Monthly Archives: August 2011

Monastic Identity

Father Francis Tiso has written a very interesting and thought-provoking essay in Dilatato Corde:  “Raimundo Panikkar on the Monk as Archetype.'”

The essay actually covers three different topics, which kind of converge within his own personal experience:  a. Panikkar’s ideas; b.  interreligious dialogue; c. the emergence of so-called “new monks.”  The emphasis is on the interreligious dialogue, but underlying all this is the question of monastic identity in our time.  What I would like to do is throw out some thoughts,  some varied reflections bouncing off his ideas but heading in a different direction, and some divergent opinions and evaluations of the current monastic phenomenon.

1. Right off the bat I should say that I do not hold the same positive view of Panikkar’s ideas in this regard that Fr. Tiso does.  I respect Panikkar for what he was trying to do–and that is actually more important than the results he achieves–but I do not think that his notions about monasticism are convincing–in fact they may be misleading.  The so-called “monastic archetype” is an intellectual construct which helps one, more or less, to deal with what is and has always been a “messy reality”–an attempt to find some kind of unity within very diverse examples of monkhood and to push the boundaries of our understanding of monastic identity.  Good enough.  But it is a construct; there “ain’t no such animal in the zoo.”

And a “zoo” it is with all kinds of “animals” in it, exotic and ordinary, large and small, attractive and very unattractive, dominant and very shy, etc., etc.  If you want to “extract” some archetype from this bewildering array, ok, but really there is no need of that intellectual exercise and it can be very, very misleading.  What is slightly more pertinent is to observe the amazing variety of monks, the remarkable diversity of life-styles of monks over the ages—simply as an empirical phenomenon.  From that standpoint we can see that always there were “new monks.”  And always there was tension, even hostility, between the so-called established monks of the large orders and the perennial so-called new monks who lived on some fringe or other.  This also always lead to a preoccupation about monastic identity:  who is a monk, what makes one a monk, what does it mean to be a monk, etc.  A big mistake, but alas, inevitable.  Because what is really needed, especially now, is the affirmation of the human being as mystic, as  someone with a fundamental orientation to/participation in the reality of God or however one wants to name that Absolute Reality–and a very strong focus on that.   Every person that you see at the supermarket is really a mystic at heart if we understand this term properly–yet they are thoroughly and completely distracted and diverted from this reality. Strangely enough, paradoxically enough, a preoccupation with monastic identity can also distract us from that most fundamental reality.  Fr. Tiso points out that for Panikkar, in the last stages of his thought, “the archetype of the mystic converges with that of the monk”–the mystic is constitutive of the human. Again Fr. Tiso on Panikkar:  “…it is clear that the real ‘universal archetype’ towards which his thought progressed is that of the mystic, conceived as a human person engaged in a deep inquiry with reality as a whole.”  This is a much more welcome line of thought.  Also, Fr. Tiso refers to the monastic archetype as “grounded and experienced as an opening to the ineffable divine milieu.”  I think I see what he is getting at, but what I want to avoid in an emphatic way is any conflation, confusion, or convergence between the two terms: “monk” and “mystic.”    The emphasis always has to be on “being a mystic” rather than on some monastic identity or vague unifying concept like “archetype”(and I unashamedly use the word “mystic” trying to rescue it from the claptrap of pop new ageism!).  When you grow up don’t you want to be a mystic?!  Ok, if that term grates on your ears, try this phrase by Abhishiktananda:  “the absolute surrender of the peripheral ego to the Inner Mystery.”  So maybe you’re a monk; maybe you’re not—does it really matter in light of THAT?

1b.  Panikkar defines monk: “By monk, monachos, I understand that person who aspires to reach the ultimate goal of life with all his being by renouncing all that is not necessary to it, i.e., by concentrating on this one single and unique goal.  Precisely this single-mindedness (ekagrata), or rather the exclusivity of the goal that shuns all subordinate though legitimate goals, distinguishes the monastic way from other spiritual endeavors toward perfection or salvation…. If, in a certain sense, everybody is suppose to strive for the ultimate goal of life, the monk is radical and exclusive in this quest.”

