Sunday, May 28, 2006

Monastic Practice: One Path or Many

All spiritual paths may lead up the same mountain, but most traditional practitioners insist it is essential to focus on one path. Obviously, I don't believe this or I wouldn't write this blog. Yet I've heard really good reasons to focus on a single tradition

Interfaith folks are like generalists who see the big picture and commonalities across local differences. Those committed to a single tradition are like specialists who see all the nuances and details in their area of focus. These are each legitimate ways of perceiving, and they compliment each other. For solid, spiritually useful reasons, the range of human diversity includes generalists, specialists and people in the middle. We all have good work to contribute to the whole.

What about monastic practice? Is this the one arena where specialization is required? The great 14th century Hindu mystic, Lal Ded, said, “On the way to God the difficulties / feel like being ground by a millstone, / like night coming at noon, like / lightening through the clouds.” It can feel awful, like a journey through wasteland, to let go of obsessions - with things, bodily wants, relationships, anger, pride and even of concepts of God. Traditionalists expect generalists to endlessly circle the lower reaches of the mountain hopping from one path to the next when the going gets steep.

Of course, specialists have their own way of holding off the hard work.

Where would an interfaith/no faith community find guidance for the strenuous task of daily life in community, as well as individual struggles with practice? Could we trust the spirit speaking through each intellect and heart to leads us where we need to go? Would it work to draw from all sources as desired (as UUs are wont to do)? Traditional practitioners insist this results in a shallow understanding that cannot lead into real, spiritual depths. Alternatively, could individuals focus on a specific tradition - albeit not one shared across the community?

Without the interpretations, inspirations and goads of a single, shared, religion how would community members help each other walk the tough parts of the monastic way?

copyright R. Elena Tabachnick, May 2006

Thursday, May 25, 2006

How Would a Monastry of No Tradition Work?

What would a monastery of practitioners without a shared faith look like?

Interfaith explorers of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism practice have found the same group of effective spiritual practices in all these. One purpose of practice is growing detachment from binding & blinding emotions (anger, pride, depression, bodily obsession, obsession with things, etc.). These practices include silence or restraint of speech, group prayer &/or meditation, group chanting, simplicity (minimizing the amount of stuff & activities, and the time/energy spent making choices), enclosure (minimizing social interactions), selflessness (some kind of giving up of personal agendas/needs/will), service. So surely a group of people can support each other in these practice by group living without belonging to a specific tradition.

Yet some dangers of start-up, nontraditional, spiritual group living are immediately apparent. As Carol Lee Flinders points out in At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst, these same practices are favorite tools of oppression commonly used by power hierarchies. Silence, enclosure, putting aside personal needs and serving others are all used to kill women’s living spirit. Similarly, ANY leadership group or individual, no matter how good their intentions, can quickly fall into the trap of using these practices to manipulate and oppress followers.

Of course the problem is rife in traditional religious organizations. This was exactly my experience of the leadership in the little monastery I tried to join. And those women sincerely believed their own PR that they were only doing what was needed to lead others in spiritual development.

Yet traditional monastic lineages grow from founders or guidebooks that worked. They worked because they include some kind of balancing wisdom. For example, in Benedict's Rule the Prioress is given dictatorial authority to make decisions and the population is not allowed to grumble about it afterwards. BUT there are several very anti-hierarchical injunctions in the Rule that balance this power. Everyone is to be involved in decision making in all but the most minor decisions. (Benedict doesn’t care in the least for getting the world’s business done efficiently - even care for the poor.) Also the leadership is enjoined to pay particular attention to the opinions of the "youngest" (in the Rule, "youngest"="newest") as, "the Spirit often reveals what is best to the youngest." OFTEN, not sometimes, not occasionally, but often the newest members have the right of it even when their views counter those of an old, entrenched leadership. How radical for a hierarchical organization!

Also, leaders are chosen because they are living examples of humility. This includes: seeing only your own faults, preferring silence, always speaking gently, modestly and kindly, and expressing humility with your whole being, all the time, whatever you are doing. Again, administrative ability is not a criterion for leadership. The business of the monastery is to bring all the members to God through love of each other. Getting other work done is never the point.

Without checks on power, any such group could easily devolve into a cult of personality - even
if the personalities involved had no such intention.

In a monastery without a Rule where are the checks and balances on power?

