That picture of Mother Delores Hart in my last post drew an above average number of readers. People love good old traditional nuns—I love good old traditional nuns, but then I believe that the monastic life in its various expressions—traditional and modern—is very much a hope for both the Church and the world in which we live.
Sister Joan Chittester, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie PA, is a great example of the contemporary monastic. I have never met Sister Joan though we have exchanged letters on a few occasions and she was a friend of a dear cousin of mine who died several years ago. I have read a number of her books and find that while sometimes her ideas are challenging she can speak right to me. One of my favorites is The Fire In These Ashes (Sheed and Ward, 1995). In The Fire In These Ashes, Sister Joan says that the raison d’etre for monastic life is “to find God.” You don’t become a monk or a nun for any other purpose than to find God.
I have always been a bit jealous of those who are called to the monastic life because at the end of the day, what is there except the search to find God? I am a busy person. I teach. I run a library. I give talks, retreats, renewal programs. I am on committees. I advise students with their research and papers. I see people for spiritual direction. I do a lot of things—but to what end? Is life about keeping busy? Or “putting bread and butter on the table?” I am a historian. Do I really care about the Battle of Agincourt? Am I supposed to think there is something worth caring about in the economic bubble of the twelfth century? Why should I bother with the Pirenne Thesis? The fact of the matter is that history intrigues me not because some event a thousand years ago happened—things happening today have more import—but because men and women in every age run around like ants on an anthill trying to find something? The question is: What are they looking for? God? No, of course not. At least not consciously. But they are looking for meaning, for purpose. And different people find different purpose in life. For some it is love. For some money. For some power. For some freedom. For some Beauty. And does any of it last? At the end of the day, does any of it matter? No. And so most just keeping running around in their busy circles. But for those who wake up from their manic quest and realize how transient life is, the search then continues for that which is eternal. We want to set our eyes on some beacon that shines consistently drawing us on and through the pains and the sorrows, the transient joys and passing hopes of today. Back in the third century people who realized how empty an unfocused life can be began going out into the deserts of Syria and Egypt. They left their business and their families and their ambitions—and their religion—to live as solitaries, haunted by the realization that there has to be something more than money in the bank, love in their bed, a fancy house in which to live, and even moving ceremonies on Sunday mornings. Perhaps the most startling thing is that they realized that a nice ceremony on Sunday morning wasn’t answering the call of their heart. Here they were looking for God and they saw the emptiness of ritual and rite—the failure of religion to capture and hold the Divine Mystery. Saint Antony Abbot is a prime example: he left his home and his pharmacy shop in Alexandria and shut himself up in an abandoned fort for over twenty years—never coming out, even for Sunday Mass.
Now I am not against Mass. Far from it, I attend daily. But Antony Abbot realized that the practice of religion was not enough. There is something more, something beyond even the most fervent practice of religion. Eighty some years ago Simone Weil wrote an essay in which she clearly distinguished the Love of God from the Love of Religion. (Simone Weil, Waiting For God, trans. By Emma Craufurd, New York: Harper & Row, 1973.) Religion is Religion—it isn’t God. The Church is the Church—it isn’t God. Religion or the Church can be the path to God and while it might advance you along the way, it ultimately will fall short of the destination. And often Religion or the Church are misused as paths that only circle back upon themselves. Even the Sacraments will ultimately fall short. The Uncreated can never be encapsulated in the created, the Creator in the creature. This is why monks and nuns—real monks and nuns—have an affinity for agnostics. They know how elusive God is. God is always one step beyond us. We arrive at the place where God was only to find that God has slipped away leaving a trace, a scent, some intangible sign that only makes us more ardent in our pursuit. And at the same time we are pursuing him, ever more ardently, we begin to suspect that he is, in fact, pursuing us—luring us on ever deeper into Mysterium—mysterium tremendum et fascinans. And it is this that drives men and women into monasteries.
Sometimes in history the monasteries have taken on lives of their own—lives that distract the monk or the nun with the needs of administration, of building a church, of organizing the work, of feeding and clothing a community, of raising the money to do it all. At the same time the formal prayers can easily replace the inner eros that impels the monk or nun on. The need to practice the chant or shine the candleholders can seduce the heart away from its hunt and the monk or nun can forget the vision of their earnest years. That is a tragic pitfall one hopes they can avoid. It is not unique to Christian monasticism—read the Dalai Lama and he will tell you the same about monks in his tradition who become lost in the superficial details and observances of their lives. But monastic life is no place for religious people. It is certainly no place for the pious. Monastic life isn’t about the habit or the incense or even the chant. All that is just icing on the cake—maybe even a seduction away from the heart of the life which is simply to seek God in his nakedness and in ours.
And this is why we need to hear more of the monastic voices in the Church. They have a wisdom that speaks beyond the superciliousness of the pious and directly to the dark night of the seeker. As Elizabeth Barret Brownking wrote
Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush aflame with God
And only he who sees takes off his shoes
The rest sit round it
And pluck blackberries
A lot of people are plucking blackberries—we need people in the Church today who can point and shout: “Fire!” For what a fire it is for those with eyes to see.