Monthly Archives: October 2015

False Religion, True Religion

The problem of “false religion” displacing “true religion” is age-old and universal. It infects all the world religions. Note the superstitions, the superficialities and nationalisms of Buddhism, the violence of Orthodox Judaism and certain factions of Islam, the violence and xenophobia of certain strains of Hinduism and so on, and so on. In this reflection I just want to pay attention to the Christian version of this problem, and to push our reflection to some deeper roots than various social phenomena. Otherwise we will only be skimming the social surface of the problem rather than the roots. No matter how awful or how dramatic these various exhibitions of false religion, these are not the deep down problem; they are merely the symptoms of something else that’s hard to name. But we shall try to “circle” this falseness, at least as far as Christianity goes.

People who get fixated by this troublesome surface–and troublesome it truly can be and quite hurtful/discouraging–sometimes lose their own balance and make poor choices, like abandoning religion altogether. There’s a significant number of people in the West who grew up in some Christian ambience but can no longer stand it for its ossifications, obtuseness, narrowness, outright stupidity, petty dogmatism, authoritarianism, etc., etc. With a list like that who can blame them! Of those who leave religion, some simply turn to a kind of heedless hedonism of our current consumer culture; others turn to this new phenomenon of spirituality without religion, that is spirituality without any grounding in some institution of a religious tradition. They want to be “spiritual” without the confinements of a religious tradition–meaning its checkered history, its very human leaders, its seemingly limited belief system, its lack of what they see as necessary changeability, its tawdry witness, etc., etc. But I think this is a serious and an unfortunate mistake that will keep most of them from growing in true spirituality. In the midst of all the ugly and horrible stuff, or just the plain shallow stuff, the religious institution, the church, carries within itself also the wisdom, the knowledge, the discipline, the vision needed for true spiritual growth. I love these words from Lev Gillet, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, who saw very clearly the limitations of his own church but who also at the same time saw the riches it held(and who also wrote deeply about the Jesus Prayer), and some such words could also apply to the other Christian churches:

O strange Orthodox Church, so poor and weak, with neither the organization nor the culture of the West, staying afloat as if by a miracle in the face of so many trials, tribulations and struggles; a Church of contrasts, both so traditional and so free, so archaic and so alive, so ritualist and so personally involved, a Church where the priceless pearl of the Gospel is assiduously preserved, sometimes under a layer of dust; a Church which in shadows and silence maintains above all the eternal values of purity, poverty, ascetisim, humility and forgiveness; a Church which has often not known how to act, but which can sing of the joy of Pascha like no other.


Now let us turn to get a glimpse of what lies in the depths of this problem of false religion. Already in the oldest strains of the Old Testament this problem is at hand, and it is always called “idolatry.” The condemnation of idolatry is the bedrock of the Ten Commandments, and one might say that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western Civ in its social institutions and social life. Now many, many people see this problem of idolatry in a simplistic and crude way: like the fashioning of some idol and worshipping it, like the depiction in the Old Testament of the People of Israel when they fled Egypt and were in the desert and fashioned a golden calf for the purposes of worship. We have to understand these stories without our literalist and fundamentalist myopia. Certainly the mystics penetrated the real meaning of these narratives (and especially the Sufi mystics). They pointed to the images of God we carry in our head and our heart–they range from the crude and awful to the good, the benign and the sublime. But, we need ultimately to be freed of all these images; I repeat ALL these images need to be purged because they form some form of idolatry within us because the Reality of the Mystery of God is so far beyond anything we can imagine. And this we have emphasized over and over in this blog.

Recall that story of Elijah where he is going to encounter the Reality of God(1 Kings 19: 11-13), and he is convinced that this will happen in some great and awesome manifestation like a great wind or a great earthquake; but it happens rather in what can only be described as an unusual silence. So even a great prophet has to be divested of his internal images connected with God that lead to certain expectations because this Reality is beyond all images and all conceptions and all expectations.