Not bad, but a close analysis would bring out a number of problems.  Just one example:  “all that is not necessary to it”—who or what determines what is or is not necessary to reach the ultimate goal?  If it is a monk or monastic tradition, they will give one answer; if it is a non-monk, they might give a slightly different answer.  And from what perspective do we determine this “not necessary”?  And even what does the word “necessary” mean anyway?  Many, too many, there are in monasteries who, strange to say, get lost in their monasticism–and there are so many “not necessary” things even there, in their practices and observances, chant, liturgy, etc.,  in their “seeking of an identity.”  They are good, decent, devout, religious people, and they are official monks but, depending on how you interpret Panikkar’s words,  they may fail to fit his definition.  Jesus tells Martha: “Only one thing is necessary.”  Indeed.  And this pericope has been used as a kind of monastic/contemplative paradigm.  However, paradoxically enough, it is the monk who can get just as easily lost in the multiplicity of his “monastic stuff”–while at the same time believing that he/she is focused on the “one thing necessary.”  One can see that the hermit may have a great advantage here in this regard—less “monastic stuff”!!

More Panikkar:  “The thesis I am defending is that the monk is the expression of an archetype which is a constitutive dimension of human life….”

So there is a “monk” within each person?  Again, sounds attractive, but there are a lot of problems with that.  Official monks like this schematization(and his definition above) because it inevitably puts them on top of a pyramid.   Some lay people accept that and become “monastic groupies”—hanging out on the fringes of monastic life, providing the needed affirmation for the official monks that they are “special” while the lay people are a kind of “watered down” version of monastic life, a partial realization of that archetype of which they are a “full realization.”  Obviously no one puts it that way, but I have seen it with my own eyes.   This is not what Panikkar means, but it is where that leads to.  Others simply walk away from this scheme.

1c.  Consider the Sufis.  They may be the best model of what I am talking about and what we may badly need.  First of all, there is no organized monastic tradition in Islam.  And neither do they easily fit any of Panikkar’s definitions or criteria concerning monastic life/the monastic archetype.  Much simpler just to look at their empirical reality–they come in such an amazing variety, all kinds of “sizes and shapes and colors”!  Some live in solitude, some live in various kinds of brotherhoods, some are wanderers, some are married, some are celibate, some are scholars, some are artists, some are businessmen, some are lowly workers, etc., etc., etc.  What makes them Sufis is that total orientation toward the Divine Reality within the parameters of Islam.  To call them “inner monks” or “hidden monks” or something like that, to say that they are actualizing the monastic archetype is simply importing and overlaying an unneeded category.  The Sufi is the human being as actualized mystic par excellance(though there are Sufis who would object to the use of the term “mystic”)!   If you want to say that the Sufi is also some kind of actualization of the monastic archetype, then in fact you have converged and conflated the terms “mystic” and “monk” and in my opinion that leads to a serious confusion.  Anyway, the evolution (shrinking!!) of Christian monastic life may yet lead us in the direction of the Sufis.  I can forsee a time when we will have “Christian Sufis”(with apologies to our Islamic friends for borrowing their word!), living an incredible diversity of lifestyles, but all with one focus to be “on the Straight Path,” toward “the total surrender of the peripheral ego to the Inner Mystery.”  All else, everything, absolutely everything else is negotiable except the Glory of God.

2. Let us recall that famous saying of Karl Rahner(long before Panikkar):  The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not be.

Indeed.  The monk of the future will be a mystic or he/she will not be.  The human being of the future will be a mystic or he/she will not be.  I think we are heading(if not already there) where the stakes are that high, and the outlook is not positive.

3. Between 1887 and 1890 Vincent Van Gogh painted 30 self-portraits before his suicide, almost one per month for each of the last 3 years of his life.  This was a very troubled person who was desperately seeking to get some kind of handle on his own self.  I fear that Catholic religious, including monastics, have been doing something like this since Vatican II.  Who are we?  What makes us, “us”?  “Back to the charism of the founder.”  Etc.  Ok, the sclerosis of Tridentine religious life had to be broken up, but unfortunately so many seem to have become fixated on that identity.  And when that happens, lines/boundaries begin to be drawn where there is no need of drawing such things.

