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)

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