“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.