4. Let us recall a famous Desert Father saying:  “It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city.  He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and everyday he sang the Sanctus with the angels.”

What a remarkable account!  Every single word is of utmost importance in understanding what this is saying. First of all, this is something “revealed” to Anthony–not something that he figured out, or just a kind, benevolent sentiment.  No, this has the “authority of heaven” behind it.  Furthermore, it is revealed TO Anthony, the father of Christian monasticism.  So this account also has the authority of Anthony attached to it—a double dose of authority; I should say that it’s making a very serious point!  Now we come to the most important word: “equal”.  What does this mean?  The doctor is “equal” to Anthony in what sense?  Following Panikkar, is it the case that the doctor and Anthony are manifesting the monastic archetype each in his own way?  A possible interpretation, but I don’t think so.  Is this doctor the first “new monk”?!  Perhaps! Is he the first “Christian Sufi”?!  Probably. Note something very interesting: none of the major monastic “observances” or practices are attributed to this doctor.  He is not even a particularly intense ascetic—it says he took care of his basic needs, then what was left over he gave to the poor.  Granted some of the desert monks did something like that, but this is certainly not one of their signature works.  There are so many other stories and sayings that emphasize what are the distinguishing marks of the desert monks and the doctor is not given any of them.  Now the story brings us to the conclusion and the key insight—this doctor “sang the Sanctus with the angels.”  In other words, he lives in the living Presence of the Divine, he is in communion with God.  He and Anthony are both “equal” in the sense that both are mystics in the Rahnerian sense of the word.  How the doctor got “there” we are not told because it really does not matter.  There is no program for this kind of thing!  Not even monasticism!  Official monks are not privileged people with regard to religious experience.

As Monty Python would say, And now for something completely different, or rather from a different tradition—Jack Kornfield writing:  “Dipama Barua of Calcutta, one of my teachers and a revered Buddhist elder, exemplified this spirit for me.  She was both a meditation master at the highest level and a loving grandmother.  When I visited her apartment she would teach in a practical and modest way.  Around her was a palpable sense of stillness and profound well-being.  It was not the well-being of outer security–she lived in a tiny apartment in one of Calcutta’s poor neighborhoods.  Nor was it the well-being of rank and position—she was mostly uncelebrated and unknown.  Though she was a remarkably skilled teacher, her selflessness bloomed in her smile, in her care for others, in her openness to whatever was needed .  She was both empty and radiantly present.  Dipama’s heart seemed to pervade her whole body, the whole room, all who came into her orbit.  Her presence had a big impact on others.  Those who lived nearby said the whole apartment block became harmonious after she moved in.  One day a student complained that ordinarily his mind was filled with thoughts and plans, judgments and regrets.  He wondered what it was like to live more selflessly.  So he asked Dipama  directly about the alternative, ‘What is in your mind.?’  She smiled and said, ‘In my mind   are only three things: loving-kindness, concentration, and peace.’  These are the fruits of selflessness.  With selflessness there is less of us and yet presence, connectedness and freedom come alive.  Selflessness is not a pathological detached state, disconnected from the world.  Nor is it a state where we are caught in a new spiritual identity, ‘See how selfless I am.’  Selflessness is always here.  In any moment we can let go and experience life without calling it ‘me’ or ‘mine.'”

What would be most interesting would be the interreligious dialogue between Anthony’s doctor and Dipama—but now we are dreaming…..

5. Let us follow up with another Desert Father story, one of the greatest of them all:  “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?’  Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands towards heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all fire.'”

Lot has his monastic observances, his practices, his monastic lifestyle, his sadhana, but he is fortunate in that he has not settled into that as a “comfort zone” and anchor for a kind of identity:  “I am a monk, and I do this and that.”  Rather, he feels that marvelous “gravitational pull” toward the divine mystery that confronted Moses in the Burning Bush:  “I am who am.”  Abba Joseph invites him to participate in that ineffable divine identity which has no boundary.

