Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Simplicity in Santa Barbara - 1

As promised, I will begin more detailed posts on simplicity, space and contemplation, in particular about Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara and our life here.  At least as I see it.

First of all, I would say that my life is not as simple, after being here going on three months, as it was a few weeks after I arrived.   I have a few more responsibilities now: breakfast dishes, picking up the mail at the post office daily, keeping an eye on maintenance and workmen from the outside.   There are also other things, but they really have not changed my basic insight: That our monastic life here is actually fairly simple.

I have been pursuing the ideal of monastic simplicity for a long time.  What might that mean?  Does it mean less is more?  This, it seems to me, plays out on two fronts simultaneously: on the front of things and externals, and on the front of the will.

For some an ideology of simplicity in the monastic/religious life definitely implies poverty of a very literal sort.  Having nothing, wanting nothing, is supposed to set us free to be with God.  I sometimes find this appealing in an esthetic sense.  In my mind there is this sort of "Idea of the Monastic Cell": a very small room with a bare floor, an uncomfortable bed, an armless wooden straight-backed chair, not enough heat, and out of that is supposed to flourish an amazing encounter with God, bringing forth a rich interior life.  Well, that's exactly what I had when I joined the Order as a postulant 40 years ago this month.  The bed was rumored to be a reject from Sing Sing prison, and the metal slats overlaid with a 2-inch "mattress" caused me actual physical distress.  When the winter started I discovered I had no heat and an electric heater with an extension cord was found.  I did not find holiness in physical deprivation.  I decided then that I am not cut out to be a desert father, at least in their life of physical austerity.  It was not until I could have a decent night's sleep and enough heat that I could begin to settle down into the monastic life as OHC led it at that time.  So, learning number one about simplicity: You have to have enough.

For some, a monastic ideology of simplicity means redirecting the will through obedience.  The ancient advice, enshrined most notably in the Rule of St. Benedict, is that the monk finds Christ in obeying another, which is imitating Christ's obedience to the Father.  This is the basis and justification of the vow of obedience.  Christ was obedient unto death, even death on the cross.  Monks can at least do what they're asked to do by the head of the monastery, which is usually not as severe as what Christ was pointed toward.  In fact, every Christian is called into an obedient relation with God through Christ.  The tricky part, of course, is discerning what to be obedient to.  In the Rule it is Christ in the Abbot.  My experience is that religious superiors aren't much trained in being Christ to others.  The ones who really want to be Christ to others probably don't want to take an abbot's job, not least because we really do not know, cannot know fully, and so cannot ever really successfully embody, the nature of Christ.

How can anyone be Christ to another?  Without getting too abstruse, there are universes of assumptions in every Christian culture about who Christ was and is, about how his humanity manifested itself, and what the application of his example to the Christian, to the monk, might be.  Most often, of course, we don't ask the question and plow right ahead as though we already have an adequate understanding of who we are, much less of who Christ might have been.  In fact, we are largely mysterious to ourselves. And we have to reconstruct who Jesus of Nazareth might have been using history and literary criticism of the texts and cultural anthropology and so forth, discovering along the way that perhaps he wasn't what we think he was at all.  The work of Margaret Barker, as curious and off the beaten path as her Temple theology is, has opened my eyes to this: that what we have thought was going on in the time of Jesus is as much a projection of our own cultural concerns as it is genuine insight into His world and time and character.  It seems to me that one can only be Christ to another, become an abba, to the extent that one has allowed one's own life to be filled with Christ.  But how do we, twenty-first century people with our own understandings of self, how do we leave self behind and follow, be filled with, in some sense become, Christ?  I sometimes suspect this is the real reason why Benedict revered the hermit life: he would rather be seeking Christ himself than embodying Christ for others.

As regards monastic life as well.  Things change.   As with scripture, so with the historic Rules of monastic tradition: We look for our answers to a text not written for us.   What it meant to a sixth century Christian who wanted to be a monk might be significantly different to a twenty-first century Christian who wants to be a monk.  I do not find that holiness, closeness to God, comes from depending on a superior to organize my life.  That way, for me and for others I know, leads to passive dependency, which I do not want and no religious superior in his or her right mind wants either.  I do find that closeness to God comes from a fruitful interaction with an experienced, God-directed person who is first of all seeking the Kingdom.  There are plenty of fine leaders in the sense of building the institutions and ministries and activities of our daily life.  They are good and they do good.  But they are not always, perhaps not usually, abba-material.

The abba keeps his eye on the ball, which is: How does this get us closer to God.  The abba is not himself the center of that question: It is not about his desire, not his will.  The monk who is seeking God is the center of the question.  I count myself lucky to have encountered a couple of abba figures along my monastic road.  They were usually not the people in charge.  They cared about where we, which included themselves and myself and the others who were on this particular monastic journey together, where we were going in an ultimate sense.  They could point the way.  So, learning number two about simplicity: You have to have a direction.

So, simplicity requires at least two things -- already it is becoming complex!

First, it requires enough.  Without enough, a monk simply cannot concentrate.  Part of the monastic journey is to redefine enough for ourselves, and the technologies of asceticism are there to assist in that project.

Second, it requires direction.  Without direction, real God-direction, the monk is caught up in an institutional and missional machine, run by good-hearted people to build a monastic future worth having.  We must have institutions and all they imply.  We must have mission(s).  Without them we have neither the structure to provide "enough" nor the instruments to put our God-directionality into practice.  But because it is a continual dialogue between what has been and what we are trying to do, monastic life, Christian life today requires a program of interpretation, a hemeneutic. We can never assume that because we have read a text we understand it and can apply it ad literam to our situation.  Simply because we have read the texts does not empower legitimate obedience.

Perhaps in the paterfamilias culture of the sixth century, or the feudal culture of post-Carolingian Europe, or the authoritarian/Enlightenment culture of the post-Renaissance,  the communal situation was abbot-in-community.  Perhaps Benedict and others gathered communities around them as abbas because of their charismatic and Christ-filled lives and teaching.  Perhaps the abbot was central because of social convention.  But today most monks are drawn to the monastic life not because of an abba but because of a community that embodies the Godward direction they seek.  For this reason,  I think we now are much more in a position of equality in monastic community.  The I-and-others, abbot-and-monks, situation has become we: the leader, usually now much more the builder of institution and mission than an abba or a feudal lord, is also a seeker after God.  In our culture, obedience is mutual or it cannot be authentic.  

First for the monk then, and this is what monos means, first, the direction: Where does one want to go?  Whom does one seek?  Are the where and the who God?  Or are they displacements of less adequate goals?

Monastic simplicity is simple: The monk seeks enough so that (s)he may go looking for God.

And I'll tell you:  The enough part is both necessary and doable, a reachable goal.  The looking for God part is not reachable.  It requires a restless heart, an adventurous spirit, because what we thought was God yesterday is not adequate today, and certainly will not be tomorrow.  To be free to look for God, and to use that freedom to go where God may be: in a phrase, that is the monastic life.

At least that's what I think today!