Monks in the modern world are daily confronted with incongruities. We dress in tunics and scapulars that were the workaday clothing of sixth-century peasants. We pray the Psalms, composed some three thousand years ago in a language that does not translate into contemporary idioms very well. Many of our customs date from the early Middle Ages (suddenly a controversial era!), presupposing a worldview that is unfathomable to many of our neighbors in Chicago.
Articles under Monastic Life
Yesterday, I received an email from Jon Elfner, a friend of mine. The email read, in part:
Recently I gave a talk for Theology on Tap on the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor. He recently published his second book, a kind of self-help book for millennials, especially millennial men. Hundreds of thousands of people watch his Bible study videos, in spite of the fact that he is not a typical believer. I found out about him through a Catholic friend about a year ago, and I immediately recognized his appeal to young men. Let me explain some of that in today’s blog post, which will be the first installment of an expanded version of my talk.
Fresh takes on towering historical icons like Saint Paul and Saint Augustine are rarer than book publishers would like to claim. This is in part because of the stubborn presence of actual words that any interpreter must confront. Many moons ago, I discovered all of this to my dismay as I labored over a thesis on the Letter to the Romans. I felt decidedly less clever at the end of it all than at the outset. The text of Paul’s epistle had this funny way of funneling my fresh insights back into the common stew of Pauline studies. In other writers, I have sometimes discovered apparently novel interpretations, only to find later on the very same interpretation lodged in a patristic tome of old.
Eventually, one finds this general sense of agreement a comfort, at least if one believes in and is searching for Truth. It would disconcerting, to say the least, to find that the Church has been misreading Saint Paul for nearly twenty centuries, even if one were himself or herself the Vessel of Correction. Most new ideas about the Bible or the Church Fathers have in common a willingness to ignore counter-evidence from those same stubborn texts that rerouted my barque back into harbor.
So it was with no small delight that I read Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People some years ago. Amidst teaching assignments at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Cape Town, Ruden has been a prolific author and translator for nearly a decade. What makes her work on Saint Paul so compelling is her awareness of classical culture and her sympathy for the earthy realities of life in antiquity. She is able to depict Paul as a great champion of love and freedom by stripping away the anachronisms accumulated over five centuries of interdenominational debate. She writes with a light touch, an assurance that avoids the preachy or polemic tone.
The reader can imagine how excited I was to see that, after tackling Virgil’s Aeneid and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, she turned her Latin skills to a Christian classic, Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I’ve begun making my way through it, and so far Ruden’s quirky but compelling take has won me over. I’ve read chunks of Confessions in the original Latin, and I’ve read four or five different translations. Most translations tend to err in the direction of pious seriousness. In my opinion, this is a disservice to Augustine, whose poignant observations on boyhood games and love of puns have slowly charmed me away from the early impression I had of him as a dour, mitered scold. Being not much more of a Latinist than I am an expert in Saint Paul’s Greek, I had been keeping my arriviste opinion to myself. Then I was emboldened by the endorsement of the “unsurpassed biographer of Augustine,” Peter Brown.
Brown’s NYRB review of Ruden’s translation focuses not so much on the changed tone of Augustine himself, but on the effect that this change of tone has on the depiction of God. Since the 1981 publication of previously unknown letters of Augustine by Austrian scholar Johannes Divjak, Brown has made a point of softening the adamantine image of the bishop of Hippo. If you read Brown’s biography (you should!), be sure to read the revised edition that contains Brown’s reappraisal. Browns’ influence is such that scholarly opinion has been following his lead. I want to emphasize here that the interpretation of Augustine as a proto-Puritan with Jansenist scruples is, like the Saint Paul of Luther’s imagination, a modern production. Anyone familiar with Saint Augustine’s “afterlife” in the Western Middle Ages will quickly become aware of the love that both monks and schoolmen shared for Augustine’s prodigious output, and for the man himself. As was the case with Saint Paul, Ruden’s new translation of Confessions is a vindication of the bulk of Catholic testimony regarding Saint Augustine, a genuinely fresh take that succeeds in restoring, in a modern idiom, an older appreciation for his humanity as well as his genius.