5b. Speaking of the Desert Fathers, we have this from Merton:  “If we were to seek their like in twentieth-century America, we would have to look in strange out of the way places.  Such beings are tragically rare….  With the Desert Fathers, you have the characteristic of a clean break with a conventional, accepted social context in order to swim for one’s life into an apparently irrational void.  Though I might be expected to claim that men like this could be found in some of our monasteries of contemplatives, I will not be so bold.  With us it is often rather a case of men leaving the society of the ‘world’ in order to fit themselves into another kind of society, that of the religious family which they enter.  They exchange the values, concepts and rites of the one for those of the other….  The social ‘norms’ of a monastic family are also apt to be conventional, and to live by them does not involve a leap into the void–only a radical change of customs and standards.”

6. Father Paisios of Mt. Athos, one of the great Orthodox spiritual fathers of our time, gave this piece of advice to Western monks:  “Disorganize!”

This reminds me of one of Will Rogers’ quips:  “I don’t belong to any organized political party.  I am a Democrat!”  I think we can steal that one from Rogers:  I don’t belong to any organized religious life.  I am a monk!

If you want a monastic identity statement, well, that’s one.  Did anyone ever think that organization is actually bad for the real monastic charism?  Merton seems to have given some such hints, but gosh….  The relative flourishing of the hermit life in our time points in this direction.

7. Historical examples of people who proved “problematical” in terms of “official” monastic identity:

Ramana Maharshi in Hinduism—never had a guru, never took sannyasa, never a part of any monastic group, etc—yet one of the great Advaita mystics of our time.

Milarepa, Tibetan Buddhism, yes, a hermit, but never part of any official monastery or monastic group.  It is very clear that some monks of his time felt hostility to him.  And the tradition later tries to tame him into an “official figure.”  Marpa, his teacher, was a married layman.

Hui-neng, one of the greatest of Chinese Zen Buddhists, was a lay worker in a granary associated with a monastery and not allowed to mix with the monks–until he is discovered as a Master, and has to flee for his life because there are monks who would kill him!

Francis of Assisi–yes he can be called a monk!  He was adamant about not being a Benedictine, the dominant group of his time,  because it meant being pinned down in a cultural form that went against his spiritual vision.  So he went his own way; later we have the Franciscans, about which he was not so approving either.  Francis has to be liberated from the Franciscan image of him!

And there are so many others.

8. Official Catholic monastic life is shrinking, slowly but surely.  There is an interesting analogy with global warming.  There are “deniers” in both camps.  But the glaciers are melting, and monasteries have smaller numbers of people.  Yes, people can point to huge snowfalls here or there, and ultraconservative groups drawing large numbers of candidates, but the overall pattern points in one direction.  Just as the snowfall in some areas has increased precisely because of the overall warming, so have these ultraconservative groups flourished because of a very critical change in the cultural and intellectual atmosphere that is not good.

People, and in some cases it looks like “lots of people,” come to monasteries and tell the monks how good and important they are and what a great place the monastery is.  That’s ok—hospitality is an important aspect of monastic life.  But if monks take that as some sign that a spiritual renewal is right around the corner, they are greatly mistaken.  Just playing the numbers game:  more people come into one average Walmart SuperCenter in one 24 hr period than come to all the Trappist retreathouses in the US during an entire year.

We live in very perilous times, and I don’t mean physically(though that too in some cases).  We live immersed in a culture of narcissism.  We live in an era of enormous electronic communication, yet our capacity to communicate about life in depth seems diminishing. (Just as an exercise read the letters of people during the American Civil War and you might be astonished how even very ordinary people could express themselves with such eloquence and depth.) All signifiers now partake of the mode of advertising and marketing–Merton saw this coming in the 60s.  For homo consumerus only that which is bought and sold can be called real.  It is not a climate which is going to be hospitable to monastic values or monastic presence.  On top of it all, the deep incoherence, the genuine insanity, and the rampant greed concealed within our social and economic matrix is finally bubbling to the surface in many ways, and we are in for quite a ride in the near future.  To say that the monk/monasticism is an unambiguous “sign” “pointing” to the “transcendent” is untenable.  Even spirituality and “contemplation” have become commodified, religious hucksterism is rampant, and what’s most important, “the sign,” “the signifier” only points to itself or to another sign.  Recall that old Chinese curse: May you live in an interesting age!  Well, this is an interesting age and it is going to get even more interesting, but maybe we can amend that curse:  May you live in an age of hermits!  The hermit is the “refusenik” par excellance to this kind of degradation of human life.  Maybe only the hermit will flourish in this coming age.

