Thursday, April 12, 2007

Monastic Dictators

I met a lot of Benedictines, from my community and others. Outside the cloister, guests tended to receive a show of preternatural serenity from the monastics. Inside the cloister, this behavior evaporated as if everyone took their monastics habit off when away from public scrutiny.

It slowly dawned that Benedictine life had not brought these folks anywhere in particular. They weren’t good or bad, but just ordinary, indistinguishable from everyone else. A few took seriously the call to grow in humility. Many paid little attention to monastic practices, caught up in everyday fears, ambitions and desires.

Because I spent a lot of time at the monastery before I entered the community, I knew the sisters were little different from the rest of us. Fear, anger or prejudice ruled them on occasion, just as such passions sometimes ruled me. I thought that was a good thing. We were all beginners, as Benedict expected for those who used his Rule. We could support each other as we walked side-by-side on the same road. The older sisters had spent more time walking it and so could offer advice from their struggles. I looked forward to hearing how they managed the journey. Even though I knew I'd resist, I looked forward getting help looking at myself.

Most of us have a hard time holding a mirror up to ourselves - taking a searching and fearless moral inventory (in the words of AA) that honestly lists both our actual weaknesses and our actual strengths. Like in AA, this is a necessary monastic step. Like in AA, we need the support of peers traveling the road with us. Monastic community is supposed to offer this. As Benedict says, we learn, out of love, to support with the greatest patience each other's weaknesses of body and personality. In that way everyone draws closer to God.

So it wasn't a shock to discover that under the hyper-monastic habits the sisters wore for guests, lived some very ordinary women. What hurt was discovering that the older sisters thought they'd already reached the pinnacle of monastic wisdom. They were "free of ego," and so needed to do no further work on themselves. Even an inadvertent challenge to this view of their achievement could not be tolerated.

How did the monastic promise fall so far short? How could people so easily twist it to support self-indulgence?

12-step programs are a very effective way to gain serenity, which is also the promise of monasticism. In both, we give up the illusion that we are in control. In exchange we gain knowledge and acceptance of our actually weaknesses and strengths.

All the parts of monasticism - from the insights of the old desert hermits to Benedict - are present in the 12 steps and 12 traditions. They are just cut up and rearranged. But Benedictine monasticism has one glaring difference. The monastery is a strict dictatorship. 12-step programs are insistently non-hierarchical, non-organized peer groups. The experience of peers provides a teaching resource, but the only authority is one's own Higher Power.

Benedictines are hardly the only group to found monastic practice on a dictatorial authority. Yet the problems with this approach are all too clear in the arrogance that was the downfall of the sisters I knew. The effectiveness of a non-hierarchical, unprofessional approach is equally clear in the success of 12-step programs in bringing people along the monastic road. But those in 12 step programs mostly go home to their separate lives after meetings. They are not trying to create an enduring, economically-interdependent family, such as is a monastery.

Is there a functional middle ground between these that would foster monastic community?

Begining Monk

It's been two and a half years since I was closed out of the monastery I loved.

I entered because a thick cord of living light tied my heart to the place. This cord sang through my being with dancing joy. I could only follow where it led. Besides, this call was an answer to my prayer to be emptied so I could shine the divine light more clearly.

Be careful what you pray for. You might get it.

This monastery seemed like a good way at the time, not just because the call was strong. So many spiritual teachers in so many religions say that monastic detachment clears the gunk that shadows our inner light. I wanted to test on myself if they were right.

On my last day in the monastery, I sat in meditation, aware of how the monastery had changed me. I'd come to depend on the emptiness of minimal ownership and social activity. I'd let go of stuff, furniture to hold stuff, the house to hold the furniture, the job to pay for the house - and a whirl of social activities. I didn't want to jump back into all that. Could I find another way?

Before I entered, my creative energy had been like a playful wildfire - dashed here and there by every breeze. Now it had the white-hot, focused intensity of a hurricane lamp. I'd take that energy with me when I left, and now I'd be free to use it. Book titles, sculpture plans, teaching ideas... My mind buzzed with possibility.

My parents gave me a room. I rented a small studio and agreed to lead some spirituality workshops. I planned to go to the monastery for morning liturgy and to walk their acres of restored, native prairie.

My best friend said, “I’m glad you’re out. They may not need you, but we do.”

This happy denial lasted about a week, then grief hit. I'd left the monastery at the end of October. My energy drained as winter advanced and I lay buried like a seed under the snow. With spring, life returned in blazing anger. It bounced between the sisters and myself. I’d ask: Why wasn't I submissive enough for them to keep me? Nothing was that hard. Then I’d ask: How could they toss my love aside? They took me knowing how I was different, yet kicked me out citing those very differences.

A year ago on Easter, I went back, slipping unnoticed in and out of the large crowd at the Saturday Vigil service. While there, joy and love burst up. The sisters shone, as did the cross and the congregants. Angst and furor dissipated in the presence of that joy. I attended morning prayers a couple of times.

I was still on the books as an oblate, a lay associate, of the monastery. I went to part of an oblate retreat. Then another one.

I'd carefully scout around to avoid meeting any of the sisters. But my spirit had other plans. Turning a corner expecting that everyone was busy elsewhere, I'd bang into one or another. We'd run through a rote greeting: "How are you?" "Fine." "And you?" "Fine."

