Monthly Archives: December 2013

Monastic Identity or “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”

Like an old dog returning again and again to an old chewed-up bone, I return once more to this topic! Why? Maybe I am so puzzled at a certain phenomenon which I witness among Western Christian monks—mostly Catholic groups like the Cistercians, Benedictines, and even the Carthusians, and of course a flurry of smaller less well-known groups. If you look at the websites of their various monasteries, you will find a certain preoccupation with what I call “tribal identity.” “We belong to this tribe; here is our tribal boundary line.” I hate to put it this way, but that’s what it is in effect. This thing of “being a monk” subtly becomes a matter of wearing a certain identity marker. The point of wearing an “identity badge” becomes extremely important. Now of course it is never explicitly or crudely put in such terms, but the underlying message is there. What is emphasized is being a Cistercian monk, for example, instead of just being a monk. Belonging to this or that group becomes an essential ingredient. In the online self-presentation of too many monasteries there is this subtext of the importance of monastic credentials. It is as if the spiritual admonition, “Know thyself,” and the penetrating question, “Who am I,” became institutional calls for the credentials of the monastic life within this or that particular group. But actually being a true monk can never be that; it must always be something deeper and more universal and ALWAYS transcending every institution, when this is correctly understood.

Now of course no one becomes a monk in some abstract or “universal” way. One enters a particular group with a certain history in a certain time and place with a certain manner of living. Ok. One can also admit that there are teachings and traditions that are a very valid part of learning what it is to become a monk. Note, I said to “become” a monk. We need to stop seeing monastic life as “being a monk”—it is better to see it always as “becoming a monk.” As the great Macarius said, “I am not yet a monk, but I have seen monks.” That way we stop naming ourselves as monks just because we belong to this or that group/monastery. That is only an institutional label. Helpful in some cases; ok in many cases; really detrimental in too many monastic lives.

Ok, so one enters a particular monastic group/monastery and there begins the process of learning. In the Christian context, one enters monastic life because one has somehow encountered the Great Mystery of God and one is drawn to a total surrender to that mystery. One senses that Mystery is within one’s heart, but the average person needs guidance and a certain ambience and environment to grow into a full Awakening to the meaning of that Mystery and that Encounter. This can and does happen everywhere and anywhere under any conditions, but the usual, normal place is what is called “monastic life” however lived. The articulation of the meaning, the goal, the purpose of living in a monastic community can be formulated in different ways but it always points in this direction (as when the early monastic father Cassian speaks of “purity of heart” and “kingdom of God”). There are of course those monks who see living in a contemplative community as almost an end in itself—the community life then becomes not a means to an end but the very point of the life. I won’t get into that debate; suffice it to say that I consider this an unfortunate mistake of vision though often articulated with doses of true theology: Christianity as a communal religion, etc. (For others the celebration of the liturgy is the key point of monastic life—for some Benedictines—and with that I am even less in agreement.)

So the spiritual-seeking person enters a monastic way of life in some particular group that probably has a long history, many traditions, many writings by holy figures of the past who belonged to this group and who will provide some guidance and encouragement along the way. Learning all this and training in these traditional ways is true and proper and helpful. All this is good. But in “becoming a monk,” right from the outset, one’s vision should be directed to a fuller horizon than just simply being identified as a Cistercian or Benedictine, with the almost explicit proviso that if you are not just “like one of us” you are not one of us! “Becoming a monk” is not just exchanging a worldly set of credentials for some supposed spiritual/religious credentials. It is in fact transcending all credentials even as one does live within a concrete and identifiable context. The paradox of monastic life is that in becoming a Cistercian monk, for example, you will learn to transcend the Cistercian credential. Of course our best examples of this are Merton and Abhishiktananda. Not that every monk should follow or needs to follow the example of these two monks—for they are truly exceptional in every sense of the word—but somehow all of us need to learn from the pattern of their lives. Frankly I don’t think Catholic monastic institutions have learned anything deep from these two (and so many other less well-known figures), and in fact toward the end of his life Merton was very clear in not expecting much from the “institution” of monasticism, but he was opening up more and more to the true and deep charism of the monk.

As Merton saw it, institutional monasticism is an inevitable and necessary support structure for the ability to sustain a monastic life for most monks. In that regard it needs care and respect for a traditional way of life. A new monk has to learn a whole new pattern of life, and in this he/she is merely following in the footsteps of so many holy and kindred spirits. However, the institution also tends to become an end in itself and stifles the real and deep development of the monastic charism which can take on all kinds of appearances. In that famous last talk that Merton gave before he died, he was fond of quoting a Tibetan abbot who said to one of his monks, “From now on you are on your own!” And that was Merton’s message to his fellow Christian monks, and the meaning of that is that the institution can only take you so far. The really deep down work of “becoming a monk” is a very personal and transcendent affair of the heart that transcends all institutions even as you will live in such institutions for the most part. But becoming a monk is not equivalent to being a member of such an institution. (By the way one of the symptoms and signs of this problem is when monks believe it’s ok to spend millions on building their structures. Some will surely strongly disagree with this evaluation but it is my firm conviction that you can almost measure the degree to which monks are deluded by the matter of “credentials” by the amount of money they spend on building and decorating and refining their structures. Also of course how much effort they spend on gestures of self-definition.)

