Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Amma Syncletica, Part II. Some Sayings

Most of these quotes are taken from the translation of Syncletica's Life by Elizabeth Bryson Bongie. An icon of Syncletica is here.

There is a familiar refrain about the difficulty of the spiritual road, especially at the beginning. Syncletica said it in a way that appeals to me as a life-long camper: “For those who are making their way toward God there is at first great struggle and effort, but then indescribable joy. For just as those who wish to kindle a fire are at first choked with smoke... in this way [they] achieve their purpose.”

And like a campfire, I've noticed that a strong, clean spiritual burn can suddenly start sputtering and smoking again, just when I relaxed to take a nap.

But then I turn to mystics like Hafiz - who had the best view of obedience: "Befriend [the] obedience that ...shouts to our reason, 'O please, o please, come out and play.' For we have not come here ...to confine our wondrous spirits." And Lalla who said: "God does not want meditations and austerities. Through love alone can you reach the Abode of Bliss."


But still, these mystics certainly recognized the attachments (and excuses) with which every spiritual seeker must deal, in one way or another.

To the Egyptian desert hermits, the initial spiritual struggle was with fixations on bodily comfort, relationships and possessions. Once these dissipated much worse fixations arose - such as anger, dejection and pride. Synclectica described the first three as like storm waves that batter you (a ship) from without. But the more difficult troubling thoughts are like bilge water that can “overflow and frequently kill the seamen, often when they are asleep and the sea is calm." Ick!

Even in the monastery, I found it hard to resist thoughts that my back hurt, I’d like a snack, and maybe I should take a break and find someone to chat with – all aspects of “gluttony” and “lust” in Syncletica’s lingo. Yet those are easily identified compared to pride that creeps in unnoticed so seekers “drown in calm waters through carelessness of letting go of the rudder.” sigh.

One attractive thing about Syncletica was her insistence that there are many ways to live a holy life other than renunciation. “Just as one diet is not suitable for all animals, so the same instruction is not suitable for all people.”
Those best suited to marriage and family life should go that way.

Even for those drawn to renunciation, not all are meant for the most austere. Beginners should start with less austere practices as women who “rush into rejecting their possessions are generally seized with regret.” Only someone who has been tried will be strengthened by owning nothing, sleeping on the ground, fasting and praying always. “Heavy clothing… is washed and bleached by treading and vigorous wringing,” but some people “rubbed a little...disintegrate like torn garments.” They should never try austerity as it would take them away from God not towards.

Syncletica's practical understanding of real people also shows up when she says that despair and pride are twin maladies. Someone puffed up with pride in ascetic achievements may need deflation, but people also need encouragement. Someone paralyzed by thoughts of difficulty and failure needs to be admired and flattered for
any small step forward.
I don’t know about you, but I’m much better at deflating myself than praising myself for small steps forward. (“Whoopee, I sat for TEN MINUTES this morning,” versus, “What a failure! I can’t meditate for more than ten minutes.”)
So as a certified total schlepper, I find comfort in Syncletica’s admonition that spiritual discipline is “the ultimate and chief of all evils” because it causes the surest defeat through pride, the “Devil’s ultimate sword.” While having too rigid a discipline is like “scattering a fire by blowing on it too hard.”
Those who become proud of fasting must enter a community where they will have to eat regularly. And anyone who feels pride in her spiritual practice, however great, should remember: “demons have in fact done... more ascetic acts than yours. They do not eat, nor drink, nor sleep. They also spend their lives in a desert – in case you think you are doing something great by living in a cave.”

Something any of us aspiring cave dwellers just have to keep in mind - even those like me whose discipline is basically pitiful.

Amma Syncletica, Part I. The Story

In fourth and fifth century Egypt, the desert was peppered with folks renouncing regular life in order to empty out and find God. Although the best-known hermits were men, there may have actually been more women practitioners. (see Laura Swan’s The Forgotten Desert Mothers)

My favorite desert mother was Syncletica. The written record of her life was, of course, obscured - although a few of her sayings made into the Western monastic cannon. Even now, many misogynist theologians will argue that she didn’t exist and is but a hagiographic “type.” (Hagiography is writing about a saint’s life.) But Syncletica’s earthy, pragmatic voice rings with authenticity, while her supportive, no-nonsense advice - as useful that of any modern, spiritual writer - is obviously based on experience.

