Monastic Musings, Part I

A  couple of very interesting things were brought to my attention not too long ago.  One was the apparent closure of a Trappist monastery in Colorado, Snowmass.  The other, a blistering critique of zen buddhism written in 2002 and still very current.  These two seemingly very disparate “moments” have quite a few fascinating connections.  Been pondering these for quite a while and will  continue to do so given what I feel  are important “signs” of things we need to be aware of.  What follows are just some preliminary reflections concerning the first item; the zen stuff will follow in Part II.

First, the Trappists in Colorado.  In some ways the closure  is a surprise; in many other ways, not so much.  Founded in 1962 (same year as the Trappistine Redwoods Monastery in California) in Colorado, in the high country  of the Rockies, a place of great beauty and peace, they seemed to be ideally situated to flourish as a monastic community.  But now there are only a handful of elderly monks, and the place is apparently not viable as a monastery.  The Trappist monastery In Utah gave up the ghost a few years ago; the few remaining monks ended up in a senior care facility in Salt Lake City.  From what I have heard all the Trappist monasteries are all extremely “top heavy” in elderly monks; some places with an average age well  over 70.  Does not portend well for the future.  This is all consistent with what we have seen in various other religious orders and in the priesthood in general.   But monastic life has some special interest because it makes some special claims about itself.  So the fact that young people are not coming in any meaningful numbers, and those who do come, do  not stay, this tells me this is a very significant sign.   

A personal note:  I have lived in a Christian monastic community for about 15 years.  I am a total believer in  the monastic charism;  I see  the monastic life as one of the most beautiful and most significant ways of life in the whole human experience.  But I also see some very serious problems with this phenomenon.

First of all, we need to realize and acknowledge the cultural/social dependence of monasticism as an institution.  A given society “allows” the monastic phenomenon to exist, to flourish; it gives it that critical space in which it can breathe and be itself.  Or it does not.  This notion  that  monasticism is “outside” society, its “difference” as a kind of badge of authenticity, is of course a delusion.  Think of  this analogous and most radical example….the sannyasi in India.  In his radical renunciation he is totally dependent upon the social/cultural matrix in which he finds himself.  You will not find him on the streets of New York, LA, or small- town America.  Even the notion of “renunciation” will hardly be acknowledged!  So….what I am getting at is that maybe this  culture of ours, this modern western society, is too toxic for monasticism to flourish.  Sounds too awful to be true, too pessimistic, etc.  But here I want to make an important distinction between monasticism as an institution and the monastic charism, that inner experience which translates into a sense of some kind of monastic identity.  There is absolutely no reason why monastic institutions, no matter how venerable, can or even should last.  There may be a natural life cycle for these institutions of birth, development, and death.  Even without the culture suffocating them.  But the charism, well, that will never end as long as there are human hearts.  Think of the young Chinese who retreated into the Zhongnan mountains to become Taoist and Chan hermits even during the most repressive era of modern China, and who keep coming even in this day of prosperity and a more relaxed rule.  They live a very different life from the big government-supported monasteries of the past.

So…while one could make an argument that whatever merits Christian institutions of monasticism had in the past,  those days are over, and while one could say it is finished as a human endeavor, this is not what I will say; but neither will I argue against that  point.  In a sense either you recognize the inner monastic reality and are drawn to it, or you are not. No institution can open the door to it.  No one can or should be “talked” into it or convinced that this is an important good for all of us.  Either you see it or you don’t.  However, a certain clarity about monastic identity (as distinct from the institution) is very, very important and critically helpful.  And this is where our problems begin…..  Both the liberals in Christianity and the conservatives have really muddled things, so it is really hard to appreciate the monastic charism in its essence.  And it is so easy for both camps to “close that door.”

Aristotle said that to understand something you need to look at it at its origin.  For Christian monasticism that would be the Desert Fathers of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Century Egypt and the parallel movements in Palestine and Syria.  Interestingly enough Vatican II, in its call for reform and renewal of all Catholic religious orders, asked every congregation to get back to the “spirit” and charism of its founding and renew and adapt to the modern world in that light.  When this was applied to monasticism, a serious mistake, in my opinion, was made.  The emphasis became: what are we….Benedictines, Trappists, Carthusians, Camaldolese, etc.  The emphasis was on the monk as a member of a particular “order.”  I know this is not a popular or even “acceptable” view…all these Orders are looked on as a charism of the Western Church, but I think this optic distorts our sense of what the monastic identity is. In some cases it leads to a real spiritual sclerosis that can best be evoked by borrowing a critical phrase from C. S. Lewis:  Churchianity vs Christianity.  An ersatz manifestation of the reality can look, feel, sound like the real thing, but the seeking heart knows this is not it.   In any case, these Orders are dying a natural death, a slow atrophying shrinkage, which  neither  conservative nor liberal gestures or ideology can save.  Reshuffling the furniture on the Titanic either in a liberal or conservative way is not going to save the ship.  But the monastic thing will live, will go on, all you will need are the eyes to see it.  And this “seeing” is very critical…what you see and how you see it.

A few words about monastic identity from the Desert Fathers.   The Sayings are largely not an easy, comfortable read for the modern sensibility!  What is important to remember is  that these words are not aiming at some universal  theory of monastic life but are particular words pertaining to particular people with particular problems and situated in a certain cultural/historical matrix.  However, there  is much we can learn from them if we read them right for they are constantly struggling with this thing of monastic identity: Who is a monk? What makes one a monk?  What is monastic praxis? Etc.  After all THIS is a “new thing”; here we are at its origins….at least for  Christianity.

Now if we take the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and read each saying and anecdote looking for some insight about monastic identity, we will easily go wrong.  Their “words” are not like “arrows” pointing at this reality, not formulas or recipes, not a map.    Rather, the words, sayings, examples, anecdotes, etc. are more like a marvelous display of concentric circles, like in the figure below.


Now imagine each saying as being one of these circles, and at the very center is the heart of monastic identity, silent, transparent, almost as if nothing were there…. Some sayings will  be very close to that center; some will be rather far….but the whole collection, if you really look at it with understanding, will be this marvelous “focusing agent,” a “target” if you will, for what is essentially nameless, wordless, beyond concept, an unspeakable poverty of constructed identities.  

That great figure of the Desert, Macarius,  is reputed to have once said, “I have not yet become a monk, but I have seen monks”…. speaking of some “Egyptian sannyasis” he had witnessed in the wilderness.  Any program of monastic renewal should ponder this saying for a long time!