There is an old country western song, a plaintive melodious lyric first sung by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” It expresses a deep lament for a set of lost values that are seldom witnessed anymore but whose embodiment was always the mythical cowboy. Neither my voice nor my artistery is up to the magic of Waylon and Willie, but I also want to sing of “my heroes.” But my heroes have always been Milarepa and Han-shan and their like. My heroes have always been these magical, mythical figures who embody the values of monastic life and transcend all monastic credentials. In their own historical situations they were very marginal figures, never really fitting in with the monastic establishment, but now they are symbols of a monastic commitment that transcends all boundaries and has universal appeal.

Let me conclude by giving Han-shan the last word:

“Towering cliffs were the home I chose
bird trails beyond human tracks
what does my yard contain
white clouds clinging to dark rocks ​
every year I’ve lived here
I’ve seen the seasons change
all you owners of tripods and bells
what good are empty names”

“People ask the way to Cold Mountain​
but roads don’t reach Cold Mountain
in summer the ice doesn’t melt
and the morning fog is too dense
how did someone like me arrive
our minds are not the same
if they were the same
you would be here”

“I’ve always loved friends of the Way
friends of the Way I’ve always held dear
meeting a traveler with a silent spring
or greeting a guest talking Zen
talking of the unseen on a moonlight night
searching for truth until dawn
when ten thousand reasons disappear
and we finally see who we are.”

(Translated by Red Pine)

Christmas, Paradise, and All That

The Coming…the First Coming, the Second Coming, the Coming…is The Awakening. The language of “The Coming” points to the Awakening. Christmas, when seen deeply, is an awareness and a celebration of the possibility of The Awakening—and for us Christians this begins with the story of Jesus.

I walk into the environs of a huge retail store where almost any item can be bought and which is completely decorated for Christmas. On the PA system they are playing the Ode to Joy. Marvelous. What a mixture, a concoction of the sublime and the superficial, of the beautiful and the crass, of consumerism and the spirit, of light and darkness. This is what the New Testament calls The World. The Awakening takes place within this World. It is the Light that is in the World, but the World cannot see it, cannot recognize it because The World is largely about something else altogether. Next they play “Gloria in Excelsis….” So it goes. The Christmas Narrative in the 2 Gospels is about the “hiddenness” of this Light in the World, of this Light in our hearts which also are a concoction of so many things. Its symbolic and mythic discourse does not take away from the historicity of this one person, Jesus Christ, whose poverty, hiddenness, vulnerability all point to the Real which is at the core of our hearts. Only when the Awakening is realized, even gradually, do we even begin to sense that Light, and then it might have all kinds of different Names ( like in Islam: Mercy, Compassion, Freedom, etc.)

In Christian theology the eschaton, the Second Coming, is the culmination of the First Coming which we celebrate at Christmas. The Second Coming is also elaborated and presented to us in a multitude of symbols and myths, but it all has to do with The Awakening. The eschaton, the “beyond time,” which we cannot directly apprehend through our rational, discursive faculties or through our self-centered ego identity, which we inevitably but uselessly try to imagine in terms of the values and symbols of the present, this eschaton, the “last hour,” is truly this present moment (John 5:25)—so teaches Abhishiktananda. As he puts it: The eschaton, the Second Coming, is my discovery of my own true identity within the mystery of God. This is the Awakening. The eschaton is already here in the present moment.” So it is with The Awakening.

Christmas is a profound mixture of the trivial, the crass and the unspeakably deep, the Mystery. It is fraught with symbols of The Awakening. But it is also mostly filled with a more primitive undeveloped religiosity where “God comes to us from the ‘outside.’” So it is with our usual understanding of Christmas and so it is with much of our religious services. And so we celebrate this “coming”—and why not? For too many of us it is the God who stands “over and against us,” somewhere “out there beyond,” who then comes in the person of Jesus Christ. We celebrate this moment each Christmas and the atmosphere is filled with good cheer, gift giving, warm fellow-feeling, etc. These are but shadows of shadows, so far removed from the really Real, but still there is no need to disparage this because they are also all little, feeble but true signs of The Awakening that beckons to us every moment. (When Uncle Scrooge in Dickens’ story converts from his isolated ego-centered identity to a communion with Tiny Tim and his family we see a hint of that Awakening!) And ultimately this Awakening, for us Christians, is very much tied to the person of Jesus Christ.

So at Christmas we Christians celebrate the Coming of Jesus Christ –but the Gospel of John, the deepest Gospel, and the Gospel of Mark, and the Letters of Paul all ignore this celebration! They all point to the meaning of the Awakening without the symbolism and mythological tropes of the Nativity narratives—but they have their own symbolic discourse. As usual, Abhishiktananda zeroes in on the main point: “And whoever penetrates within himself to the supreme mystery, in Christ, has passed into God, from death to life, from darkness to light, ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me’(Gal 2:20).” Most Christians take these words in a very watered-down way, like some ethical “do-goodism,” “be like Jesus,” etc. But with The Awakening we will realize our deepest identity in these words.