Besides, The “first” desert father, Antony, only gets to speak in 28 chapters (actually paragraphs) out of 93 in his Life. The rest is Athanasius using hagiography to go on a rant. (He was battling to destroy heterodoxy AND have the soon-to-be-imposed orthodoxy mirror his beliefs - at which he succeeded.) Syncletica’s Life has 113 chapters of which 81 are her sayings. There just isn't much hagiography there. This is pretty amazing given that hagiography is big theological business for promoting the author’s view of proper religion. (See this article by Kevin Corrigan.)

The story goes that Syncletica was born in a wealthy, educated Macedonian family that moved to Alexandria. Two brothers and then her parents died. She took her blind sister and went to live in the family tomb.

I used to imagine desert hermits alone in their cave, but many lived within yards of each other. Which is why the elders’ advice includes many cautions against visiting, as well as ways to release aggravation over others’ actions. Women like Syncletica soon attracted followers who settled as “solitaries” in the surrounding area.

Following her own advice, at first Syncletica refused to teach. She eventually gave in, but never let anyone witness her actual practices. She wanted to avoid pride which easily destroyed even the seasoned ascetic if they were known and admired. "Just as a treasure that is exposed loses its value, so a virtue which is known vanishes. Just as wax melts when it is near fire, so the soul disintegrates in the face of praise and loses all the results of its labour."

(Wonder what Bill Gates, with his recent foray into high profile munificence, would say to that!)

But if you felt God truly wanted you to teach, you'd just have to make the sacrifice of exposing yourself to this terrible danger. As a remedy, Syncletica advised teachers to keep spiritual gains hidden, to highlight every one of their failures, and even to invent a few “thus rejecting the good esteem of people while concealing good acts.”

I wonder what life would be like if we were all so courageous, but it's an awful unrealistic expectation. My desire for God just doesn't overwhelm my desire to be accepted - not to that extent, anyway. I often wish it did. Then I could really "drink all my passion and be a disgrace," as Rumi advised.

Unlike Rumi, however, Syncletica was a guide on the way of austerity.

But she wasn't actually unrealistic. She knew about the quandaries spiritual seekers get themselves into. For example, she warned people not to set themselves up as teachers unless they had already "built an interior dwelling" (more or less a metaphore for enlightenment). Otherwise it was as if “someone whose house is unsound were to receive guests and cause them injury by the collapse of the building."

Ack! Well I feel strongly drawn to teach, and haven't even got an interior foundational-hole-in-the-ground, much less an entire dwelling. OTOH, I'm not about to tell anyone what to do to build an "interior dwelling" as I've never done it - despite voluminous reading of people, like Syncletica, who say they have.

But I figure if I remember that I'm not anybody's guru, and stay within the limits of my own experience, I'll be o.k. I've spent decades trying to wiggle out of the spiritual guide role and I've run out of excuses. And when (I know myself too well to say 'if') I get caught up in pride and self-righteousness, I trust God, my soul, entropy - whatever - will create circumstances that'll provide the wake-up slap I need - painful as that is apt to be.

Monday, July 30, 2007

One Spiritual Size Does Not Fit All

I want to better distinguish between the voice(s) of my personality self (or ego or whatever you call it) and those from my core Self (that I call my soul). Then I'll be able to note, observe and unhook personality desires when they arise, rather than letting them rule me. By living more out of my soul - which is a lovely, dancing-joy light - I can use my personality traits to do my work in the world... but my work will be more effective, and apt to increase love and understanding rather adding noise, aggravation and confusion.

I've been impressed by the changes a good friend made in this regard after a year-long, intuitive guidance seminar at a local, spiritual training center. If I can find the money, I want to go through the same program. This last weekend, I went to a workshop which was the precursor.

Like the history of the center's founder and main teacher, the workshop techniques were a little idiosyncratic, but I found them very effective. And it struck me once again: we're all trying to get to the same place, using very similar spiritual practices. Our spiritual aspirations and practices only appear different because of varying religious trappings and terminology.

This was really obvious soon after I left the monastery when I went to Al Anon. The meeting I started with read through each step and each tradition in order... then started over - sort of like how we read the Rule in monastic "chapter." (For those who don't know, Al Anon is for anyone with an alcoholic family member or friend, and uses the AA 12 steps.)