So the first level of idolatry has to do with these images we have of that Reality which we call God. They can be crude, awful, and distorted, and then the consequences can be horrific, both at a personal and a social level. We won’t discuss this because in many ways the problem is obvious. However this inner image-making process can be quite sublime and benign and seemingly religious, and if we succumb to this and mistakenly equate God with our images, concepts and words, then our spiritual life will be seriously impaired by what is in fact a form of idolatry, benign and inevitable though it may seem but leading to “false religion.”   This is a special problem of theistic religion because God is conceived for all practical purposes as this “object,” personal though it be, as something “out there” to whom we relate in various ways. In a sense this is inevitable because of the way we function as human beings. But once a serious spiritual life is born and once we live a serious prayer life that takes us into our own depths, then begins a kind of purging process. The surrender to this purging process is extremely critical for authentic Christian mysticism. The Christian mystics have all written about this in various terms, and the scary thing for many people is that at the end of this purging there seems to be nothing left. You just seem to drop into this Black Hole. This is the critical point in real mysticism, this surrender to what seems like Nothing. The ones who cling to the “last image” that has comforted them over the years are in fact caught in a kind of subtle idolatry–they prefer the image to the Reality, but of course it never is put in those terms; rather the image is named “God” and so there you have the idolatry. Now think of a few interesting examples: Thomas Aquinas and Mother Teresa. In the last year of his life Aquinas seems to have had some mystical experience of the Reality of God. He calls all his great theological work “dung” (in polite medieval terms it was called “straw”), and he stops writing altogether. The Reality is so much beyond all his words and concepts that it leaves him silent–he became Chuang Tzu’s “the man who forgot words!” Then there is the example of Mother Teresa who spent several of her last years in total inner darkness. We know from her own spiritual diary that she felt like there was nothing out there, that her faith was collapsing, that there was no God. This is a classic and profound moment in one’s spiritual growth, the rooting out of every trace of false religion from the depths of her heart, but the astonishing thing is that she did not have adequate spiritual guidance to help her, so she suffered from depression in her last days.

Now as we said before we won’t even bother with the crude and awful images of God that people carry and act upon and cause havoc and superstition that masks for religiosity.  That is usually the main problem which religion manifests and a true headache for true religion. Idolatry, whether subtle and sublime or crude and distorted, leads to different kinds of structuring of religion both in our personal lives and in our institutions. And in a sense the purifying of this idolatry is the great work of religion, at least in its foundational aspects–because even in our “good works” and acts of compassion, these can be seriously compromised by whatever degree of idolatry persists in our depths(as I will further note later).

For Christians there is the special problem of the reality of Jesus Christ. On the one hand this person is, theologically speaking, the only true image of God. And in a sense that is the way most Christians worship him and look to him as the center of their lives. That’s ok, but it misses some important nuances that can keep them from growing into a very deep realization of who they are and who God is. This becomes what has sometimes been termed as “Jesusology,” or “Jesusolatry.” Hard to say for a Christian but it is true that there can be a kind of wrong focus on Jesus that leaves one on a kind of pious shallow surface of spirituality. I fault Church people for letting so many drift there in this shallow piety instead of saying to them, “Friend, go up higher.” Instead Jesus becomes a talisman, a worker of magic for people. So first of all, I would like to suggest that Jesus is the perfect “anti-image” or better “counter-image.” By that I mean that Jesus deconstructs all those images we have of God that range anywhere from inadequate to downright false. That’s why the Pharisees reacted so violently to him; he challenged their religious idolatry of the Law, their conception of God and of the human-divine relationship. They were and are the preeminent exponents of false religion, even though they were pious men of their time and saw themselves as the true upholders of true religion.

Jesus pointed to the really Real, the Reality of God, whom he called “Father.” Of course this creates another image problem because “Father” can be a very problematic term. For some people this turns into a nasty twist that distorts their view of religion. On the one hand, a father can be a brutal tyrant who abuses his children; on the other hand some conceive this father as a “sugar daddy” who is there to please their whims. Pope Francis pointed to this not too long ago when he said that for too many people God is there only to give them the life that they want. You tell God what you want and wait for the stamp of approval of your fantasies, dreams, whims, etc. This is another form of false religion even if it is “church-going” religion.

Returning now again to the “image” quality of Jesus, not many people consider that the cross is a shattering of all images, including the “pious Jesus,” and then with the Resurrection you would think that you transcend all images; but alas our image-making process is so strong that it can even turn these realities into forms of false religion. That’s why Jesus said that it was good and important for him to “go away” (the Mystery of the Ascension), so that we do not seek him amid all the words, concepts, and images out there but in the darkness of the depths of our hearts where we and God are One.

Now one more point in this regard: nothing said above should be interpreted as an argument against religious art. Authentic religious art actually invites us to encounter the Mystery which it suggests. That’s different from superficial or awful religious art which simply feeds our internal image-making process. The great Russian and Greek icons, for example, do not try to feed our imaginations but rather they put our hearts in the Presence of the Mystery they symbolically depict. Recall in Merton’s Asian Journal how he felt when he stood before the religious artwork of the Indian artist Roy, or for that matter how his illumination moment unfolded before those great Buddha statues. Profound and authentic religious art is a gateway to true religion.