Calvin College’s James K. A. Smith will have none of it. I found it a bit disheartening when an intellectual of his status and caliber gave up on Ruden literally after one line. He claims to have been chastised by Brown’s review into questioning himself. This probing self-doubt seems to have lasted about two minutes before he’s back trying to burnish the statuesque, seriously pious Augustine. His big beef? Ruden’s decision to translate dominus as “Master” rather than as the (supposedly) traditional “Lord.” Smith seems to concede that “master” is a legitimate option–for a classicist. But the rest of us, he believes, want not accuracy but a “devotional classic.” It is telling that Smith begins his review openly admitting that when it comes to translations his preferences are nostalgiac and emotional and not rational. And, frankly, it is irrational to insist that Augustine say what Smith thinks he ought to say, based on his queasiness with the (modern, American, contextual) connotations of the word “master.”
Smith does ask two important questions: “which afterlife of words is most germane to the project that Augustine himself is engaged in? Which history of connotation overlaps with Augustine’s endeavor?” This gets at the heart of my difference from Smith on a number of related issues. Different confessional traditions will answer these questions differently. I would like to think that Benedictines, whose Rule of Life is deeply influenced by Saint Augustine’s own experience as a monk, who read large portions of Augustine’s work–ranging across the different genres of treatise, Biblical commentary, homiletic, and personal letters–at the daily liturgy, and whose institutional history includes at least two centuries of direct engagement with international politics, have as good a claim as anyone to bearing the standard of Augustine’s project/endeavor. From my (Catholic, monastic) perspective, Jean Calvin’s interpretations of Saint Augustine are just those sorts of “new” interpretations that can only exist by suppressing counter-evidence and dissenting voices.
And, in fact, English-speaking Catholics readily use the word “Master” to address God, for example, in the misattributed “Prayer of Saint Francis.” “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console…” English-speaking Orthodox will be familiar with this translation of the prayer of Saint Ephraim, “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth…”
But more to the point, we are arguing about a word choice in a modern language. Before the Reformation, and for plenty of Catholics since, God is Dominus. It is understood, at some level, that whether we use Lord or Master, what we mean is Dominus or Kyrios (perhaps even Adonai). Whatever connotations have attached themselves to Lord or Master in the past five hundred years, a span in which the English language has largely developed apart from direct influence by Rome or Constantinople, they may well be part of the shared distortion that has afflicted the memories of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. More power to Sarah Ruden for inviting us to step back from our allegiances and question ourselves.
St. Ignatius of Loyola died on this date 561 years ago. He did not set out at first to be a saint, but a soldier. Then Providence intervened. A cannonball shattered his leg, and as he was recovering from this terrible compound fracture, he underwent this remarkable experience:
He asked for some of these books [of knight-errantry] to pass the time. But no book of that sort could be found in the house; instead they gave him a life of Christ and a collection of the lives of the saints written in Spanish….When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy. Yet he did not pay attention to this, nor did he appreciate it until one day, in a moment of insight, he began to marvel at the difference. Then he he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy.
Ignatius’s circumstances didn’t change. His joy and sadness did not depend on the healing of his leg, or on his future prospects as a soldier and a dandy. In other words, our contentment in life, or lack thereof, is not, primarily, a function of the external circumstances of our lives. What determines the emotional shape of our lives (and therefore, that aspect of our lives that really matters!) is our thinking.
This profound insight of Saint Ignatius comports with ancient monastic wisdom, both in Christian and Buddhist forms. The difference between Christianity and Buddhism, in this regard at least, is that traditional Christianity does not aim at avoidance of suffering by the elimination of the ego. Rather, the Gospel allows the newly, intentionally reborn self [in the image of Christ] to embrace joyfully the suffering that comes from standing out to the full, which is to say, the suffering that comes with sainthood. Our suffering is embraced “for the sake of the joy that was set before” us [Hebrews 12: 2]. We do this by changing the way we think, by the “renewal of our minds [Romans 12: 2].” How is this done? By, among other things, faith in God’s promises.