I kept crying at first because the similarities with Benedictine monasticism were so immediate. All the important pieces were there, except cut up and rearranged. It was like Bob S. and Bill W., the Big Book authors, had channeled Evagrius and other early desert hermits, as well as Benedict.

I thought, "My monastic community refused to help me get where I need to go, but I could find the exact same help in Al Anon, and they aren't going to kick me out."

12 step programs talk about "serenity," Benedictines about "humility," Evagrius about "apatheia" (dispassion), and Buddhists about "vulnerable heart." But these all seem to be the same state of open-hearted awareness - with a total absence of looking down on others or yourself - a state which naturally leads to upwelling compassion and happiness.

It doesn't really matter which one of these programs you or I follow. Whatever approach resonates with you and works for you is best... for you. Because it's not about finding the one correct belief, but about working out our issues... and receiving the gift of divine at-one-ment that follows. Whatever the shape of door that most easily takes me or you or her or him there is good.

One size does not fit all. So aren't we lucky that there are so many sizes available.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Is Ecumenism Dead On Arrival?

(I'm feeling a little rant-ish as I write this post. I guess that means I have lots more work to do healing the hurts from my monastic sojourn. Or maybe July humidity is getting me down.)

When I first went to retreats at the monastery, I was an eccentric pantheist and universalist. I'd explored many religions and was a member of a UU congregation. I heard the sisters speak glowingly of their groundbreaking work in "ecumenism." That was exciting because I thought it meant sharing worship with people of other beliefs - something I was very interested in.

18th century Unitarians, such as John Adams, had explored religions other than Christianity since before the founding of the United States. After the Unitarian Universalist merger in the 1960s, this became central to most UU congregations. For me, incorporation of many faiths was one of the major draws of UU worship.

(BTW, funny how American "Christians" who cry that the USA has strayed from an original, narrow-minded Christianity - like theirs - know nothing about the actual religious beliefs of the "founding fathers"- nominally "Christian" or not. Many were Unitarians, liberal Congregationalists or Deists - believing God started the universe but was no longer involved in human affairs. They meant to found a country of religious pluralism - explicitly including all religions in every public arena, not a country of exclusionary Christianity.)
"That's wrong," I was emphatically told. "'Ecumenism' only includes dialog among traditional, Trinitarian, Christian churches. What you mean is called 'interfaith.'"

Perhaps ecumenism has been somewhat lacking in effect because those who pursued it began by setting up barriers of inclusion and exclusion.

The reason the sisters gave for kicking me (and others) out of their self-styled "ecumenical" monastery was that we were too different. There were only three sisters, so they represented almost no diversity at all. Yet they only wanted new members who "fit into what is already here like a hand in a glove" - to quote the Prioress. Yet these sisters who were often applauded as the pinnacle of Catholic ecumenism. If they couldn't accept anyone slightly different from themselves, was ecumenism DOA?

In fact it often seems like religious America has split in two. Those with strong denominational identities mostly have no interest in beliefs other than their own. They tend to be totally exclusionary in outlook. People (like me) who are interested in different beliefs often have no denominational allegiance and draw on many faiths. We want entirely inclusive exchanges - where no one is barred from the table because of religious affiliation.

Group One holds the resistant position of hunkering down with like-minded types, shutting out all differences. Group Two wants to embrace, welcome and celebrate differences. Old style, orthodox ecumenism is meaningless to both of these groups: too expansive for Group One and too small for Group Two.

So, yeah, I expect orthodox "ecumenism" is DOA. Although I imagine it was useful, even if it never quite got off the ground.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Obedience to What Authority?

The monastery I was in demanded novices’ complete, instantaneous and wordless obedience to the old sisters. Our existing self-knowledge and the promptings of our individual spirits were dismissed as ego.

It really sent the formation mistress into a rage if you tried to explain yourself when she berated you for one thing or another. Eyes steely, she’d snap, “When I speak to you, you just say ‘Thank you sister.’ That is all. You listen respectfully and say, ‘Thank you sister.’”

