A friend asked me an important question yesterday. How does one form men in a monastery into a common cause, if a vocation is addressed uniquely to an individual? We might be tempted to a short cut in answering such a question. Obviously, one might say, God calls the individual to a community, and it is the individual’s responsibility to make the goals of the community his or her own. This is true, but such a simple and direct answer papers over a number of challenges.
Articles tagged with goals
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.
One of the ‘great books’ that most University of Chicago undergraduates have to read is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you’ve ever used the phrase, “paradigm shift,” you’re trading with Kuhn’s coinage. His notion is that normal science is done under conditions of a dominant paradigm. This contains all of the theories that everyone takes for granted and provides the background for research and further extensions of knowledge. Newton’s physics provided an amazingly powerful paradigm for three centuries. But by the late nineteenth century, researchers were discovering holes in it. The perceived problems in Newton’s paradigm led Albert Einstein and others to propose a paradigm shift, a new set of theories that today (along with the seemingly incompatible particle physics) are mostly taken for granted as the background for current research and practice.
Kuhn’s idea has been subjected to a lot of criticism. But his basic insight is vindicated by the amount of fertile thinking that has ensued in dialog with his book. One of the better refinements of Kuhn’s theory was made by Imre Lakatos, who moved away from general paradigms to more local ‘research programs’.
I begin with this excursus on science because science is, for moderns like ourselves, the dominant practice in life. Science is successful. It sells. It works. More than that, because we are all somewhat familiar with how it works, it provides a good model for other types of human practices and disciplines. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre’s proposals to reinstate a traditional Aristotelian morality depend heavily on what he calls ‘practices’. I will spare you his difficult definitions. These practices have a lot in common with Lakatos’s research programs (MacIntyre, in a separate essay, indicates his debt to Kuhn and Lakatos).
Yesterday I asked what tools a community needs if it wishes to engage in a kind of recovery of tradition. From the opening of this post, you can see that what is involved is something like a research program into the common good. I offer the following in the context of writing about the Benedict Option, and doing so from the standpoint of genuine Benedictine life, but also from the standpoint of someone who is intimately familiar with MacIntyre’s writings. He’s the inspiration for this project, after all, as I indicated in the first post in this series.
After Virtue doesn’t make clear what concrete qualities such a community will need. So I will use a boiled-down version of some insights from Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, one of his follow-up books. As I read MacIntyre, here is what a community needs, if the members wish to engage in some kind of disciplined pursuit of the common good: 1) a canon; 2) legitimate authority; 3) practical boundaries; and 4) modes of engagement. There are probably plenty of other things that such a community will need, but these are important and easy to overlook.
Canon: This is some kind of record of the best results of the practice so far, usually reference texts. For physicists, this would include Einstein and Heisenberg and the records of experiments of various kinds. For a monk, this includes Scripture, the Rule of Saint Benedict, the writings of the Fathers (Benedict himself names Basil and Cassian), the marytrology, Canon Law, etc. Studying the canon gives the participants common imagery, shared goals and a common vocabulary. It helps to solidify common commitments. Of course, texts, especially theological texts, can issue in disputes about interpretation. Therefore, authority and boundaries are necessary, as are proper modes of engagement. For the Benedict Option, I imagine that the usual Church documents will be in play, as well as the writings, say, of Pope Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the like. I will be offering copious suggestions for supplementing such a canon.
Authority: The role of authority in such a practice is not so much to boss people around. But someone must be responsible enough and well-versed enough in the practice to identify when an interpretation of the canon is out of bounds. Thus in science again, we have peer-reviewed journals (alas, these are becoming less authoritative), and academic hiring committees. In monasteries, we have the abbot. In the Church at large we have the bishops. Authority facilitates the ongoing argument about the common goal of everyone involved. Sometimes this requires authority to correct a participant, even to censure in some way. Sometimes it even requires a participant to get kicked out, which is why we need:
Boundaries: It is important to know who exactly is qualified to engage in the debates about the common good. Scientists usually don’t oversee original research until they have achieved a diploma indicating some level of expertise. In monastic life, only monks in solemn vows are allowed a vote in the community Chapter meetings. Part of the goal of formation is to bring the new monk into the discussion by teaching him the canon and teaching him how properly to respond to and engage with authority. When a scientist is caught faking data, his or her career can quickly come to an end, as institutional funding will dry up, effectively ruling the person out of further research. We don’t excommunicate monks anymore, as far as I know, but the principle is clearly sound (the canonical penalty of excluding a monks from Chapter is still used): monks who cease to base their decisions on the canon and abide by the community authority pose a grave risk to the community’s existence. It is up to authority to make this call. It seems to me that authority and boundaries are potential sticking points for serious efforts at the Benedict Option. Noah Millman has already helpfully issued this challenge: ‘any conscious program to implement a “Benedict Option” would be concerned, first and foremost, with questions of communal organization.’ Yes.