Now we turn to another level of idolatry which leads to false religion: the idolatry of self so to speak, and this is actually harder to get a handle on and even more insidious in undermining true religion, if you can believe it. Let’s begin by considering this quote from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. (This was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite quotes.) The scene is in Father’s Zossima’s cell, where there are a number of people and a woman has been publicly confessing her failings which amounts to her trying to be and look compassionate in a self-referential kind of way. In other words she wants her “reward,” recognition and approbation, for her “self-sacrifice.” Father Zossima’s acute diagnostic reveals her “false religion” to herself. To read the whole account is very instructive–it can be found in Book 2, Chapter 4. Fr. Zossima is speaking:

“Are you speaking the truth? Well, now, after such a confession, I believe that you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it–at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”


So this idolatry of the self and its structuring of “false religion” will infect even our so-called “good works,” which we then use to prop up our own self-image and fortify it even more. Some of the radical sayings of Jesus in the Gospels have to do with a kind of deconstruction of this self. And the Christian mystics over the centuries have often developed their own language to deal with this problem. But I am afraid that the average Christian hardly is aware that his/her own religiosity may be intertwined with a bundle of falseness that amounts to a kind of self-worship. A spirituality that masks that self-referential dynamism churning away within us becomes the lifeblood of false religion.

Thomas Merton’s spiritual diagnostic spoke often of the “true self” and the “false self.” It’s not as if you were in some spiritual schizophrenia with a split personality, one true and one false. No, rather that you have this built-in tendency to form an image of yourself and act off that image and see the world off that image in a self-referential way. This is a totally illusory state of affairs, but it feels and tastes and sounds and seems like your self. This façade of reality, this construction of unreality, is no more than a wisp of smoke in its insubstantiality–ah, but how hard we try to make it “solid” and enduring. But any kind of “wind” (the Holy Spirit?) can come and blow it away, and then we are left with No-self, our true self. But let us listen to Merton in a more explicit Christian vocabulary, and here very much echoing the words of Father Zossima:

“The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves—on the contrary, he has identified himself with what we resent in ourselves, for he has taken upon himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins…. We will never find peace if we listen to the voice of our own fatuous self-deception that tells us the conflict has ceased to exist. We will find peace when we can listen to the ‘death dance’ in our blood, not only with equanimity but with exultation because we hear within it the echoes of the victory of the Risen Savior.”


But Merton also learned to go much deeper into his Christianity from his deep penetration of the insights of Buddhism. His language changes, and one is not sure exactly how he was going to go with his new language, and how he might reinterpret Christian spirituality and mysticism after his return from Asia–as he was hinting he would do. In any case, borrowing from a quote that I used in a previous blog posting, here is Merton talking of authentic Buddhists who happen to convert to Christianity: “When Buddhists become Christian, they’re not just caught up into a rudimentary idea of the soul being saved by Christ. They find the Church an elaboration of Buddhism. It is not a deepening of their own Buddhism they come to, but a rethinking of it in personal terms. They retain their pure kind of consciousness; they don’t develop an ego to be saved. They remain stripped of this. And it’s within this deep emptiness that they see a personal relationship to God.”

And Abhishiktananda echoing the words both of Fr. Zossima and Merton and in his own context has this contribution: “For example, in my personal experience of God as ‘other’ or of myself as sinner, has my ego, my ‘I,’really been purified of its self-centeredness, its ahamkara, as Indian tradition calls it? To set God in front of me, and myself as creature and sinner over against him, could well be–at least sometimes–only a more subtle means of self-expression, of confirming my ahamkara and of asserting my ‘I’ despite all, although this experience ought to be one of complete surrender and self-abasement before the majesty of the Lord. In such cases it is all the easier to be deceived, because the subject matter is sacred and religious, and very few would be ready to suspect the presence of what psycho-analysis would call ‘substitution’ or ‘transference.’”


Whether you prefer the more traditional language or perhaps you see the potential deepening of insight in this kind of encounter with the great Asian religions, the point is that we are all invited out of the bondage of “false religion” into the exhilarating freedom of “true religion.”









