As many of you know, I am working on a memoir. This was first suggested to me by an editor at Paulist Press after a short interview I gave appeared in the Sun-Times few years ago. From January 1994 until July 1997, I performed in a jazz/rock sort of band called OM. And the transition I made, from playing at the Taste of Chicago, then five months later beginning my novitiate, has generated some interest. This band was not so typical. As I was working on the book on Monday, I noticed the fact that in some way or other, most of the significant persons who went through the band (our line-up had up to six people, including horns and violins) are now educators. I include myself in that group, since I am the prior of what Saint Benedict calls “a school of the Lord’s service.”
One of the interesting points of the memoir has to do with parallel themes in my former work as a musician and my life now as a monk. One such parallel has to do with the marginal status of both monks and artists in the world. Artists are often restless until they can pry open some hidden aspect of reality and show it to others. But then, not everyone has eyes to see what is uncovered, at least right away. Some ‘fusion of horizons’ needs to take place, to introduce others to the language of poetry, art and music, and then the unique perspective of the artist.At some point, my bandmates and I realized that for the average listener to take an interest in what we were doing, we needed to undertake some efforts at teaching. We took our cue from Wynton Marsalis, who was then teaching young people how to listen to jazz. In music, any effort to educate runs into serious problems, since musical interest is usually considered a matter of personal taste. The idea that one might deliberately change one’s taste because of someone else’s expertise smacks of snobbery. Yet any musician worth hearing ought to be passionate about the quality of the music she or he is performing. And this passion depends on the music being more than a personal predilection–somehow the it must be true, and this truth must be urgent. It doesn’t really belong to the performer at all. The performer is at most a conduit, maybe a conjurer. At least the performer is a witness.
Any good teacher is in a similar position. Henri Nouwen suggested many years ago that the model of education today is based in a kind of violence that is competitive (students competing for scarce recognition of achievements), unilateral (the transference of a commodified knowledge from strong teacher to weak student), and alienating (marking the gap between the material to be mastered and the real life that comes once one gets the degree). We’ve all had good teachers, though. What were they like? One of the best classes I took in college involved working through Newton’s Principia.
What was fantastic about the class was that the professor wrote out, and actually worked out, Newton’s proofs on the blackboard, inviting us to work through them with him. I will never forget his enthusiasm, as if he were the one discovering this and not Newton…rather that we were discovering the beauty of nature’s patterns together, with Newton as quirky guide, friends on an amazing journey past the veil of sense to the mathematical harmony of physics.
Sometimes a learning experience of this sort can be so powerful that it requires a reordering of our old way of thinking. Learning to like jazz or to understand calculus takes time and a kind of ‘conversion’ (Newton had to invent calculus to figure out the moon’s orbital math!). The early Christians called this metanoia. Metanoia means literally to change one’s mind. This idea is also expressed as repentance. When Jesus began His ministry, he preached, “Repent [Metanoeite!] and believe the gospel [Mt. 4: 17].” Learn to think differently! We must undergo a kind of education–note that Jesus spends much of His public life teaching. He teaches not so much a series of facts. Nor does He just impart information. Repentance involves learning to think anew about old facts, seeing from a new perspective, noticing things that had always been there, but discovering in them God’s presence and transforming love. It requires something like contemplation.
Monastic formation is perhaps the most radical instance of this Christian conversion, but it is simply what all Christians pledge to do at baptism. The thought patterns of the old Adam must give way to the new Adam, to the mind of Christ [Phil. 2: 5; 1 Cor. 2: 16]. Recognizing how exactly the old Adam thinks is not so easy, for our cultural upbringing lingers in unsuspected ways. What’s more, we live in a peculiarly blind kind of culture, that no longer recognizes its own dependence on tradition. Freud thought that he discovered a universal psychological law in the Oedipal complex, but in fact, he was merely noticing the modern Western tendency to want to do away with one’s fathers. This habitual refusal to recognize our intellectual and cultural debts causes disruptions and discontinuities in our background tradition, and therefore in our thinking.
In our monastery, we are trying to counteract this situation with different approaches to teaching. One test case, upon which I will dwell more at length in a future post, would be the following question. Can a modern Christian learn to read the Scriptures from the profound spiritual sense that guided the formation of theology from St. Paul until Rupert of Deutz? We live in a scientific age, and Catholic Biblical scholars have been celebrating their freedom to engage in historical-critical method for the past sixty years. Should we even bother to go back to allegory?
But what if the historical-critical method and our enthusiasm for it would turn out to be an unhealthy preoccupation with the world that is passing away? What if it locks us into the very worldview that a conversion is meant to leave behind? Given the present struggles of the Catholic Church in her historic lands, this kind of question bears asking and patient and careful response. It also may call for metanoia. Repent and believe!