and the most wonderful, exciting adventure in the world. What’s wrong with monastic life today? In great monastic orders there is no creative subversion, no counterculture. Monastic orders are, for the most part, locked into serving the petrified conventions and institutions of contemporary society that cause the disease and frustration that are sickening so many people and rendering them impotent. We cannot survive on banality; we need firsthand experience of primordial truth.
We must be courageous enough to let go of the old accidentals and continue to do the creative act of God in Christ which is to make all thing new. It is an attachment to lament the passing of old aspects, features, and customs of the Church which were good and beautiful but not of its essence. This necessarily involves some fear and some grief: fear of the unknown and grief over losing some precious heritage. But fear and grief are part of the passage into the unknown.
The first phase of the rite of passage is the community formed from sharing a common adversity. And there is no going home again. We should not need to go home again once we have found our own center, live out of our own heart, and establish within ourselves our own home. Then we are always at home because we are in Christ. There is no stopping either. Otherwise there would be terrible congestion and untold damage and death. There is enormous energy involved at this liminal phase of human development, breaking through everywhere. If it does not find creative outlets it becomes self-destructive. St. John of the Cross says that it is precisely at this point, facing the unknown and moving deliberately into the darkness, that real faith begins.
What is most needed today are men and women who are monkish enough — set on the one thing necessary — God-centered and passionate enough to go over and come back. To be good pilgrims, good trackers, and pull off the passover, we need three basic attitudes: poverty, chastity, and obedience as well as the arsenal of consciousness-raising devices known as meditation, recitation of the divine office, spiritual reading, physical and spiritual exercises of all kinds (the practice of yoga, Zen, etc). These exercises do not cause the experience of the supernatural but they reduce psychic defenses against supernatural experience. Most people do not know who they are. Only those who plunge into the dark journey beyond all structure discover their true identity in their naked being. No one else does. And that is why monkishness is an indispensable and ineluctable dimension of every human being.
Note: If you like this article, please click on the “Share This” link below and send it to your friends or favorite social media sites. It was previously published in an issue of a monastic magazine. Reprinted with permission of the author.