This future-oriented, eschatological thinking finds yet another interesting corroboration in the insights of Jewish psychotherapists Viktor Frankl and Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Both men asked this question: “Why is it that, under experiences of extreme stress, some persons not only continue to function but even thrive?” It’s good to note that Frankl himself was a Holocaust survivor. Both men experienced quasi-Ignatian moments of insight. Frankl’s very language echoes the experience of Ignatius [my emphases in bold]:
Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the [prisoner] marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Frankl and Friedman both challenge us to change our thoughts, to substitute thoughts of love, hope, purpose, and meaning for thoughts of hatred, anxiety, frustration, and resentment. I will be returning to Friedman, whose overall insights are especially counter-intuitive in our present world (which, from the perspective I’m adopting here makes them actually more persuasive). For today’s feast of Saint Ignatius, let me offer one more example of a change of thinking, this time a literary one. As Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins trudge their way through the soul-killing terror of Mordor, Sam experiences this moment of insight. It changes nothing of the external horror to which he and Frodo have been consigned. But it does something quieter, yet more radical. It changes Sam’s heart, and, in Tolkien’s story, this small, hidden change of heart changes the world.
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.
After a few weeks densely populated with solemnities, we enter into the heart of summer with the Feast of Saint Benedict next Tuesday. Benedict has been receiving a certain amount of attention recently, thanks to the publication of The Benedict Option by journalist Rod Dreher. The current issue of Regina Magazine also features an article called “Benedict and Scholastica,” by Bill Schulz. It’s a fine introduction to some of the questions surrounding the historicity of the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, our only source for the biography of these saint-founders. I’m personally grateful for the attention given to our founders!
I’m somewhat less skeptical than Schulz. We actually have an abundant resource for reconstructing the personality of the historical Saint Benedict if we pay close attention to his Rule for Monks. I would also note that the Rule of Saint Benedict is the source of much, perhaps most, of the legislation on religious life in the West. Thus, while it is accurate to say that the Rule “still in use today by some orders,” this doesn’t quite do justice to the significance of Saint Benedict, who is, after all, the patron of Western Europe! Saint Benedict’s wisdom is fundamental to all religious orders in the West today, and every religious novice will have spent time with Saint Benedict in his or her study of the history of religious life.
The historicity of Saint Scholastica is admittedly a sticky subject. In my experience, a lot depends on how much exposure one has to Italian monasticism. I’ve had the opportunity to spend more time in the last two years in Italian monasteries, and I’ve encountered a lot of oral history that substantiates the Dialogues. Of course, this oral history could have been invented after the fact, to embroider the biographies of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. But it’s also at least possible that there are genuine memories of these saints, particularly at Monte Cassino, whose history goes back quite close to the lifetime of Saint Benedict.
We will be having our regular schedule of services for the liturgy of Saint Benedict beginning with First Vespers at 5:15 p.m. on Monday. We hope that many can join us to celebrate one of the most important post-Apostolic saints in the West, one whom Dante placed in the highest level of contemplatives!
In my previous post, I noted that behind the Rule of Saint Benedict, there lies hidden the influence of the Desert Fathers. Benedict recommends that the monk eager for advanced pursuits in monastic spirituality should read the “Institutes” and the “Conferences.” Universal tradition as well as common sense asserts that he is referring to St. John Cassian, who spent nearly two decades in the Egyptian desert learning the monastic life. You can find indices to Cassian’s two most important works, the Institutes and the Conferences at the Order of Saint Benedict website.
What I wish to emphasize here, and in keeping with my aim to write brief and manageable posts, is one key connection between these two books and the two-fold path to spiritual maturity. I wrote last time that Saint Benedict is primarily concerned with the correction of behavior in his Rule for monks, but that he also acknowledges, in quiet ways, that beyond the cultivation of virtue and the elimination of vice, there is the further contemplative aspect of monastic (and Christian) life, what Benedict calls “wisdom of doctrine.” The Institutes correspond to the “active” life of conversion, and the Conferences are concerned with the “contemplative” life of adepts.
