Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In... a... mon...astery?

This does not feel like the week for jeremiads on unconnected dots, or the President's laconic delivery of bad news. It seems as though only David Brooks has the class to leave those subjects to others. Well, admiring him though not necessarily always agreeing with him as I do, something else seemed to call for my attention. Note the presence of the word "call" in the previous sentence.

Applying to a Masters of Divinity program at a largely Methodist school--Duke--has led me to wonder about the reaction my experience as a postulant for a year in a Trappist monastery will receive. That year has had a disproportionate influence on my spiritual practice, though of course without an affinity for the contemplative life and tradition I would never have wound up there at all. How will someone with a year of Trappist formation fit in a Methodist environment--or any environment other than a Trappist monastery where, paradoxically, I did not feel I fit on one level even though on others I did?

I hope to avoid the "what were you running away from?" questions; resisting the temptation to ask the questioner what they run away from in their daily life might take superhuman discipline. Same goes for the social justice questions. Why does helping to care for one's brother monks not count as social justice; do we only perform good works if the people we help have a different skin color or a life sentence for murder or for running a Ponzi scheme?

Of all the Protestant denominations only Anglicanism, to my knowledge, continues to support the monastic life. The others have either never known monasticism, as with Methodism, or came into being at monasticism's expense, as with Lutheranism, itself founded by a former monk of the Order of St. Augustine, which managed to survive without him. This does not necessarily signal a fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. It simply speaks to the fact that the mystical voices either side of the Reformation divide speak different languages, with the occasional convergence--the Shakers for one--so occasional as to provide no real foothold for the one to recognize the other as treading the same path.

This works the other way, of course. I took a Reformation History class as an undergraduate. I wrote a good paper on Albrecht Duerer, Meister Eckhart and Heinrich Suso for that class, but otherwise loathed it, a response that cannot happen again. Martin Luther simply struck me as repulsive, and the other reformers even more so. Had I possessed the maturity to approach the issue honestly, I'd have admitted that Luther, like Augustine, touched lodes of self-disgust in myself that made both of them unbearable for me to read. I finished Augustine's Confessions for the first time about three years ago, shortly before entering the monastery, and then only by forced march.

Perhaps this gives me my bridge. We read the history of faith through the history of our own, hopefully not in an exercise of vendetta--Catholics seeing Episcopalians as descendants of a king and his confession that closed the monasteries and executed Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, or Sunnis seeing Shi'a as heretics, any Christian seeing Jews as the murderers of Christ, and Buddhists of competing traditions attacking each other on grounds alternately esoteric and jealous.

Monasticism, in other words, remains for Roman and Orthodox Catholics as a viable practice for contacting not only our relationship with the divine--Orthodox would put it in terms of becoming divine--but our history. Surely the Early Church, specifically the Desert Fathers, belong to all of us who go by the name of Christian? Luther spat at what those traditions had become, but need we lose their 4th and 5th c wisdom to a 16th c quarrel?

As I pointed out in one of my two required essays for Duke, I find it no accident that I've spent the last few months reading for my morning lectio divina (sacred reading) a book by a Spanish Franciscan mystic in a tradition of contemplative theory profoundly influenced by one of my early intellectual heroes, Desiderius Erasmus. Yes, the same Erasmus who waited in the view of some unforgivably long before attacking Luther, who basically ignored his clerical duties for most of his adult life, and whose works were placed on the Index of forbidden books within a generation of his death. What seems so profoundly Catholic, in other words, and in the country that perfected the Inquisition into an instrument of torture and execution, was so nearly not.

Our confessions have traveled different paths; it makes no sense to minimize that fact as a Jesuit church historian has tried to do. Give it up; we've come too far. If not, re-unification talks at the Vatican would have progressed much further than they have. It does make sense to point out, though, that we each have traditions that overlap; we simply tap into them differently or not at all. In that different tapping or refraining we need to recognize different ways of legitimately reaching back to or moving on from shared roots. If we can learn about community from Sufi gatherings, why we can we not learn about fellow Christians by understanding what survives of what we once shared and still do as heritage?

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