Violence, Merton, and Day

We have had several significant events in recent days: the Pope’s visit to the U.S., the Oregon shooting, and the bombing of the hospital in Afghanistan. There is an interesting and important connection. When the Pope gave his talk to the U.S. Congress, he mentioned 4 people he considered exemplary Americans. Two of them were good but standard fare for the most part: Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King (both victims of violence by the way). But the other two came like a jolt from far left field: Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Not exactly two icons of the conservative Catholic scene in the U.S. But they are also largely unknown to the larger population. Minutes after his talk Google was hit by thousands of searches by people who were wondering who these two were.

In the mass media a kind of sanitized version of these two figures was presented: the pious monk and the little old lady who helped the poor. The real Merton and the real Day hardly made any appearance except that sometimes they were deemed “radical Catholics.” To get a sense of what is at stake, consider this profound quote from Merton:

The real focus of American violence is not in esoteric groups but in the very culture itself, its mass media, its extreme individualism and competitiveness, its inflated myths of virility and toughness, and its overwhelming preoccupation with the power of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and psychological overkill. If we live in what is essentially a culture of overkill, how can we be surprised at finding violence in it? Can we get to the root of the trouble? In my opinion, the best way to do it would have been the classic way of religious humanism and non-violence exemplified by Gandhi. That way seems now to have been closed. I do not find the future reassuring.”


That was written about 50 years ago and I think we are the future that is not reassuring! One of the Black leaders of the 1960s Black Power movement had said in a more metaphorical way: Violence is as American as apple pie. One of the great things (and certainly not the only thing) about these two figures was their uncompromising stand against the deeply ingrained violence in our society. We actually create our enemies, like ISIS and the Taliban, and then we have someone else to destroy. The “War on Terror” makes a lot of money for a lot of people.

Both Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton WERE radical Catholics and radical Christians. The Pope’s citing them and commending them should be a sign that simply putting on our good clothes and going to Church on Sundays is not enough. The Church as a whole, bishops, religious, lay people, should all stand up against this deeply ingrained violence and challenge all our institutions if need be.   Gun laws are needed but they hardly touch the surface; we need a whole new way of looking at ourselves, at others, and a whole new spirit. Two articles for anyone to read on this topic can be found here:


There is that old plaintive Willie Nelson ballad, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” Well, me and the Pope have different heroes: Merton, Day, and a host of so many others like them all over the world. May both the Pope and I live up to their call and their example.

The New Monasticism, Part II

So now we turn to another version of the “new monasticism.” It is Catholic-rooted though it ranges far and wide. In fact the phenomenon is so varied and has so many angles that I will reflect on simply one variant–what I call the Panikkar/Teasdale line as so vigorously promoted by Adam Bucko and Rory McEntee and others. But first a few words about some more traditional “new monks.”

In Part I I mentioned Jacques Winandy, who was so instrumental in bringing back the hermit life to Catholicism. About 1960 or so the monasteries were overflowing with people, but no one seemed to know or care about the hermit life. With Merton’s help, with Winandy and a few sympathetic bishops, a movement came about that resulted in the Vatican II Church officially accepting and approving the hermit life. So this was a spark of new monastic life decades ago, and this was a “newness” that was in sync with the monastic charism. Now there are numerous “diocesan hermits” around the world, meaning these are hermits who live in a traditional relationship to the Church. Moreover, various traditional groups like the Trappists, the Carmelites, the Franciscans, all opened up to the possibility of hermit life. Merton himself was kind of looking for some such arrangement at the end of his life. If you want to see what Merton was proposing in terms of a “new monasticism” take a look at his little collection called “Monastic Journey” and the part about a proposal for a new hermitage or skete. He was willing to support all kinds of experiments in monastic living, but for himself his choices reflected a rather rigorous traditional set-up. This was his idea of what was needed.   As it turned out, most of these experiments and so many others in the 60’s fizzled out. Which is ok because who is to say that a monastic venture is supposed to last a thousand years!

Now let’s turn to this thing: the numbers game. The proponents of our present “new monasticism” use words like, “many young people,” “many people,” meeting the needs of many in the new generation, etc. In our consumer culture the “numbers game” is very important–the more people “join in” the better. So the capitalist economy(the more buying and selling, the better); so Facebook; so the viewers of a movie or a TV program. Obviously if your goal is to sell widgets the more people interested in buying them, the better. But then this infects all our thinking and vision. It colonizes our hearts with an insidious illusion. There is something wrong or not worth paying any attention to if only a few people subscribe to it. Or conversely, if “many people” subscribe to this, then it must be true, valid, authentic, real. Now when this is applied to monastic life things get really distorted and confused–the monastic path is simply not to be measured in this way. The value, the truth, the authenticity of monastic life will never be visible in some such numbers. Monastic life will never be “trending” to use the current lingo of the media. But it has often been pointed out by “new monasticism” people that the diminishing numbers of monks in the old orders points to a death-spiral of relevance, that their low numbers these days means their way is “out of touch” and something new is needed, especially for the “young people.” Not so fast, folks! It’s simply not the “monk’s way” to play the “numbers game.” The monk’s path may be trodden by a crowd, or it may be trodden by a lone hiker.