So there is the Coming of Christ, the birth of Jesus, and the trajectory of that life that ends in a hideous death on the cross and then the “explosion”(as Abhishiktananda loved to call it) of the Resurrection, where all Names, all forms, all symbols, all that we can ever recognize explode and we are left with the really Real in its naked Presence and where there is no longer even any “ego I” left to say “Ah, here I stand before God.” No, there can no longer be any of that left, for to borrow from Augustine, God is closer to me than I am to myself. And in the Old Testament it was said that “No one can see God and live” (Exodus). So do not think that you can truly see God in the Nativity scene and still “live”—meaning to really see God there will also be the end of that ego-centered identity and existence. Do not think you will also see God, the true God, in the life of Jesus, and expect that ego-identity to live. What you probably will see is merely a projection of your own religious fantasies, distortions, shortcomings, limitations, etc all dressed up with the word “God.” But the Living God, the Absolute Mystery which Jesus addressed as Abba (and Abhishiktananda was so right in seeing in this the closest Semitic equivalent to Advaita) will only be seen when that ego-centered existence “dies” and is reborn as a completely new reality, “not one, not two” with God. And of course no one can even pretend to see the Living God in the Crucified One—there is no concept, no image, no name, no word, no idea, no notion, no symbol that can take us through that gate. Truly it will be harder for a camel to go through the eye of that needle…! But there will be the Resurrection, and so we become aware of The Awakening in our own hearts.

So this whole life of Jesus, this Coming, is an opening to our Awakening. And what do we awaken to? Here again we run into a lot of symbolic discourse. But there is one Biblical word that sums it all up: Paradise! Neither the word nor the notion appears often in the Bible but it is a very important term. The Christian monastic fathers saw the monk’s life as a “return to Paradise.” This is where human beings begin, where their life consists in this unspeakable intimacy with God—in Semitic terms this appears in the beginning of Genesis as a Garden, referring to a life awake to the advaita of the Absolute Presence within the human heart. This is the whole point of human life. But the word appears in its final and utter nakedness in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus speaks to the thief crucified next to him: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Paradise is everywhere and always. You are never NOT in Paradise, but the Awakening must take place to realize that. I know, I know that is just a bit too glib, too easy to say. When you are not experiencing excruciating pain or sitting in a concentration camp, mouthing words like that is just a bit too easy. Spiritual talk can be very cheap. However, these words must be said, must be repeated…even at great peril of misunderstanding…simply because they are true…perhaps the only Truth that matters. Dostoiyevsky’s Father Zosima spoke this way; so did Abhishiktananda. There can be different nuances of our elaboration and understanding of Paradise, but for Father Zosima it was filled with an atmosphere of endless forgiveness and boundless mercy and taking upon oneself the faults and flaws and misery of others in absolute joy. It is also the Perfect Joy of St. Francis. This is the Paradise Life. This is the result of The Awakening.

One last thought. As we turn toward that Awakening to the Reality of the Eternal Paradise of the heart, we are still very much in a world mixed with a lot of darkness, contingency and confusion. Nothing is here permanent, and it does not take great philosophers to point out that human life is marked by anxiety, by dread, by fear, deep down—this causes human beings to do all the crazy things they tend to do. And caused by what? Ultimately it is a fear of losing, or better,
of having taken away who we are. We are always afraid of losing something of who we think we are. Someone or something will come/happen that will negate who we are. We are ultimately afraid of not even being. And death is perhaps the greatest of these thieves! The ego-centered self is very well aware of its own fraility and its own tendency to collapse into nothingness so it is always in a state of anxiety and dread even as it dresses in wealth and power. But Jesus pointed out to us that we mistakenly worry about the “moth and rust” that can eat away this contingent reality or the thief that can come and steal it. Such an identity is a “false treasure.” When we are Awake to the Eternal Paradise Life of the heart, when no longer “I” live but the Risen Christ lives in me, there is no one that can do anything or say anything to take that away, there is no event that can “steal” that from me. Such is the freedom of the Awake Ones, from some of the Desert Fathers to St. Francis and so many others. Only this unchains us from the determinisms and the confusions of the world. If I “hoard” an identity that needs to be defended, protected, built-up (like the Tower of Babel), that very “I” will end in confusion and eventual nothingness—a life “outside of Paradise.”

Fascinating that maybe the best paradigm of Christian Awakening, St. Francis, was also one of the great advocates of meditating on the Christmas narratives of the Gospel in all their simplicity. This was not a childish thing, a regression to an infantile religiosity of folk tales, etc. No, it was an intuitive sense of the seeds of the Great Awakening that are planted in this Gospel of the Nativity. For Abhishiktananda, it is more in the beginning words of the Gospel of John. So different strokes for different folks! But in either case we have come a long, long way from “I Dream of a White Christmas.”

A Blessed Christmas to all!