The first stage of spiritual growth, the correction of behavior, is therefore the primary concern of Cassian’s Institutes. Note that Cassian does not give us what we would consider “morality.” Rather, he is interested in teaching the times of prayer, the style of dress for monks, and the organization of communal life. This is exactly parallel to Saint Benedict’s Rule. The connection is not just one of a common culture. The Rule of the Master, an Italian monastic rule from the generation before Benedict, and Benedict’s primary source, cribs from Cassian’s Institutes, so that we can say that St. Benedict’s Rule is a kind of grandchild to the Institutes. Cassian goes somewhat beyond communal organization, and spends the last eight books of the Institutes on the eight vices and how to identify the thought patterns that go with them. So again, we are not so much in the realm of morality as moderns understand it. Cassian is interested in psychology, how our thoughts influence our behavior.
This emphasis on psychology is the link between the active and contemplative stages of Christian spiritual growth. Before we can properly understand doctrine, we must first work against behaviors that are not consonant with Christian doctrine, but then we must also go after the thought patterns that underlie wrongful behavior. This cleansing of the mind of wrongful thinking allows us to receive true “theology,” knowledge of God. This is the focus of Cassian’s Conferences.
In the next several short posts, I hope to walk with you through the two stages with more attention to the particular battles with behaviors and thoughts, along with recommended reading in monastic spirituality.
Saint Benedict composed his Rule for Monks some time around 540 A.D. Egypt, the cradle of Christian monasticism, had been drastically reduced in the previous 150 years from its high point at the end of the fourth century. Saint Benedict makes explicit reference to the “desert” only once, when describing the anchorites in the first chapter, on the kinds of monks. Since his Rule is written, however, not for anchorites but for “cenobites,” monks who live in communities, we might imagine that this off-hand reference to the desert is a mere nod in the direction of Egypt, without any further thread of connection to the ancient tradition.
There are important hints that Benedict knew the Egyptian tradition well and incorporated it seamlessly into his own proto-European style of monasticism. Finding these clues requires a bit of excavation. The place I would like to begin is in a perhaps unlikely spot, in chapter 64, On the Constituting of an Abbot. The abbot, Saint Benedict tells us, should be chosen “vitae…merito et sapientiae doctrina,” for the merit of his life and the wisdom of his doctrine. This sounds common sensible enough, but in fact it encapsulates an entire way of thinking about the spiritual quest in Christian monasticism. It also justifies Fr. Terence Kardong’s contention that the abbot is to be the “perfect” monk.
Merit of life corresponds to the presence of virtue and absence of vice. It is the first step in monastic conversion, a change of outward behavior. One learns to act…as a monk acts. When monks promise “conversion of life” (conversatio morum) according to the formula invented by Saint Benedict in chapter 58, they are promising to change their way of living. This is not a matter of mere “morals” but is implicated in all kinds of habits, preferences, and in personal comportment. This is the minimum observance “for beginners” [RB 73]. For those who are striving for greater advancement, however, as Benedict goes on to show us in chapter 73, there is the inward transformation of doctrine, new habits of thought about the cosmos and insight into God’s ways. It is not enough for the abbot to be worthy by his exterior actions; he must also have the interior virtues that allow him to give spiritual counsel and make wise decisions about the community’s welfare. It is noteworthy that one of the primary sources of doctrine, according to RB 73, is St. John Cassian, the primary link between European and Egyptian monasticism.
In future posts, I hope to demonstrate Saint Benedict’s direct dependence on the Egyptian desert fathers for this two-fold description of monastic spirituality. What the great monastic theologian Evagrius (354-399 A.D.) described as the practical (or “active”) life followed by the theoretical ( or “contemplative”) life is the best way of understanding Benedict’s emphasis on merit of life and wisdom of doctrine.
The doctrinal heart of the Rule of Saint Benedict is found in chapters 4-7: The tools of good works, obedience, taciturnity (often significantly mistranslated as “silence”), and humility.
Can anyone doubt the average modern Westerner is tempted to view the combination of obedience, silence and humility as a way of robbing the individual of his maturity (exercised by choice and responsibility), of his voice, and of his selfhood?
