From El Camino de Santiago: A New Form of Monasticism

I walked alone today, as did Jim, toward San Juan de Ortega, a route through a forest that featured steep climbs to equal those I had encountered in the Pyrenees. There were no cafes along the way, a three-and-a-half hour trek without respite in a comforting fog.

The monastery church of San Juan de Ortega, a traditional pilgrimage stop, is exceptionally beautiful. Coming out of the forest, to see it in the distance, reminded me of so many monasteries I had approached in just the same way, not walking but by car. Although I had been reading Merton since I was thirteen, I did not visit the Monastery of Gethsemani until 1974, when I was writing my thesis on Merton at Emory University in Atlanta, after my tour with the Navy. I traveled to Gethsemani by car with an old friend from Jesuit days, Ed Lauden (now a priest, after being married and becoming a widower).

Ed Lauden and I spent hours at Grand Coteau in the Jesuit seminary discussing Merton’s books. Merton was still alive and publishing when Lauden and I were at GC. We were becoming Jesuits, but both heard Merton’s music. We enjoyed an “outlaw” status in the Jesuits for our monk-leanings. [At one point, my novice master actually forbade me to read Merton: “You are becoming a Jesuit”. I was obedient to his “word” in all things save this admonishment.

Lauden was driving for our first Gethsemani trip in 1974. We had come from Atlanta, and approached Gethsemani via New Haven, the back way. When Gethsemani came into view over the corn fields, we both let out a chorus of “Oh, mans” and “Holy Shits”. We stayed in the old guest house. I had made an appointment to meet Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s last secretary, to “talk about Merton”. He welcomed me as warmly as I know he has welcomed everyone who has sought him out (and they are still coming today) for a “word” since Merton’s death in 1968.

Patrick Hart & Thomas Merton, 1968

Before I left our appointment, I had brought Patrick a gift of an Easter egg that I had dyed and decorated in the Russian manner. He accepted it with a smile, turned away from me (no doubt rolling his eyes) and placed the egg in a niche in the monastery’s enclosure wall. I realized that he wasn’t going to take it to his cell, but was going to let it rot right there. I judged it “odd” then, but Patrick, ever since I’ve known him, is not a man who “clings”. He’s learned the art of letting pilgrims to him go. Some fifteen years later, Brother Patrick would become the father of the best, most productive years of my life, as he lifted me up and gave me the opportunity to “professionalize” my long interest and love for monasticism and Thomas Merton’s works.

It’s clear to me that I was infected at an early age with a romantic and idealized view of monastic life which has survived my head-on confrontation with reality many times. The monastic life can be and is beautiful. Monks, like Patrick Hart, are living witnesses to a monastic life well lived. They incarnate its beauty and it being a viable way to express one’s deepest humanity. But real monks are not romantics, or, they are romantics only for a two-hour walk on a Sunday afternoon.

The book that I now realize most slipped me the “golden view” of monasticism was a book for which Merton wrote an introduction. Silence in Heaven was a book of photographs of the lives of monks at Pierre Qui Vire in France taken during the Fifties. Seeing young monks my own age, teenagers, bathed in light from the monastery’s 12-century windows, dazzled me. I can still pick it up again and be dazzled. I wonder how many have experienced the same thing from this now long-out-of-print work?

Alexander Schmemann, the Orthodox priest who was a great teacher and theologian at Saint Valdimir’s Seminary, was well-acquainted with pious seminarians who had a rose-colored view of monasticism and whose attraction was based on “aesthetics” rather than reality. Schmemann reacted strongly to what he viewed an inauthentic view of the monastic dimension of living the Christian life. I read Schmemann’s words as an antidote, wheneverI become re-infested with the angels from my pious youth.

Here is Schmemann’s proposal for what he calls a “new monsticism” without religious vows. I suspect that Schmemann might agree with me in viewing Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, as an icon of a “new monasticism”.

Here are Schmemann’s three rules for “a new form of monasticism…without celibacy and without the desert but with three specific vows [a rule of prayer; obedience; and acceptance]:

“The first vow is to keep a certain well-defined spiritual discipline of life, and this means a rule of prayer; an effort to maintain a level of personal contact with God, what the Fathers call the “inner memory of Him.” It is very fashionable today to discuss spirituality and to read books about it. But whatever the degree of our theoretical knowledge about spirituality, it must begin with a simple and humble decision, an effort and—what is the most difficult—regularity. Nothing indeed is more dangerous than pseudo-spirituality whose unmistakable signs are self-righteousness, pride, readiness to measure other’s people’s spirituality, and emotionalism. What the world needs now is a generation of men and women not only speaking about Christianity, but also living it. Early monasticism was, first of all, a rule of prayer. It is precisely a rule we need, one that could be practiced and followed by all and not only by some. For indeed what you say is less and less important today. [People] are moved only by what you are, and this means the total impact of your personality, of your personal experience, commitment, and dedication [emphasis added].

Dorothy Day

“Perhaps without noticing it, we live in a climate of radical individualism. Each one tailors for [oneself one’s] own kind of “Orthodoxy”, [one’s] own ideal of the Church, [one’s] own style of life. And yet, the whole literature of spirituality emphasizes obedience as the condition of all spiritual progress. What I mean [by this second vow], however, is something very practical…obedience to the movement [of life] itself…obedience in small things, humble chores, the unromantic routine of work…[those things which are] the antithesis not of disobedience, but of hysterical individualism: “I” feel, “I” don’t feel. Stop “feeling” and do.

“The third vow, acceptance, could be described, in terms of one spiritual author, as “digging one’s own hole.” [St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “We must dig our own wells.”] So many people want to do anything except precisely what God wants them to do, for to accept this and perhaps even to discern it is one of the greatest spiritual difficulties. It is very significant that ascetical literature is full of warnings against changing places, against leaving monasteries for other and “better” ones, against the spirit of unrest, that constant search for the best possible conditions. Again, what we need today is to relate to the Church and to Christ our lives, our professions, and the unique combination of factors which God gives us as our examination and which we alone pass or fail.

“We must think in terms of a remnant, of a movement, of service. We must begin with ourselves, if we are to be of service to the Church. When God gives something, a talent, He wants us to invest it. He wants us to serve. There is no other way of following Christ.”

From Alexander Schmemann, “The Mission of Orthodoxy,” Concern 3 (1968, reprinted by Conciliar Press, 1989, 1994). [Quoted in a superb article by Michael Plekon. “Monasticism in the Marketplace, the Monastery, the World, and Within: An Eastern Church Perspective.” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 34.3 (1999).

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