Saturday, 18 April 2009

Complementary Lessons from the Friar and the Cenobite

One of the fruits of Lent and Easter for me this year was a lot of thinking about the various kinds of monasticism and how they embody the Christian life.

One thing I noticed is how seemingly diametrically opposed modes of living both completely fulfill the Gospel counsels. This, I suppose, is not beyond the pale and should not surprise me after five years in the Catholic Church, which, by virtue of its catholicity, has a habit of marrying disparate and opposite things on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it is counter-intuitive. Even, somtimes, to the saints, as it turns out.

Here is the case where I noticed it most directly:

Benedict, in his Rule, says a lot about stability. This, of course, is one of the vows Benedictines make, and in its most pure form it means the person who takes the vow will spend the rest of his life at the monastery. The vow binds him to this plot of land. For the rest of his life, he will see the sun rise over those hills and set below that field. From this day to the day he takes his final breath, that horizon will not change. Many people may visit the monastery; he will be there every time. Stability means binding oneself to a particular set of people too- the community of monks or nuns at the monastery. In this way, the monastery becomes like a ship- you're all stuck with each other for the length of the journey. If one person annoys you, you have to deal with it somehow because you can't just go somewhere else and leave them behind or meet new people.

Why would a person do this to themselves, vow to take on this kind of life? Surely this is how we treat criminals who need rehabilitating! Well, quite apart from the fact that we are criminals and we do need rehabilitating, Benedict tells us the rationale behind this vow. One can only ever meet God in the present moment in this present place. You will not find Him on the other side of the world, in some holy place or in the presence of some holy person if you have not found him here, now, with these people. If we travel to other places, if we seek to meet new people, out of a desire for novelty or because we think we will find happiness there or with them, Benedict tells us, we haven't learnt the first thing about the Christian life. If we do it in order to escape where we are or someone in our life, we may even be in spiritual danger. The mind of Christ is foreign to such a desire to escape.

Benedict spoke scathingly of monks and hermits who wandered about, preying upon people's charity or moving from one monastery to another, never satisfied with where they were, bored, always on the lookout for something new. He calls them gyrovagues and says, "[They] are never stable their whole lives, but wanderers through diverse regions, receiving hospitality in the monastic cells of others for three or four days at a time. Always roving and never settling, they follow their own wills, enslaved by the attractions of gluttony."

Ours is a culture bouyed up by stimuli, diversions and distractions. The majority of people's lives are made bearable by these things, by the next magazine issue, the new movie, this week's exciting episode. Robbed of these things, we must face ourselves (a scary prospect) and we must face God. Our surroundings and the people we must contend with day after day only make the vision of both more stark. And yet here is freedom, freedom from chasing after things (and therefore in many ways, from the tyrrany of time), freedom to love persons (really love, which transcends liking and disliking), freedom to stand naked before God with clear vision- of Him, revealed in Jesus Christ, and of myself, a sinner.

Here, clearly, is a sure avenue to the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. And one cannot help but agree with Benedict about the futility of gyrovagues, of boredom, of wandering and not settling. And yet....and yet....

Exhibit 2. The friar and the pilgrim.

When I was a pilgrim on my way to Canterbury, I had a different but no less Christian experience of life with Christ. As I journeyed, I received a palpable sense of the transience of things. An undeniable sensation of things flowing away, passing by, never remaining stationary, always changing; not just the scenery or the places I was passing through, but all things. All things are flowing away from us, and if we try to grip them, they slip through our fingers. As a pilgrim, I always had to keep moving. I could stop to look at a beuatiful view, but only for five minutes, then I had to keep going. I would never see that view again. I might meet kind and charitable people, fascinating personalities with stories to tell. I would stay with them a night, two at most. Then I had to be on my way. I would never see them again. I might happen upon a market or a bookstore and see some must-have volume or trinket, something I would love to have on my shelf. But I couldn't take it- there was no room in my backpack. Nothing, not things, relationships, nor beautiful landscapes could I take with me. All had to be left behind. From that experience, I took away the profound lesson that nothing in this world is solid. All is fleeting. I cannot take anything with me. All ends sooner or later, even the best, and the only really unchangable and solid thing in the universe is God.

A corollary of this was the necessity of reciving everything as a gift. When I set out each morning, I didn't know what the day would bring, what I would see, who I would meet, what opportunities there would be or what might be required of me. Literally anything could happen, but I set out in the knowledge that whatever happened, it was ordained by God. It was given by Him, shortly it would be taken by Him. My attitude had to be endlessly flexible, able to gratefully receive whatever person or thing or experience might come my way, and able to let it go just as freely when the time came to leave it behind.

In many ways, this is a microcosm of what life is like, and of what our attitude ought to be in all circumstances. Pilgrimage only served to make it clearer.

This kind of wandering from place to place (albeit with a final goal in mind) seems to be the antithesis of the counsels of Benedict. And yet, here too is a sure avenue to the love and knowledge of Jesus Christ. And there have been some who have made a lifestyle of it and not been gyrovagues or fallen under Benedict's condemnation. The friars, especially the early ones, embodied this attitude of pilgrimage. Almost every story one hears about Dominic or Francis (certainly after their vocations were taken up), they are on a journey, travelling. Francis especially embodied the receiving of all things as a gift from God without seeking to possess them. This is not due to boredom or a desire for novelty. Friars are not gyrovagues (or they shouldn't be). Benedict condemns those who "never settle, following their own wills", but the friar never settles precisely because he is not following his own will but rather seeking to leave himself open to God's will, relinquishing his grasp on anything he might desire to keep for himself in the hope it might satisfy him, even people and places. Yet the friar is not unstable. The whole world is his monastery. Every person he meets is a brother or sister (even, in Francis' case, the animals). The two ways of life complement each other beautifully.

By the vow of stability, the Christian puts on armour to protect himself from the endless pursuit of novelty and the suspicion God can be met somewhere other than here and now; that I could learn love if I wanted to, if only I could get away from that guy.

In the life of wandering and journeying taken up by the pilgrim and friar, the Christian puts on armour to protect himself from undue attachment, from a false feeling of security in the presence of the known, against the substitution of transitory things which will pass away for the love of God which will not.

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