Another Potpourri of Comments

A. Wendell Berry, who had a few friends among the Amish and some interactions with them, has this interesting contribution: a list of Amish social principles.


“1. No institutions except family and church. The church is the community.

  1. The one community institution–the church–is not an organization: no building, no building fund, etc.
  2. The only chosen leaders are church leaders, and those are chosen by lot.
  3. They don’t have specialization in the pure, modern sense. Their craftsmen, ministers, etc. are also farmers. Agriculture is a norm, like binocular vision.
  4. They all work with their hands.
  5. They force the issue of community dependence; won’t buy insurance or accept government help.
  6. They vote on technological changes. For adoption, the vote must be unanimous.”

Berry goes on commenting: “This last rule I learned from Randy Wittman. If there is even one dissenter, he says, they assume the Devil is with the majority! This would make ‘progress’ very slow–but, I think, probably fast enough….. What impresses me is that, though the community is seen as a positive good, most of these principles are negative in intent or bearing. Unlike modern American government which is snarled in many rules prescribing what to do, Amish government consists of a few rules saying what not to do.”

B.  The influence and role of the news media in the election. Just a hint of how it goes: The Tyndall Report analyzed all the media in their political coverage during the primary season of the election year. In a span of 1000 minutes of coverage, Trump got 327 minutes; Bernie received just 20 minutes. Hilary got 121 minutes of campaign coverage, six times the amount Sanders received. ABC World News Tonight aired 81 minutes on Donald Trump compared with just 20 seconds for Sanders. This is just the tip of the iceberg in how the media distort our awareness of real things. Trump was a media icon; Bernie was an unknown delivering a serious message that needed some real thinking about. But we are more and more a people that thrives on slogans and simplistic solutions to our problems.

C.   January is the month of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. MLK Day is celebrated in January; and the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination is January 30th. Here’s a few quotes to celebrates these giants of our era:

Martin Luther King: “I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many White Citizens Councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”


This, of course, is thoroughly in the Gandhian tradition, and perhaps one might want to say it is too idealized. But if we don’t have those kinds of ideals we are lost as human beings. Speaking of Gandhi, here are a few quotes from him:

“If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

D.   Standing Rock. As I write this the protestors at Standing Rock seem to have won some kind of victory as the Army Corp of Engineers has denied the permit for the company laying the pipeline. It is a victory for nonviolence, for resistance, for the Native American people….though it is a very fragile victory which the Trump Administration might unravel. Long before Standing Rock, Pope Francis wrote the following which sums up very clearly what was at stake in this situation:

““In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.”

Here is a lovely website showing the various people involved in this action:

E.   Chris Hedges has another acute commentary on our situation, entitled “The Mafia State”:

F.    The New Monasticism Revisited. In a more spiritual vein, I was rummaging through some older Merton material, from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Amazing how so much of that stuff feels so dated; it reads at times as if you were in a stuffy old room. There are a few exceptions, like the essay “Philosophy of Solitude,” for example. But it is also amazing how different Merton begins to sound after 1960 or thereabouts. One of the essays I stumbled on was something I had not read before, “The Christian in the Diaspora.” It is a lengthy reflection on the post-Vatican II Church and the modern theologians, like Karl Rahner, who were trying to address the Western modern world in which the Christian was going to be surrounded by a mass of unbelief and in which the Christian was going to be a true minority. How to live in such a situation, and what should the Christian’s attitude be toward such a situation? Somehow those don’t seem to be our concerns today–a lot of what he describes has happened, or we have simply gotten numb to our situation, or these have been transformed into other questions, and we are dealing with various consequences of all this in one way or another. But there is one whole section of this essay that still has a direct importance for us today in its urgency and its insight: “The Monk in the Diaspora.” Here he tackles the question of monastic identity in this situation of modernity and now we would say post-modernity. Merton: “The effectiveness of the monk’s presence in the world and of his monastic witness to the Gospel of Christ will depend on his ability to see his own place in relation to the world correctly. He too must learn to understand his monastic calling in the general diaspora situation of the whole Church.”

The felt need for reformulation and revitalization of the monastic charism was long experienced and is somewhat still with us. The two major problems that have plagued monastic renewal and still do: a fossilization of monastic identity into a kind of medieval theme-park with a fortress Church institution, or a re-structuring of monastic life by people who do not have a deep experience and knowledge of monastic tradition. It is the latter which is, in my opinion, a more serious problem because it can seem like a really new monasticism is being born. The other stuff is so obviously wrong that there is no need to comment.

