Monday, April 12, 2010


Longtime readers here will know that I have had a lifelong attraction to Christian monasticism, at least since the time I read Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain in college and made my way to his monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, for a week-long retreat. Not enough attraction to draw me away from love and sex, but the infatuation remains.

What is the attraction? Not a perceived call from God, certainly; that was never the case. No, rather, an oasis of order in a chaotic world, silence, beauty, nature. A sharpening of the senses. A rhythm of living that opens up spaces in the mind for study and contemplation. I think of Gregor Mendel in his garden, teasing from his peas the laws of genetics.

An idealization, perhaps, when the reality might have been stasis, ennui, a paralysis of the senses, a mind feeding only on itself. Who knows?

My erstwhile friend Douglas Burton-Christie traces the origins of early Christian monasticism in his fine book, The Word in the Desert. It is said to have arisen (he writes) "as a quest for knowledge (gnosis); a flight from taxes; a refuge from the law; a new form of martyrdom; revival of an earlier Jewish ascetical movement; a rejection of classical culture; an expression of Manichean dualism; a response to a call from the Gospels." To which might be added a "quest for holiness." All of which might have been at work. By the European Middle Ages, monasticism had been raised to a high art -- in architecture, music, and technological innovation. Not least among the attractions of the medieval monastery, I suppose, was some measure of economic security and peace in a world rife with penury, servitude and violence.

Critics of the monastic ideal have been many. For the pagan emperor Julian, the desert monks were miscreants who refused to share the burdens of society. Edward Gibbon, in Decline and Fall, had nothing but scorn for monks, who "inspired by a savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal and God as a tyrant...embraced a life of misery as the price of eternal happiness." The historian W. E. H. Lecky, writing at the end of the 19th century, employed even stronger invective (I quote from Burton-Christie): The monk was "a hideous, sordid and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain." Ouch!

Yet, for me, the attraction remains. This posting is inspired as I listen to Gregorian chant and imagine the silent beauty of a cloister garden. I suspect we are all of us by nature knights or monks (if I may use male metaphors), activists or contemplatives, seekers of adventure or cultivators of routine. Perhaps society requires both if we are not to go flying off the handle or sink into a mire of convention.