Consider the following. The Abbey of Gethsemani, Merton’s home, had almost 300 monks around 1960. An incredible number. Today there may be only about 60 monks or so, only 20% of that original crowd. And most of them are past 60 years old. Does this mean Gethsemani is doing something fundamentally wrong and is doomed? I don’t think so. Truly they may have some real problems, very serious problems, like so many other old monasteries have, but their expression of the monastic charism is valid, serious and strong. (Where I think a lot of these traditional monastic communities tend to ossify is in putting too much weight on being Trappist/Cistercian or Benedictine or whatever, rather than simply on being monks in the Eastern Church manner and stressing that more than some institutional identity…because that what it really is regardless of any religious language and appeal to tradition.) It would not be my choice of monastic life, but it is very real and something I very much respect. Now let’s play the numbers game in our own way: what if that number of 300 was the “bad” number representing a true problem, maybe an illusory perception of monastic life, maybe an artificial inflation. And maybe the 60 number is the real number. The point is that the “realness” of the life is not to be simply determined by the “numbers.” There were numerous experimental communities of all kinds in the 60s and 70s and most of them vanished even as they tried very hard to be anything but “old school.” There were also a lot of fraudulent and ersatz religious communes and movements that also attracted tons of people but eventually fizzled out.

Yes, there do seem to be quite a few people these days with real spiritual yearnings for something greater than our materialistic consumer culture. But just because their hunger is real and their intentions sincere does not mean that what they eventually land in is true and authentic spirituality. There is so much around today that is fraudulent spirituality, or just plain spiritual hucksterism, or just shallow, or just plain false without even intending to be false, or misleading and confusing people even as the thing is partly true and good. Sometimes this is obvious; at other times you might need some theological training and religious experience to discern the deeper problems. The folks who are trying to “re-invent” monasticism are actually people who have very little real monastic experience, and so I question their discernment about what is essential to monasticism and what can be “creatively transformed. The result can be very misleading even as it may contain all kinds of good elements.

Consider also this: the very essence of monasticism may be such that only a few will ever feel fully “at home” on that path. Now it is not hard to point out some striking exceptions to this claim: Tibetan culture, ancient Syria, Russia at certain points in its history, Tang Dynasty China, and India. You might think that I forgot ancient Egypt with the Desert Fathers, but that whole movement was very complex and involved a lot of social dynamics, like escaping Roman taxation, like contentious village life, etc. (In the 1980s the Coptic monasteries in modern Egypt filled up with young people, and it was more than just a coincidence that they were all jobless even as college graduates because the Moslem culture rejected them.) As a matter of fact there were a lot of sexual problems out in the desert with a lot of these people and a heavy dose of fakery and sickness. Recall that it was a “monastic crowd” that brutally murdered the beautiful pagan woman philosopher, Hypatia. In any case, the Desert Fathers were a small minority really in this vast social movement, and I think if you looked closely you would find that it’s not so different even in these so-called “monastic cultures.”   The real, the authentic, the deep is always going to be a minority in any setting. Getting back to our own time and culture, it is my opinion that we are living through a very, very unmonastic period. The monastic flame will be kept alive, as I mentioned in my last posting, by a few people who live out that monastic charism fully and truthfully and uncompromisingly and deeply, whether that person be a hermit in a little skete, or a monk living in a large community who is following the monastic path in his heart a bit more fully than some of his brethren, or someone like one of the Little Brothers or Little Sisters of Jesus who do not use the designation “monastic” but who have more than a slight flavor of the monastic charism–solitude, silence and prayer play a critical role in the candidate’s development and in their continuing life among the destitute and needy. By the way, strangely enough very few people are attracted to this “branch” of the monastic charism, and I suspect because it is a truly demanding life. Never mind the circumstances; the important thing will always be what is in the heart and not how many others are on the path.