Benedict seemed on the side of the old sisters. He demanded unhesitating obedience. Even a monastic's body was not hers, but belonged to the monastery, to be used as the prioress willed. Of course, Benedict expected the most humble and loving woman to be prioress, but he demanded obedience to the prioress - no matter what her character. His fourth step of humility is to submit to the unjust treatment or downright abuse of bad superiors.

I desperately wanted to clear my ego and fill with Christ's love. Other spiritual teachers besides Benedict extol obedience to superiors as a good way to loose self-centered desire. So I convinced myself the sisters knew what they were doing - although to a modern feminist it sounded very wrong to say that the powerless should always humbly submit to the powerful. Such demands clearly cause many, many terrible social ills.

But to some extent, Benedict was right. Some of the antagonism I felt towards the old sisters’ requests was clearly ego resistance. Otherwise, why did I get so upset over dumb things like the uncomfortable furniture? And once, on hearing the formation mistress' demand for grateful submission when she reamed me out for some imaginary fault, I had an ah-ha moment. Responding as she asked was humility. Besides, the longer I stayed, the more often my heart filled with incredible light - and love for the other sisters, no matter how they behaved.

After they kicked out another novice, doubts overwhelmed my belief. It often felt like my whole body was shouting "no." Yet I struggled to go on. If this pain was due to old ego habits refusing to let go, persistence would bring me through. Benedict called for persistence during the painful start of the monastic journey. What had seemed excruciatingly narrow would become wide as our hearts "overflowed with the inexpressible delight of love." Entry into monastic life wasn’t supposed to feel good.

This all ended when I was kicked out in my turn. But I still struggled with the issue after I’d left the monastery.

Once I brought it up (for the umpteenth time) with my long-suffering, spiritual guide - an amazing, elderly Dominican. She startled me by saying, “That’s how you and others have interpreted Benedict’s call for obedience. Perhaps that’s not what he meant.”

Or perhaps Benedict's unquestioning obedience was a spiritual way that once opened people to unconditional love, yet now mostly created repression - by encouraging suppression of the spirit’s voice whispering in monks' hearts.

Whatever Benedict meant, I no longer believe that God was in the submission those old sisters demanded. That's not just my opinion. The “fruit” of their method was a dying community due to inability to accept new people, and "by their fruits you will know them."

Spiritual becoming requires obeying the still small voice of inner, divine guidance. It takes a lot of listening in silence, without any overt agenda, to hear this voice. It is easily confounded by the conflicting messages of human authorities, social norms and our own addictive habits. I don’t believe we listen to God if we give up self-awareness to further the schemes or bolster the ego of another - however worthy they may seem.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Emptiness: Not So Easy For Everyone

In my recent posts on addiction to overwork, I've expressed the POV of a childless professional. American professionals generally have two choices: work 60-80 hour weeks or don't stay in the profession. Although college professors make much, much less than similarly overworked professionals like lawyers, doctors or corporate managers, they are paid well enough.

Low and minimum wage earners who long for emptiness have a much harder choice than I ever faced: work 60-80 hour weeks or don't eat and don't pay the rent. Add in kids, and it would be much harder to do less work.

In my thirties and forties, I often regretted not having kids. But could I have left my university position if I'd been responsible for a child's life?

I mostly loved the work of a professor (although never the overwork). Then one day while chatting in a colleague's office, I had a vision that seemed to invite me to "let go." My choice was to let go of buying things (+ restaurant meals, travel and other luxuries), the furniture to store the things, the large apartment to hold the furniture, etc. Then I could live on much less, afford to work less, and have the time to discover what "letting go" meant.

It helped that I'd spent much of life in grad school living on $10,000 a year or less. I was most scared of the health-care risk (as a student I had health care). I mentioned this to a Puerto Rican colleague who'd grown up urban working-poor.

She scolded me, "You'll just have to go to the emergency room like the rest of the poor people." Of course that was before huge-profit HMOs took over our health "industry."

Once on a grey, November day I wait in a restaurant for some other faculty to get out of a meeting. Freezing rain poured down the large windows. I thought, "The worst case scenario if I quit my job would be to be out there in that rain with no way in."

The freedom promised by the vision seemed worth that risk. So I abandoned financial security, health-care and professional status for a journey to I didn't-know-where.

I've never come close to that worst case.