Saint Benedict cannot possibly mean this, of course. Yet well-meaning Christians can fall into this trap of misinterpretation. I’ve already pointed out our tendency to render “restraint of speech” as “silence.” Saint Benedict actually urges responsible speech, especially where it is most typically going to be denied in an unhealthy community. Thus the younger members are urged to speak up and be heard at community meetings of the greatest importance, and monks who find tasks beyond their abilities are directed to give reasons to the abbot rather than toil miserably without recourse.
This loss of voice is what concerns me especially. I hear so often, when persons are hurting and in need of prayer, expressions like “I know I shouldn’t pray for this, but…” Even in seminary, when I took a course on Wisdom literature, the prof (himself a monk at the time, though he has since left the life) concluded his lectures on Job by claiming that God’s revelation in chapters 38-42 meant that God has more important things to do than to bother about every little human being’s problems. This is a problematic interpretation, by the way, just on exegetical grounds. But it harmonizes with what I discern as a dangerous tendency in the life of faith, to think that being a good Christian means being bullied into silence and conformity by a God who is too busy for us.
God is not too busy for us. God wants to hear from us, especially whatever is hurting us. “Then they cried to the Lord in their need.”
The disciplines of obedience, restraint of speech, and humility are necessary–not because God is threatened by us but because we are forgetful of God. God tends to speak in a still, small voice (which is to say, the opposite of the domineering voice that many lectors take on when reading God’s pronouncements at Mass), easily crowded out by noisiness and idle talkativeness. Talkativeness further cheapens words, and God wishes to give us His Word. Let’s not cheapen that exchange! God gives us an astounding palate of freedom, in order that we might freely offer ourselves as a gift in return. Obedience is not about us being so unreliable and depraved that we need to be treated as slaves. Rather, our desires tend to blind us toward the needs of others, and obedience habituates us to an openness to others, an openness that is, one hopes, less patronizing than what we otherwise might produce by do-gooder-ness [see Deus Caritas Est 34*]. And finally humility is a way to open myself to the grandeur of the cosmos (here is a closer approximation of the message of Job 38-42), of which I form a unique and unrepeatable part…as does everyone else.
Faith does not mean allowing my voice to be co-opted by a dominant power structure. Nor is it about a false propheticism that is license to speak self-righteously about everyone else’s problems. I may require taciturnity to restore my true voice, just as physical therapy necessarily includes rest and inactivity for a damaged limb. But the goal is not silence but true speech, accurate speech, healed of both breezy ignorance and of grating pretension.
* “Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.” (emphasis added)
“The system of control is validated by a typical bias in the system of belief. These tendencies are the subject of this book, for they make their own typical demands on the media of expression and thus produce natural systems of symbolic behavior.”
So this is as close to a thesis statement as I can find in Mary Douglas’s classic book on cosmology, Natural Symbols. It appears a couple of pages before the end of Chapter 4 “Grid and Group,” on pages 66-67 in my 2001 Routledge edition. Let me spend a moment unpacking this quote, then offer an example from monastic life to show why the ideas in this book are so important.
For any community to function, it must be structured. If structure among human beings is to have any staying power, individual members of communities need to be invested in it. Too much disaffection among too many members leads to a breakdown in cooperation, mutual trust and understanding. In order to be invested in the community structure, individuals must share some kind of belief in what they are doing and how the structure harnesses their individual efforts toward the common goal. This “system of belief” thus “validates” the “system of control,” or what I am here calling by the more benign term structure. This is the gist of the first sentence. Without a common belief, structure will falter.
Let’s apply this to a monastery. A monastery traditionally is envisioned as a kind of family with the abbot as father and the rest of the community as sons and brothers. The brothers themselves have a pecking order. Saint Benedict’s Rule is quite firm about brothers observing clear rank based on date of entrance to the monastery. I will have much more to say about this aspect of the Rule tomorrow. For now, I merely need to point out that the behavior of individual brothers is limited, guided and structured by a system. In this system, the abbot has final say over everything. Junior members show respect to seniors (by giving place, using honorary titles, and so on), and seniors are to love the juniors (by watching over their spiritual growth, using familiar titles of fondness). This is a monastic “system of control.” Brothers do not usually feel free to act outside of these structured relationships. When they do step outside of this system, there is a long disciplinary code awaiting them and a series of penances to be assigned to bring the erring brother back into a just place within the structure.