How can we ensure respect for each voice, especially the least powerful or most critical?

copyright R. Elena Tabachnick, May 2006

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Interfaith Belief Criteria

Raised agnostic, I’m still fairly agnostic on religious doctrine. I seem to operate on two “faith criteria”: 1) Like Thomas the Doubter, I only believe a statement of divine-human relationship that matches my own experience and rings true in my heart. I entertain the possibility of explanations describing others’ experiences that I haven’t shared, but I don’t “believe” them, 2) I believe statements that are outside my experience if they are robust (as in statistical robustness, i.e., the result persists despite change in populations sampled). In other words, I believe religious observations or explanations that are found across faiths and cultures. This is why I often cite similarities across religions as a belief criterion. Although different religions emphasize different aspects of the divine-human relationship, most major tenants are present in some form in all major faiths. I tend to give weight to those. I consider theological postulates and doctrines that are unique to one religion to be expressions of local culture and not generally applicable to all humans, much less to "the universe" as a whole. However these are interesting in that they illuminated the diversity with which humans experience and interpret relationship with the larger non-human universe.

copyright R. Elena Tabachnick, May 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

Benedictine Fly-by

In 2003 I entered a Benedictine monastery. Little more than a year later they kicked me out again. When I entered I expected to stay longer. I expected to stay my whole life. But by the end of a year it was clear I wasn’t going to make it. They said new members should fit into the existing community like “a hand in a glove.” We could all see my hand and their glove did not even have the same number of fingers.

They were a tiny community. The two older sisters had been together 40 years. A younger sister had just been fully professed after six years. That’s not much diversity, but it was all they were willing to embrace.

From a distance their inability to accept me is unsurprising. Our joining meant crossing an enormous cultural and theological divide. The old sisters were from devoutly Catholic, mid-western farm families and had entered Benedictine life as very young adults in the 50s. I was raised by committed agnostics with formative years in Muslim Northern Nigeria, an Quaker boarding school in England, and an Israeli kibbutz. Also I was born an eccentric, universalist pantheist who not only talked to trees, birds and rocks but believed they were talking back – and one day she would understand what they were saying.

Yet my call to enter this monastery had been unassailable. It came all at once during a social gathering on a retreat weekend. I felt as if my heart had been split open and filled with an intense light. Worse than the worse sort of head-over-heels falling in love, from then on a thick rope of light ran from my heart deep into the land of the monastery. What could I do but follow that directive and trust the Spirit to work things out?

It wasn’t easy. They called their community “ecumenical” but by that included only traditional Christians who fit easily into liberal Catholicism. Although I’d begun to imagine Jesus was my guru, I was far from a traditional Christian. After a long, arduous, two year process of examination they let me in. It seemed the Spirit had working things out.

All went well for a while, but the honeymoon didn’t last.

I’ve explored a lot of interests – from research science to sculpture to writing. Yet through it all, my primary road to spiritual illumination has been gazing vacuously into space while lying in a field, on a mountain, in an arroyo. Although I can overwork with the best of them when in the throes of creative passion, I am also an idler. I want time to play, read without agenda, or do nothing – for hours. By contemplative I meant one who merely sat and listened. They meant one who busied selflessly from one duty to the next administering the monastic environment for guests.

As young nuns, the two older sisters spent 12 hours days nursing or teaching under the minute direction of strict workaholics. For “leisure” they shelled peas or cleaned. From their point of view our work load was relaxed. From mine it was driven. Far more than theology, it was this cultural chasm that separated me from the other sisters. It was also the reason they gave for not wanting me.

It tore my heart apart to leave. I loved monastic life: the rhythm of daily meditation and prayer, the concentrated spiritual study, the other sisters, the land, the guests, and, after a long inner battle, the liturgy. Despite continuous struggles, I often felt buoyed up in a sea of divine presence, light and love. But after leaving, I slept well for the first time in months and no longer felt vaguely queasy all the time. I hated to admit it but I was no more able to eat their spiritual food than they were able to share it with me.

So here I am – having been perhaps the most unsuitable Benedictine novice in modern monastic history. Sometimes I'm simply thankful I got to try it for that one year. Other times I want to shout angrily in their faces, “Look at yourselves! Just look at yourselves and stop blaming all your problems on the new people that come.”

Healing will take time.

Meanwhile, I can’t simply take up the reins of job and house and car and social life that kept me busy before I entered the monastery. I want monastic life, with all the challenge and all the joy it brings. But I do not want to live behind a mask of dissembling as I translate my real spiritual perceptions into someone else’s traditional language.

Where is the monastery for people like me?

Where is the monastery for open-minded seekers of no particular tradition?

copyright R. Elena Tabachnick, May 2006