Then a strange thing happened. At the oblate retreat this last March, I was no longer wary or tense. I realized how much I still loved each one of the sisters (there weren't very many), as if our souls were deeply connected. Yet it was no longer relevant that they didn't share my feeling. It was no longer relevant if they had clay feet up to their armpits. I'm not sure if this was forgiveness or something broader. It felt like I'd been washed of bitterness and anxiety without any effort on my part... Well, I'm not completely clean. Sticky wisps of anger rise up on occasion. But that is not my general state.

Occasionally since childhood, I’d touched a luminous, inner joy. For two years before I entered the monastery and the year I was in it, I'd been filled by that joy, even when things were hard. They kicked me out and smoke darkened my sight. Then the grief cleared and joy welled up again. Now I’m grateful I got to live there, even if the time was way too short.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Post-Modern Monastery

Another woman rejected by a Benedictine monastery suggested we need a "post-modern" community. That sounded good, or at least interesting, but what does it mean?

Wikipedia first notes that the term “post-modern” defies easy definition, then says post-modern expression:

  • Is a reaction against grand, absolute values, & establishments.
  • Accepts that all communication contains myth, metaphor, cultural bias and political content.
  • Challenges the legitimacy of knowledge and identity.
  • Is based on personal experience and individually created meaning.
  • Often uses parody, satire, self-reference and wit.
  • Replaces dominant power centers with cultural pluralism and profound interconnection.
  • Denies absolute, original referents in favor of inter-referential representations.

What would a post-modern monasticism look like?

O.k. Here are some features of post-modern art and possible monastic community equivalents.

P-M Art
Dissolves distinctions between fine art and craft

P-M Monasticism
Dissolves distinctions between lay and professed. Realizes we are all ordinary schlepers in one and the same boat.

P-M Art
Uses any and all material as media

P-M Monasticism
Plays creatively with organizational & ritual forms... not to mention vows and promises, perhaps in the spirit of Rumi "Even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, come, yet again, come."

P-M Art
Both challenges and freely expresses cultural identity

P-M Monasticism
Equally honors multi-faith and tradition-centered practice

P-M Art
Holds a fearless and searching mirror to cultural norms

P-M Monasticism
Makes no assumptions on the “proper” interpretation of monastic practices, openly sharing personal experience and responses, without judgment.

copyright R. Elena Tabachnick, April 2007

Monday, April 09, 2007

Jesus and the Butterfly, Easter Sunday 2007

A class had a cocoon in an aquarium. They watched the butterfly emerge. The butterfly struggled and struggled. It hurt to watch. The butterfly rested in exhaustion after getting partway out. When the teacher left the room, some boys decided to help the butterfly. One carefully cut the edge of the cocoon. The butterfly flopped onto the floor of the aquarium. Only it looked wrong. The body was a squishy blob and the wings were all crumpled. The next day the butterfly died. The teacher said the butterfly couldn't fly until fluid was forced out of the body and into the wings,
stretching and opening them. As it struggled out of the cocoon, this happened. It needed that struggle to mature. By "helping" the butterfly the boys had crippled its wings. It would never fly and could only die.

I heard this story as part of a sermon. It spoke to me immediately. I had one parent who tended to neglect ("It's your problem. You take care of it. Don't come running to me."), but the other tended to intrusive coddling. He "fixed" difficulties in a way that caused harm, just like the boys with the butterfly. Even now, I am more angry with the second parent than the first.

Yet, I have the same tendency. I adopted a rescue dog who was severely abused as a puppy. Ordinary noises can send her into a panic. Then she hides shivering in her bed. I want to rush to the rescue, cuddle her and say, "There, there. Don't be scared. I'm here." This is exactly the wrong thing to do for a dog. When I make a big deal of her fear, she learns that fear is the correct response. I know this. But it's hard to resist my desire to "fix it."

Al Majkrzak of Madison, Wisconsin was one of the boys in the butterfly story. He concluded his sermon by saying that Jesus could fill our wings when the struggle grew too hard. Jesus' message was, "Let my fluid fill your wings."

It's a comforting message that many of us ache to hear, but I think it's mistaken.

A butterfly can only fly after it struggles itself out of its' cocoon. A child can only find her wings after struggling herself into maturity. It hurts the butterfly for some human to cut away the cocoon and it hurts the child for a parent to do the equivalent.

would not be here in bodies struggling ourselves into understanding and maturity if the struggle itself were not necessary, a creative process. Jesus is not going to short circuit our growth by smoothing over our struggles.

Yet neglect is equally mistaken. Something else is offered. Something that truly helps.

I experience two things in my relationship with Jesus. The Jesus I know is a laughing, dancing, joyous presence. When I touch that, I can hold my pain lightly because it seems to be part of a larger, brilliantly sweet whole. My pain seems to lead to something entirely good, even if I have no clue how that works.

Also, when I touch Jesus' presence I feel completely loved - with every one my
struggles, mistakes, insights and triumphs. I feel wholly buoyed up in glorious love. Compassion: this love does not try to fix or improve anything about me. Because there is nothing about me that needs to be fixed or improved. I'm already doing really good work, really well. All I have to do is keep at it. However twisted I may feel, Jesus stands at my side, present to all my feeling, offering encouragement and joyous approval.
copyright R. Elena Tabachnick, April 2007