Merton tosses this all around, and a lot of this material is familiar to those of us who have read his monastic writings; but then he touches ground with something that you hardly hear about or know much about: the Russian Orthodox monasticism as envisioned by Russian theologians and writers in their own diaspora in Europe in the middle of the 20th Century. Interesting that Merton finds them an intriguing guide for perhaps some radical aspects of some new monasticism. A few Merton quotes:

“Modern Russian Orthodox writers who live literally in a diaspora (mostly in France) have carefully taken stock of the monastic movement and have traced the beginning of a new outlook back to the last century which was in fact the golden age of Russian monasticism. Leon Zander, regarding the monasticism of the Russian 19th century through the eyes of Dostoevsky, feels that the author of The Brothers Karamazov was speaking in some measure prophetically when he described the person and doctrine of the ideal staretz in Father Zossima. It is well known that Zossima is supposed to have been a life portrait of Staretz Ambrose of Optino…. According to Zander, the portrait of Zossima is not psychological or historical, but is a piece of ‘iconography.’ Zossima embodies and typifies not the 19th century monk but Dostoevsky’s own view of the inner meaning of monasticism. Indeed this Staretz is a ‘prophetic’ type of what the monk of the future should be. Zossima is, in other words, what Dostoevsky thought the monks of the twentieth century needed to become.”

“…Zander quotes Rozanov and other writers who see in the clash between the Staretz, Zossima, and the fierce ascetic, Ferrapont, a contrast between two forms of monasticism, the traditional and the ‘new.’ In fact, the Startzi were much criticized and attacked in their own time. They were by no means looked upon with unanimous favor in the monasteries. Their charismatic openness to the world, was reproved and they were criticized for the marginal life they tended to lead in relation to the traditional monastic framework. Ferrapont…is convinced that Zossima is an imposter, a relaxed monk, undermining the ancient fabric of monasticism….”

Merton then quotes Rozanov: “Dostoevsky has formulated an eternal truth, reaching down into the most essential reality of monasticism. It is the truth of a conflict between two ideals: one which speaks a benediction and one which passes sentence of damnation, one which embraces the world and one which spits on the world, one which accepts pain (for itself) and one which plunges others deeper into pain.”

Merton continues: “Ferrapont stands for the full authority of the powerful and venerable monastic institution with all its medieval Byzantine traditions, all its hieratic observances, its sacred order, its security, its regularity, and its prestige. His ascesis is part of a mighty religious institution organized for power, manifesting that power in the inexorable condemnation of all that does not conform absolutely to its hieratic demands. It rejects as evil and damnable all that does not submit to the claims of a formidably organized body of traditions, in thought, morality and worship…. Zossima on the other hand is no ascetic, no ritualist, and his monastic practice is, by the standards of Ferrapont, lax and inconsistent. His observance…is not austere and, what is worse, he is in free spontaneous communication with the wicked world, since sinners crowd to his cell for advice and blessing. Yet Zossima is in no sense merely an activist, on the contrary he is, according to Dostoevsky, Rozanov, Zander, and modern Russian Orthodox writers, the ‘ikon of the true monk.’ He is truly solitary, fully dedicated and forgetful of self, a genuine man of God, totally converted to God yet perfectly aware of his own weakness and limitations, humble, merciful, and totally submissive not merely to law but to truth.”

All of the above then leads Merton to a striking conclusion: “The monk of the diaspora is, then, the charismatic man of God, distinguished from the world only by his humility and his dedication, by his fidelity to life and to truth, rather than by his garments, the cloister in which he lives, by his hieratic gestures and ascetic practices. He does not live a strange life that makes him a wonder to the rest of men. In Dostoevesky’s novel we read that old Karamazov, the scoundrel and blasphemer, has nothing good to say to any of the monks except Zossima but moved by the Staretz’s simple words, he confesses: ‘Talking to you, one is able to breathe.’”

Merton continues: “The modern Russian theologians writing in the Paris diaspora are all keenly aware that this was a prophetic insight into the needs of our own time, for which they are now developing the idea of ‘monasticity of the heart (monachisme interiorise’). This is not merely a conventional notion of ‘an interior life for the layman’ but the idea of the lay-monk, hidden, solitary and unprotected, without the benefit of distinguishing marks and outward forms, called to deepen his monastic vocation ‘beneath the level of forms’ and penetrating to the ‘ontological roots, the mystical essence’ of the monastic life….”


Very, very interesting. A fascinating historical embodiment of this phenomenon, not mentioned by Merton in this essay, is the example of Anthony Bloom, son of Russian emigres. He lived a double life of sorts for years. He earned his living as a doctor while secretly being a monk and spending long nights in prayer and worship. Later he was asked by his spiritual father to “come out of the closet,” as it were, because no one knew he was a monk, and to serve the Russian community as a bishop. There were a number of other such examples in Europe at that time, men and women. These were the original “new monks”!!

As marvelous as this sounds, it has a very limited application, and I am afraid that not much of that survives into our day in Europe, though, of course, by its very nature, it is a “hidden reality” and hard to estimate its real impact. Suffice it to say that the monastic movement benefited from these people greatly and still does today, and who knows what goes “unseen” by the mass media…. What’s important is that these people are like a monastic compass, always pointing to the “true north,” that which is the real essence of the monastic charism. Interestingly enough, Abhishiktananda lived in this era with these people, and in his own way was calling for something along these lines. His approach was to recognize the “namarupa” of not only Christian monasticism but also of Christianity itself, and to recognize what is relative and what is essential.