For this structure to be legitimate, for it to have validity, Bit must be connected to a plausible common system of belief. At root, this system of belief is just the gospel, but in the specific locale of the cloister, Benedict extends Biblical and liturgical teaching to validate a very particular structure he has legislated. “The abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ.” Note that this places the most stringent demands on the abbot himself, who is repeatedly warned to reflect on whether his conduct and decisions are worthy of Christ. Thus the structure also controls the abbot himself, lest anyone imagine that the notion of control is a ruse for securing maximum latitude for those in power. The abbot is understood to be someone who excels in two areas: righteous conduct and correct teaching, which is to say he is someone who has internalized the ideal system of control and system of belief.
Now let’s apply all of this to the second sentence in the quote.
Human communities tend to structure themselves in a limited number of ways, and to validate these structures with typical types of beliefs. In turn, these structures and associated systems of belief give rise to typical “media of expression.” What are these media? Certainly they include ways of speaking. In the Rule, monks are not to speak until spoken to, and in particular they are to listen to the abbot. When they do need to speak, they must learn to do so humbly and reasonably and at the appropriate time. So beyond the actual words used, monks communicate by signs of humility. They also signal their intentions by making use of correct times and places (monks are not to contend with their abbot, even outside of the cloister, for example). In fact, we can take this much further. Monks communicate in all kinds of silent ways: in the order in which we stand at liturgy and sit at table, in the way we dress and cut our hair, in the way we care for the tools of the community, the way in which we comport ourselves in the oratory, and so on. This is properly symbolic behavior, and Mary Douglas convincingly demonstrates that the type of symbolic behavior depends on (and in turn influences) the community structure and belief.
For the sake of simplicity, I like to summarize this whole nexus of ideas with a diagram, which I will attempt to render within the limits of blogging software:
media of expression/symbolic communication
system of control/structure ⇔ system of belief
So we have three mutually influencing ideas, from the most interior and intellectual (belief), through the exterior and bodily (symbolic communication), to the most public and collective (structure). Tinkering with any one area will change the others in subtle ways, though Dame Mary strongly suggests that we can predict relatively well just how these changes will play out.
Let me offer one insight that we have had here in our monastery from reflecting on this schema. Much of our interior monastic work involves battling sinful thoughts. I have discovered that many brothers find this spiritual warfare very difficult and discouraging. From a bit of digging and creative rethinking of various aspects of the broadest tradition, we’ve discovered that the exclusive dwelling on thoughts, without attention to how we comport ourselves bodily (and express ourselves, often unwittingly), and without attention to how we maintain community structure, will often lead to exactly this frustration. This is because our bodily behaviors (my pet peeve in this area is monks rushing about–the quickest way to get a rebuke from the superior in Chicago) are undermining our beliefs.
Another vast area of potential cognitive dissonance arises in the area of community structure. Brothers enter the monastery from a world where we believe in a distinction between the public and the private. But this is very much at odds with Benedict’s structure. If we were completely strict in this area, we would not have individual rooms. We would instead all sleep in a common dormitory. Even more, seniors would regularly inspect the beds for any items that monks have stashed away for private use. Now, to be fair, common dormitories have almost never worked in our tradition. But this is a major problem for modern monks, for whom the cell is not intuitively a place of emptiness and pure prayer. From habit, the cell tends to devolve into a simple bedroom, a place to go to be alone, rather than to go to be with God. But if this is so, is it any wonder that at the time of prayer, we are hounded by self-serving thoughts and the fear that God is distant? We’ve encoded this into a space where we spend perhaps half of our day.
So often enough the answer to obsessive thinking is a change of behavior in the areas of bodily comportment and submission to community structure. This takes a lot of the heat off of the individual brother, who can relax a bit into allowing the practices of the life to change him from the outside in.