Now let’s take a closer look at this one variant of the new monasticism–the more “Catholic” version of Adam Bucko and Rory McEntee and a number of others–not in the sense of their being connected to the Catholic Church but in the sense that they drew inspiration from Catholic figures like Keating, Griffiths, and marginally Catholic visionaries like Teasdale and Panikkar. Also, they are definitely more at home with the Catholic mystical tradition than the Protestant New Monasticism. These folks have written extensively and have promoted their vision quite vigorously. There is much good in what they say, but their enterprise does raise quite a few questions. Some tentative comments seem called for and in another treatment of this topic in the near future I will do a close reading of one of their documents. Here is a link to a wide assortment of their writings:

But now for some comments:

  • “Monasticism” Are they trying to “re-invent” monasticism? It sure seems so to me. That’s like trying to reinvent the wheel. Sure the wheel on a modern jet liner or the wheel on a modern high performance auto is not the same as the wheel on an ancient Egyptian chariot or a Babylonian cart, but actually the principles are exactly the same. But it seems to me that they are being “very creative” with the basic principles of monasticism. Like I said, they propose a lot of good things–I mean who can disagree with a call to a greater commitment in the fight against injustice, for greater compassion for the poor and suffering, for a transformation of our hearts to selflessness, etc.? But why call this “monasticism?” I thought this is something that EVERYBODY was supposed to be into (but the churches ARE to be faulted in not making this very clear in their language, in their lives, and in their institutional presence). But the monk’s way to all this and his/her role in all this dynamism is very different notwithstanding anything that Bucko or McEntee have to say. One of the reasons for their views is their reliance on Panikkar and Teasdale.


  • Panikkar is a brilliant man with enormous intellectual gifts, and the fact that he was one of the very few who supported Abhishiktananda in India is to his credit. However, as far as monasticism goes, he simply does not understand and is viewing it from the “outside.” Let me illustrate with a parallel example: Heinrich Dumoulin, a brilliant German Jesuit and a scholar of Buddhism, wrote a book on the history of Zen. When Merton read the book, he wrote to John Wu, his Chinese scholar friend, “I think Dumoulin is very interesting but that he has a very central weakness: he doesn’t understand Zen!” So it is with Panikkar and the monastic charism–being smart is not enough. In fact, paradoxically, it can be a hindrance! When one is as good with words and ideas as Panikkar, as agile in his thinking, there is always the temptation to become enamored with your own ideas. The words become “slippery” and manipulated with great skill to make it seem like real insight and a real grasp of the reality. Panikkar is not the person whom Chuang Tzu would have wanted to meet: the person who has forgotten words!


Bucko and McEntee rely mostly on Panikkar’s one book on monasticism: Blessed Simplicity. Here Panikkar lays out his thinking on monasticism as a universal reality. There is a monastic archetype, according to him, within each person, and this gets realized in different ways in different times and in different situations. Who knows, there may be some truth in this. So the traditional monk, then, whether in community or a hermit, is no less than a full realization of this universal archetype, while ordinary lay people in society realize this archetype in some “watered-down” fashion, a kind of dilution of the monastic charism. No wonder you might want to be called a monk, because “just” being a lay person makes you seem like a little bit “less” somehow. (So you see the New Monasticism is just another actualization of this universal archetype). Ok, Panikkar never says exactly that but the underlying implications of his train of thought can lead to that kind of conclusion. In any case I am unconvinced there is any such thing as a “universal monastic archetype” from which you can derive all the varieties of monastic experience which we witness in history and in the world. Furthermore, this Panikkar “universalization” is an interesting distortion and turning upside down of what Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zosima said: monks are only what all people should be. With Panikkar we have all people should become “monks” of sorts as they actualize that archetype, a very different emphasis–not quite what he says but the implications are there. What’s interesting is that sometime later Panikkar seems to modify this view of universal monastic archetype into a universal mystical archetype. Here I think he is more on target. We can easily agree with him that absolutely every human being is oriented toward and in communion with God/Absolute Reality and that in the depths of our being we are One. In contrast to saying that everyone is a monk at heart, we now should say that everyone is a mystic at heart by their very humanity. The actualization of the mystic archetype, then, can take place in any life form, whether monk or married or whatever. Only as our Buddhist friend put it in the previous posting, the monk’s way sure seems “easier” and more focused on pursuing that goal.