Engagement: I’m not completely satisfied with this word, but here is the basic idea. There has to be some kind of institutional support for serious discussions about how the group is going to act and how it is going to understand itself. There must be ways to alert authority to issues that need careful discernment. Again, in science, this is the publication of study results in accredited journals and the methods of peer review. In a monastery, engagement mainly takes place in Chapter meetings and other stylized settings. What is important about these engagements is that they are above-board and involve everyone in some fashion or other (in a monastery, different monks have different capabilities in terms of being able to engage in practical decision-making, but somehow everyone needs to be included). So Benedict Option pioneers should be wary of any sort of engagement that is too informal, too dependent on personalities, and so on.
Keep in mind that how community membership is defined, how authority is determined and exercised, what rules of engagement are allowed and institutionalized…all of these will probably require regular negotiation at some level, especially among the leadership of the group. Benedictine monasticism has never been static. We’ve constantly debated the role of priors versus abbots, sleeping arrangements (dormitories versus cells), expressions of poverty, which texts novices are to read, how to celebrate the liturgy properly, and on and on. As long as there is a way for legitimate members to be heard, as long as arguments derive from canonical sources in some way, and as long as authority can issue decisions that are binding on everyone, these debates will strengthen the communal project and provide for course correction even when things go awry. Communities break down when authority and authoritative texts become too diffuse, when members are allowed entry but lack the proper formation, and when legitimate members feel excluded from decisions that affect their participation.
Our monastery has been consciously attempting to put these insights into practice. What sort of results have we had? Which texts have become canonical in our work to engage the broad tradition of Catholic and Orthodox monasticism? We will sally next into that fray.
One of the criticisms of the so-called Benedict Option that comes up regularly in discussions is the fear that those who take it will turn their backs on society, drop out of political engagement and so on. And this at a time when our current Pontiff is urging Catholics to go out, not to remain, much less make a deliberate choice to be, narcissistic and inward-turning.
Our monastery would seem to be a contradiction in this case. We discerned a call to live the Benedictine life, but in the heart of the modern city. We can hardly avoid all sorts of interaction with the world. And indeed, we’ve heard mutters from the other side on this point. Some years ago a young man made a retreat with us while we was preparing for vows in another contemplative-leaning religious order. As he was leaving, rather than saying, “Thank you,” he told us that contemplation was not possible in the city.
This would have been news for Basil the Great, one of the primary influences on Benedictine monasticism. He generally wanted his monasteries in cities, connected to important parishes, in places where the bishop could keep an eye on things. Moreover, the idea that monks turn their backs on the world is completely refuted by any knowledge of the first evangelization of Europe. If you’d like your worldview altered (I think in the best possible way) by great historical writing, I can recommend to you The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, by Richard Fletcher, a book that demonstrates just how important monastic evangelization was in establishing the Church in mission areas from the fourth through the thirteenth centuries. Not bad work for a bunch of guys and gals turning their back on everybody.
So why have we decided to come to the city? The short answer is already indicated above: this was a discernment by our three founders, who were greatly assisted by Bishop Victor Balke and Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, who, as representatives of the Apostles, could help to clarify this call through their listening and prudent action. We thought we knew then why God called us to the city. The city was the great urban desert, a place of alienation, crime, and so on. Well, this sounded alright until we moved into an actual city and lived with real people in a real neighborhood and so on. We couldn’t really know what sort of mission we would encounter until we put down roots here. And part of our ongoing work is listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to discern what His mission is for us.
So we’ve been discerning the community’s goal all along. In conclusion, let me make a connection with Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideas about traditions. One of his key insights is that tradition is not, as commonly held, a fixed, immobile set of practices and formulas. Rather, it is an extended inquiry by a group of persons committed to one another, and it is carried out in arguments, disputations, corrections, abridgments, extensions, and whatever other means available in rational debate. This doesn’t mean that everything is up for grabs all the time, either. There do have to be common commitments to certain base-level principles. So let me apply this now to our discernment about the monastic life lived in a giant modern city.
