14 June 2007

Not everyone is cut out for monastic life

So, I've been reading Inigo Thomas' account of spending 6 days at Pluscarden Abbey (a Scottish monastery closed in the Reformation and resurrected in the 20th C; it was originally a Valliscaulian house but is now a Benedictine one).

Thomas' piece can be read here: http://www.slate.com/id/2167854/entry/2167856/

I started reading it out of a professional interested -- Scottish monasteries being one of the things I know something about. At least the pre-Reformation ones, anyway. Thomas says at the outset that visiting a monastery in northern Scotland, during January, seemed the most foreign thing he could do, and when it occurs to him that monastic life is rather like corporate life, it seems to disappoint him.

And as the series progresses (I read entry number 4 this morning) that disappointment that monastic life is not, in fact, so foreign, seems to be colouring everything else about his experience. This morning's read went on at some length about the apparently pernicious suppression of the self and suppression of information in both corporate America and Pluscarden. (This grows out of the discovery that one of the monks, who dies while he is there, had been a World War II veteran). He has been expressing the idea, throughout, that there's something weird and unhealthy about the way monks not only await death, but are looking forward to it.

I must confess I'm starting to lose patience with Inigo Thomas. He doesn't seem to get it.

Part of his problem may be that he's simply not cut out for the life of a monk, just as some people aren't cut out to be journalists or celebrities or corporate drones. He talks about finding a phonebox and making a call to New York, and being aggravated when the line goes dead. I wanted to hit him upside the head with a stick. You are in rural Moray. You were probably unutterably lucky to find a working phone box in the first place. And have you ever considered that disconnecting might be good for you?

Part of his problem may also be that he's at the monastery not as an anthropologist but as the worst sort of tourist, the one who demands that the place he has gone conform to his wishes and satisfy his particular wants. He's staying in the guesthouse and eating in the refectory, but he's not keeping the schedule of the monks or otherwise participating in their world. In fact, he doesn't seem particularly interested in the customs and culture of the place he's entered. So far, he has not yet attended even one service of the Divine Office. He talks about his irregular schedule -- of which St Benedict would have disapproved -- and complains about the bells waking him up in the middle of the night. Dude. That's what they're supposed to do. Go sing Matins and get over yourself.

He's not even reading particularly monkish books -- he says his reading material is 'Clive James' latest volume of autobiography, North Face of Soho, about drinking, talking, and journalism in London in the '70s.' Probably fascinating but not perhaps the thing to put you in the right frame of mind for a week in a monastery.

I am not going to get into his association with suppression of self with suppression of information and the slap he makes at monasteries in general for keeping libraries and preserving ancient texts. He seems eager to see monastic libraries as some kind of vast ecclesiastical conspiracy to keep the masses down rather than looking at them as what happened when people who loved knowledge tried to do the best they could.

Part of why I am so annoyed with Thomas is that I actually knew some Benedictine monks. Two of the monks from St Anselm's College in New Hampshire were fellow students when I was at CUA and St Andrews. Dan, the one I knew at CUA, was a fellow mediaevalist and a member of my circle of friends; he was part of the group when we went to Colonel Brooks' for a drink after exams or when we gathered to prepare for classes.

Now, did Dan talk about his life before he became a monk? Not that I can recall. On the other hand, he talked about his life as a monk. He told some funny stories about being a novice. He talked about going home to his childhood church for Midnight Mass and, with the parish priest, locking the doors and making the congregation sing Christmas carols. (He and the parish priest agreed that some of the parishioners were a little too serious and needed to be reminded of the joy in their faith). When my father died, he came to the funeral -- waited for me inside the front door of the Arlington administration building, and gave me a huge hug when he saw me. 'I've been so worried about you,' he said.

Gus arrived at St Andrews my second year there. I got to know him because we both lived in Deans Court; when we started chatting at a cheese-and-wine session in the common room all I knew was that he was studying Reformation/Counterreformation history and was American. So I asked where he was from, and when he said New Hampshire, I allowed as how that made him the second person from New Hampshire I'd ever met. 'Oh really?' he said 'And who was the first?'

'Eh,' I said, 'you probably wouldn't know him. He's a monk at St Anselm's.'

Gus' eyes nearly bugged out of his head. After we confirmed the Dan I knew was the Dan he knew (Gus had a group photo of the monks with him -- Dan was at one end of a row of them, he was at the other), we both laughed. 'What are the odds?' I said. He shrugged.

By yet another coincidence, Gus happened to be on his way out of Deans Court when the taxi pulled up bringing me back after summer my dad died. He saw me in the car and stopped until I paid the driver and got out. He gave me a huge hug. 'I'm so glad to see you,' he said. 'We were all afraid you might not come back.'

The difference, I suppose, is that I was able to see Dan and Gus as real people, not as ciphers. Part of that was because I was willing to see them as real people; I wasn't looking for them to be strange or foreign. And they were willing to be seen as real people -- which may or not be the case with the congregation at Pluscarden; I don't know, and Thomas doesn't seem to have tried to find out.

As for the pernicious nature of the monastic suppression of self and looking forward to death -- that's at once naive and deliberately obtuse. Firstly, as Thomas notes, suppression of self is part of modern life. He mentions this in terms of the corporate life of cube dwellers, but even in something as theoretically cosy as a nuclear family, people don't talk about everything with each other. Teenagers are particularly notorious for this, but adults and young children do it too. Why not tell the people you live with everything about yourself? Well, it might be embarrassing and you want to forget it (think of high school gym class). Or it might not be something you're particularly proud of. Or perhaps it's simply that it's part of your life which is done -- it was fine for what it was while it lasted, but now it's over, and you have moved on. (Incidentally, I know a lot of veterans who feel that way about their military service. Perhaps the monk who passed in the night while Thomas was at Pluscarden felt the same way). Is it more unhealthy to put aside the parts of your life which are, in fact, over, or to continue trying to relive them? (Consider the movie version of the military vet who never quite reintegrates into everyday life, but still lives as though he's in a combat zone -- is that more healthy than moving on?)

Secondly, when your faith tells you that death is not the end, but indeed the beginning of something new and wonderful, that the point is not that your body stops and gets packed away in a wooden box somewhere but that your soul moves on to communion with God, direct communion with God, then what's not to look forward to? The monks I knew were not morbid people. They regarded life as a gift and seemed to be enjoying it. It's just that they believed that death, when it came, was going to be a gift as well. I'm not sure what's unhealthy about that.

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