The other problem with “Blessed Simplicity” is that in the attempt to universalize the monastic charism Panikkar has to strip away all kinds of characteristics of different forms of real monasticism, and then he is left with this very vague value of “simplicity.” Now there is nothing distinctively monastic about simplicity; figures from Thoreau to Schumacher have called for us to simplify our lives in radical ways. Of course Panikkar pushes this concept to the depths of our being and then this “simplicity” becomes the new “renunciation,” somehow losing the negative tone of the latter. But the “old renunciation” and the “new simplicity” are not exact equivalents and something important gets lost in the new translation. A thorough and complete analysis of Panikkar’s book would take us many pages and would perhaps reveal other problems, but this is not the time for that. In any case, this book is a poor foundation for a recovery of monastic life in some new form.


  • Wayne Teasdale is a figure that is almost of immediate inspiration for Bucko and McEntee His vision and his program are their agenda. And I am afraid there is a lot of confusion unfortunately within that vision and that program. Actually I found his book Monk In the City quite moving and compelling and he almost convinced me that he was right! The thing is that no one can say that Teasdale’s path does not have integrity and truth and that he lived it as best he could and followed a truly spiritual/mystical way of life. In a sense one could easily call him a monk because there definitely are “exceptions” to the common pattern, and monastic life can be lived in extraordinarily different kind of contexts. However, when Teasdale makes claims that try to generalize his own singular path into a new vision of monastic life, then I disagree. He is trying to “reinvent the wheel” with some “foreign” features.
  • McEntee and Bucko’s The New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life, describes the “Nine Vows of the New Monastic”, which were based on Wayne Teasdale’s “Nine Elements of Spiritual Maturity” and developed by the Rev. Diane Berke.


  1. I vow to actualize and live according to my full moral and ethical capacity.
  2. I vow to live in solidarity with the cosmos and all living beings.
  3. I vow to live in deep nonviolence.
  4. I vow to live in humility and to remember the many teachers and guides who assisted me on my spiritual path.
  5. I vow to embrace a daily spiritual practice.
  6. I vow to cultivate mature self-knowledge.
  7. I vow to live a life of simplicity.
  8. I vow to live a life of selfless service and compassionate action.
  9. I vow to be a prophetic voice as I work for justice, compassion and world transformation.

Now all this is very good–even if each vow is a bit vague and can just lead to more self-delusion. But in any case, if I were helping someone prepare for baptism, I would have them read these vows as an explanation of what their baptismal vows might mean in an existential sense. They express very well the heart of Christian life, the life of the Gospel, etc. But, alas, a good percentage of present-day Catholics would gag on these vows!

But just as in the case of the Protestant monastics, these vows do not specify the real monastic charism–they are rather a map of a potentially deep and full Christian existence. The monk’s path would embrace all these vows but live them out on the “monk’s path.” And what this means would require us to write too much at this point!


  • One of the big words for Bucko, McEntee, and Teasdale is “interspiritual.” What this means is that we are not to be satisfied with the mystical teachings of one tradition but draw upon the wisdom of all the others. Sounds good and is good as far as it goes. This very blog has enjoyed the insights, the examples, the power and depth of the various spiritual traditions of the various main religions of the globe. We have also emphatically reiterated that we are at that point in our religious development as Christians and Catholics where some input from the other traditions and some understanding of them are necessary for us to bring back to our own tradition in order to precisely understand it ever deeper and more fully. For most of us the pioneer and exemplar in all this was Merton (and for some of us the radicalization of that encounter was found in Abhishiktananda).

But in Bucko, McEntee, and Teasdale something different is going on–more like a “New Age free-floating” spirituality which borrows elements and ideas and insights from various traditions and puts them together in an uncritical way. This is the now-popular “spirituality without religion” approach which is so prevalent among the New Agers. Religion is institutions, dogmas, structures, etc.–all that “bad” kind of stuff! And spirituality, well, it’s kind of “airy-fairy” stuff–I mean there’s all kind of good, heart-warming language about compassion, justice, etc., but it’s hard to figure out what these really mean in the concrete–and precisely the inner cost of gaining such realities. Merton once said that the nonviolence of the hippies was a failure because it was not the nonviolence of Gandhi.

Speaking of Merton, his example emphasizes one very important point in contrast to these New Monastics: the importance of being rooted in one tradition in order to truly and fully encounter and learn from another tradition. Here we mean something more than an academic grasp of another religion, but rather a deep, personal, and existential penetration of the depths of another’s insights and realizations. This will not happen through workshops or conferences or programs but rather through a deeply going into one’s own spiritual tradition and tasting its depths. Then one will have a chance to realize the true wonders that the other brings to the table of encounter and what that might mean for oneself. Consider this Merton quote(which I will also use in another blog posting for other purposes later):

Here he is talking about deep Buddhists who happen to convert to Christianity: “These converts often have a deeper appreciation for what this relationship to God means, because they go into it more deeply than most of us. We just go halfway…. When Buddhists become Christian, they’re not just caught up into a rudimentary idea of the soul being saved by Christ. They find the church an elaboration of Buddhism. It’s not a deepening of their own Buddhism they come to, but a rethinking of it in personal terms.   They retain their pure kind of consciousness; they don’t develop an ego to be saved. They remain stripped of this. And it’s within this deep emptiness that they see a personal relationship with God.”