As I wrote above, we thought we knew what it would mean to plant ourselves in a city. We had a fairly good idea of what a good urban monastery might look like and might do. Then we encountered reality, and our vision began slowly to change. It changed because of intense community discussions prompted by new information: homeless persons at the door, invitations by local universities to give talks, benefactors wanting to buy us things, and so on. Every time we made a response to these circumstances, our vision was clarified or muddied, and so altered in some nearly imperceptible way. Sometimes the stimuli were more bracing. The single biggest decision we made was to become Benedictines in 1997. To do this, we needed to enter into a relationship with the Abbey of Christ in the Desert. And to do that meant to accept their authority, especially that of Abbot Philip Lawrence. When he would come to visit, he might say something like, “You should end such-and-such a practice,” and we would do it. And with the adoption of new practices and the end of old ones, our sense of mission again was slightly changed.
All that said, this kind of change was possible only because we had the more stable foundation of Church teaching and discipline. The Benedictine Rule added another layer of authoritative agreement. Not that we can’t make prudential decisions about how to interpret the Rule–but in discussions, whatever the Rule does say tends to carry greater weight than someone’s opinion, or a minority practice in, say, the Eastern monastic tradition.
The good news for the Benedict Option: if you are quite sure what the goal is at this point, that might well be just fine. But in order to discern the goal, certain things will be necessary. Tomorrow: what is required of a community that wishes to engage in a tradition?
Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., in his Great Courses CD’s on the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle comments that new readers of Aristotle’s ethics are frequently surprised that he spends almost no time discussing rules of behavior. What is right behavior, then, if not obedience to rules? Don’t we have the Ten Commandments? And a host of other rules? Aren’t Jesuits supposed to be jesuitical and concerned about minimal applications of rules and maximal excpetions? What’s with Fr. Koterski and Aristotle?
St. John Cassian demonstrated that he is in the Aristotelian tradition when, in his first Conference, he asks “What is the goal of a monk?” And he answers this by saying that monks choose their actions based on a calculation of what is most likely to bring about the Kingdom of God in their lives. The word ‘calculation’ might sound odd here. All I mean by this is a reference to the cardinal virtue of prudence. And by mentioning prudence as a virtue, I’ve indicated what is different about Aristotle and Cassian versus modern ideas about ‘morality’ or ethics. Aristotle and Cassian are interested in achievement of a goal: happiness for Aristotle*, the Kingdom of God for Cassian. Good actions move us closer to our goal and evil actions move us away. Rules can help us in important ways: they tend to condense the hard-earned wisdom of those who have been in the quest before us. But they can almost never be adopted naively. The second Conference makes this clear. There are many stories of monks who failed to achieve the Kingdom because of an over-reliance on a limited number of hard and fast rules.
But what about the Rule of Saint Benedict? The translation of the Latin Regula as ‘Rule’ is another example of what I all ‘linguistic drift’. We no longer easily sense what is meant by regula, and our word ‘rule’ only gets at a small part of it. A regula is a guide to behavior, a framework, a template. It doesn’t do your thinking for you; it provides the contours of the arena in which the spiritual battle is to be fought by monks. Saint Benedict is very clear that he does not wish to legislate a series of rules, and throughout the Regula, he gives the local abbot the discretion to dispense with virtually any particular rule. This is why the abbot should be a man learned in divine things; he must know how to assess the particular situation and adapt himself to many different characters and temperaments.
When Saint Paul writes that the letter of the law kills and the spirit gives life, he is teaching in this vein. The danger with rules, as the monks of old discovered, is that they tend to deceive those who put too much trust in them. The legalistic monk is tempted by vainglory and pride, and is tempted to judge his fellow monks who seem to fail at keeping the rules strictly enough. Self-justification through the keeping of rules is far from the justification that we receive unmerited from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Preoccupation with rules leaves uninspected the deeper questions of the heart.
None of this is to say that no laws are necessary, or that sin is no big deal. Rather, it is to alert us to a particular modern problem we have, living as we do in liberal democracies where laws are paramount. Laws in our political system are there to allow individuals to pursue their own personal goals, rather than teaching us how to pursue common goals, like eternal life with God. The teachings of Christ are meant to bring us into communion with God and with neighbor.
God’s blessings to you!
Fr. Peter, OSB
* It is important to specify that for Aristotle happiness is not mere pleasure, but knowing how to take pleasure in truly noble, good things, even Goodness itself. In this case, he is quite close to Cassian, for whom Goodness would simply be God. And to delight in God, to seek the face of God, is to seek His Kingdom.
The meaning of human life can only be understood in terms of goals