Even on a professor's salary in Chicago, I managed to save a fair bit as buying stuff is just not my demon. I had enough for a year at a reduced lifestyle. Then I lucked into an amazing, half time research position that gave me $20,000 for 20 hours a week of work. Then I went into the monastery.

Now I live on credit card debt and the generosity of family. But my first "book-length work for adults" is being marketed by a very good literary agent, so I expect no great financial strain... As long as I continue to own little and therefore need little.

Vampire Institutions and Infinite Work

CNN.com has a nice little article on the ravages of workaholism. All my years in college and graduate school, that was me. I could insist that I liked my work, even loved it, but that didn't make my 24/7 work attitude healthy.

I was at my most workaholic as a college professor. By then, I no longer enjoyed excessive work. I'd begun to realize there was more to life, but didn't know how to break the all-work-all-the-time cycle.

I was helped by two perspectives.

Another faculty member was dying. She told me it was her inability to say "no" to work that was the root cause of her illness. A few months later she was dead. Overwork had literally killed her.

From this I got the idea that institutions are vampires. They have no natural "stop," but will bleed you of all you can give and still demand more - unless you develop an ability to protect yourself by saying "no" to work demands.

A simple arithmetical idea also helped.

The amount of work that needs to be done is infinite (because new work is always being created). Compared to infinity, any finite number is insignificant, no matter how large. Ten or ten thousand: both are equally insignificant. Why knock myself out completing one more (or ten more) tasks? I can only complete an insignificantly larger, insignificant number of tasks - no matter how frantically I work, or how many relationships I sacrifice (including to God).

It requires being still and listening to tap the divine energy that is our core being This is destroyed by constant busyness. In the end, tapping my inner joy, love, peace and light so regularly it suffuses my life, even under very trying conditions, will be more healing for the world than anything else I could do. But this means expecting to do no more work than can be done in the time available, without rush or worry.

I'm not that practiced yet and am easily derailed back into busyness. But I know there is a better, more God-full way.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Develop Humility or "Do the Work"

Much like AA's "serenity" or Buddhist "vulnerable heart," Christian "humility" is a gentle, open-heartedness that accepts oneself, and others, as we really are. This naturally leads to experiencing God as unconditional love, and an outpouring of love and compassion towards others.

In monasteries like the one I was in, a lot of lip service was paid to humility. Yet my experience was that development of humility and love always took a back seat to "getting the work done."

Every weekday morning we had “chapter.” One of us would read a passage from the Rule and then those who wished would comment on it. Once we were reflecting on the passage where Benedict says to choose as Prioress one who excelled in humility.

A sister visiting from another Benedictine community said, "Oh every community has those very humble sisters. They are a joy to be around. They care for everyone, and are so gentle and kind. But they never get elected to the leadership because they are no good at getting things done."

There lies an obvious difficulty. The only thing Benedict seems to want monastics to do is to help one another "go together to everlasting life," through growth in humility and love. Work in the monastery is a tool for this, not an end in itself. Putting down the work and sitting, like Mary, in listening silence - without agenda or program - is also a tool. But it is the "better part." Only those by nature incapable of contemplation are to keep busy.

Benedict's Rule has a chapter on "artisans." This would have included any craftsperson from icon painter to rope maker - so it basically applies to almost every kind of work. The chapter has two paragraphs. The first says if their work takes monastics away from humility, they must no longer be allowed to do it. The second says that if a particular work distracts the whole community from focusing on humility (whether from pride or dependence on the income), the work must be abandoned.

And Benedict prescribed at least a few hours a day for "study." His monks wouldn't have had many books, as I heard one Benedictine expert suggest, so by "study" Benedict probably meant lectio divina. Lectio divina uses scripture as a lead-in to contemplative listening, but it is the contemplative listening which matters.

Only, yucky-in-the-extreme: whenever we stop to listen, the first thing we hear are the yammering negative voices in our heads.

Add that to the persistent survival anxieties that swamp even the wealthy and no wonder we'd rather keep busy!

But my experience echoes that of many other practitioners. Just keep listening. Eventually the yammering drifts off and a clear, joyous light bubbles up in its stead, like a tiny spring through a muddy pool. As time goes on, the mud clears faster and more easily... And when it doesn't clear, there is something in that mud that needs attention. (This happens annoyingly often in my case).