Now there’s an awful lot in this quote but here I just want to emphasize what underlies Merton’s assertion: an indepth and authentic Buddhism can not only enhance your understanding of Christianity but actually open up new vistas and new depths. So this is an example of something truly new in our time. But the point is that one does not get “unhinged” from Christianity and simply “free floats” and picks up bits and pieces of Buddhism (and anything else that sounds “spiritual”).


Another example: In the last days of his Asian trip, right before his death, Merton puts down in his diary that when he gets back to the States he will reread and reinterpret the Cistercian Fathers (very institutional figures!) in the light of what he has learned from the Tibetan lamas. In other words he is always trying to learn and bring back to his “home base” that which will illumine and deepen it. But he is also aware that there are serious doctrinal differences that cannot be reconciled merely by wishful thinking and that we have to respect that but not be handcuffed by it in our encounters. And the final point is that Merton would never have separated “spirituality” from “religion,” but this is a topic that we will consider at some future date.


  • Activist Spirit. Bucko’s and McEntee’s New Monasticism has a definite activist spirit. In fact they make a big point about the New Monasticism combining both contemplation and action. Now that claim has been made over the centuries by various groups, including the Dominicans and the Jesuits. So that’s nothing new. Granted that their activism is more nitty-gritty so to say, like the now defunct Occupy Movement, like Bucko’s admirable work in rescuing runaway teens from street predators, etc. So there is nothing wrong in being activist; in fact it is good, commendable, necessary, and called for by the Gospels. But, again, this is not the main heart and spirit of monasticism. Yes, exceptions are possible; in the Eastern Orthodox church, for example, there were monks who ran soup kitchens or even acted as doctors (like Anthony Bloom), but the norm was always Mt. Athos or the sketes of the Russian forests. In any case, there’s a bit of glibness on New Monasticism’s part in talking of combining action and contemplation–much easier said than done. And this shows that they don’t understand the “interior cost” or the discipline required. Bloom, while acting as a doctor, spent hours each night in prayer; and would these folks have the inner discipline to suspend a movement for a decade, like Gandhi did, because the time was “not ripe”?
  • In my opinion, a different kind of spirit, a different kind of vision, a different emphasis on some different values is needed if there is going to be any renewal or reawakening of the monastic charism. In fact, I would say with Chuang Tzu and the great Taoists that paradoxically the more you will try to rekindle or remake monasticism, the less you will get the result you wanted. Monasticism springs up from the soil and from the heart “when the time is ripe,” “when the conditions are right.” Consider those Chinese hermits I wrote about in a previous posting. From a certain standpoint the conditions for monastic life could not be worse, yet there they are without any publicity, without any need of promotion. I loved that one woman hermit who said: “I made a vow not to come down from the mountain until I found out who I am.” Marvelous! An incredible expression of the real monastic charism that is age old and never old. The New Monastics are into teaching monasticism through workshops and conferences and even an online course. Sorry, guys, but that’s not how monasticism is “learned.” Rather you find yourself a real monk and live with him/her and see where that takes you. That’s how the monastic thing is passed on. The real spirit of monasticism is summed up in poverty, humility, obedience, chastity, and always, always solitude and silence and pure and continual prayer.

Having said all this, I am still willing to give these folk the benefit of the doubt, and simply say let’s wait 10, 20, 30 years to see what all this amounts to, what their endeavors lead to. May I borrow something Chinese again. When the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai was asked his opinion of the historical impact of the French Revolution, he quipped, “It’s too early to tell.” That’s why I love the Chinese and why they make such good monks–even the communists have the “big picture,” the “big view” in mind, not just what’s in front of their noses. So it’s too early to tell what will be the results of the whole New Monasticism phenomenon. I wish them well. And for myself, and for them, and for all monastics and hermits, and for all No-monks everywhere, may these words of the great Macarius, one of the giants of the Desert, be truly ours: “I have not yet become a monk, but I have seen monks.”