9. Within his essay Fr. Tiso refers to Merton’s final talk in Asia.  He mentions in passing Merton’s comment where he positively evaluates what some young revolutionaries said to him:  “We are the true monks.”  Fr. Tiso mentions that the participants, mostly senior monks, monastic leaders, reacted negatively to Merton’s positivity.  That I am not surprised about, but I am surprised that maybe Fr. Tiso misunderstood what Merton was getting at.  He does not naively accept what they say—he simply says he accepts their challenge because it points in an important direction: every monk is or should be in a dialectical/critical relationship to the culture in which his monkhood evolves.  According to Merton this is an important credential for being a monk, and these young people put their finger on it.  This is not something peripheral or tangential to monastic identity but an essential ingredient, though it may be expressed in very different terms in different eras and cultures.  Unfortunately too many monastics are in a compromised position with the “dark side” of their society no matter how “rigorous” their spiritual practices are.  Wealth, power corrupt, surprise, surprise—sometime it’s not even that, just a comfy life with a bit of adulation!

10.Suggestions: (more or less whimsical)

  1. Try a kind of “apophatic” approach to monastic identity.  Lay off definitions and trying to get at the essence of it.  You know it when you meet it–wherever that may be.  In some special cases you might find yourself in a kind of spiritual Catch-22 situation:  you will need to be already “enlightened” in order to see this monk in order to learn from him/her.  In fact this person may not even recognize themselves as a monk!  He/she is like one of the ‘hidden zaddikim” of Hasidic legend.  When God conceals you, you are REALLY CONCEALED!
  2. Put a moratorium on all conferences, gatherings, lectures, etc.  Let everyone go back to their caves or wherever and for 10 years chop wood, carry water and sit facing a wall.   Nothing but silence.  Not even Twitter or Facebook.  Then we all get together at an appointed spot and the first person to say “archetype” gets whacked by a stick-wielding zen monk.  Then we all laugh.
  3. To borrow from Chuang Tzu:  what we need now more than ever is “the true monk with no title.”  The No-monk monk.  You might find this person almost anywhere, even in a large organized monastery with lots of initials after his name!
  4. For the next 10 years drop all titles of “guru,” “spiritual father,” “teacher,” “master,” etc.  All spiritual guidance or advice is for free from “a friend.”  See where that takes us.  This is specifically an antidote to the religious hucksterism of our time.

11.  From Merton:

“The contemplative is one who is, like the servant of Yahweh, ‘acquainted with infirmity,’ not only with his own sin, but with the sin of the whole world, which he takes upon himself because he is a man among men and cannot dissociate himself from the works of other men.  The contemplative life in our time is therefore necessarily modified by the sins of our age.  They bring down upon us a cloud of darkness far more terrible than the innocent night of unknowing.  It is the dark night of the soul which has descended on the whole world.  Contemplation in the age of Auschwitz and Dachau, Solovky and Karaganda is something darker and more fearsome than contemplation in the age of the Church Fathers.  For that very reason, the urge to seek a path of spiritual light can be a subtle temptation to sin.  It certainly is sin if it means a frank rejection of the burden of our age, an escape into unreallity and spiritual illusion, so as not to share the misery of other men.  The contemplative life today must be a life of deep sorrow and contrition, but a pure sorrow, a healing and life-giving repentance such as we find in some of the characters of Dostoyevsky.”

Merton wrote this about 1960, and there has been much speculation how he would have revised that after he came back from Asia.  Whatever be the case, and however it may reflect the mindset of the early 60s, we are still very much in the same boat.  The mystic of our time will be a person marked with infirmity, perhaps having struggled with addiction, with failed relationships, with loneliness, with great economic stress, etc. etc.  A person like that may not even recognize themselves as being on the very doorstep of a profound mysticism.  Perhaps they need just a little nudge!

12. And the final word is from Ryokan:   “What is this life of mine?


Neither layman, nor monk.”