As to survival anxieties, the Gospels say it well: (Matt 6:25, 27-29, 34) "Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on... Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his [or her] span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin. Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these... Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself." (Also Luke 12:22-29 & Thomas 36)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Finding Emptiness

I loved living by the monastery's schedule, although it meant a constant struggle to get enough sleep (and to get up) as I am an insomniac night person. When things were going badly and my resistance was high, I'd grumble that I ought to leave just to get some sleep. But most of the time I found the schedule energizing.

Not only did it ensure time for daily meditation and prayer, it was vital to creating what I came to call "emptiness." Emptiness was one of the greatest gift of monastic living.

I was shocked at how much energy I'd previously sunk into running errands, driving, socializing, and endless unimportant decisions (like when to eat and what to cook, to read a novel or rent a video, to clean the bathroom or do the laundry). Suddenly all those things were missing. Some were forbidden or severely limited. Others were strictly designated according to the schedule, eliminating the need to make decisions.

In the emptiness that left, my soul energy blossomed into a consuming light.

Even the meditation was better. I wasn't less inclined to thoughts, but the thoughts seemed easier to release, and the deep places easier to fall into. Before, my greatest distraction was the press of to-dos for the day. Just giving myself 20 minutes to sit seemed so hard as one to-do after another would press for attention. But when it wasn't my choice to sit, the to-dos left me alone. Whether my meditation was deep or shallow, those empty minutes were inviolably mine, with no pressure to go anywhere or do anything else.

But my monastery was not good at keeping what was perhaps the most important aspect of the schedule in Benedict's Rule. It is the one I find most difficult outside the monastery, also.

Beginning and ending activities on a bell was supposed to change how things were done, not just set times for doing them. Monks were to treat every object, even the most mundane, with the care and reverence of a "sacred vessel of the altar." An injunction to "pray always" meant every activity was to be done as a prayer. Like Buddhist mindfulness, both these attitudes require slowing down and doing less in order to be attentive. Owning as little as possible also helps.

Having an always-more-than-can-comfortably-be-finished amount of work (or prayer or play) means always being in a frantic rush. This makes it impossible to go through the day at a steady, prayerful pace. To change this attitude, Benedict's monks picked up their work on the bell. When the bell sounded the end of a period, whatever monks had in hand was "immediately set aside", finished or not, and they went on to the next thing "with utmost speed, yet with gravity." Monks had to let go of worries over what needed to be done or what was yet undone.

A monastic schedule supports this attitude, but does not necessitate it. In my monastery, the work each sister had to do was always more than could completed in the time allowed. As a result, we not only were in a rush to get work done - just like every other over-extended American, but work often impinged on prayer and personal, contemplative time.

Still, having a schedule is the first step. Letting it help you release over-commitment comes after that.

Ever since I left the monastery, I've struggled to create a monastic schedule for myself, but my efforts have mostly failed. I needed the community requirements and the support of structures like living, working and praying in one place - which eliminated driving, and having an excuse to minimize entertainment temptations and social obligations.

When I imagine a no-particular-faith monastery, it isn't anything fancy. Just two or three other people who'd like to share a home and resources in order to help each other live with silence, daily prayer and, hardest of all, emptiness.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Human Doings or Human Beings

There is an old retreat joke that often comes up when people struggle with contemplative issues. “We should be called human doings not human beings,” someone says.

Monastics are as susceptible as anyone else to social pressures, as well as the inner drive toward distracting activity. So like any other people, monastics can find one excuse after another to stay occupied. Good works make especially useful distractions as they are so easily justified. In the face of the world's or a community's needs, it seems the height of selfishness to merely sit alone with God, listening. But when Martha asked Jesus to tell Mary to stop listening and get her lazy butt into the kitchen, he said, "No." Mary had "chosen the better part" and no one was to take it from her.

Every Christian knows this story, but how often do we actually let ourselves (or others) be Mary? Maybe Mary didn't just choose the "better" part. Maybe she choose the harder part. We all realize we ought to make time to smell the flowers – but there is always some absolutely unavoidable reason that this must be put off until tomorrow when surely we won’t be so busy.

Monasteries have schedules or horariums. These state the hours for prayer, work, dining and recreation. Although having limited and designated work hours might help, it can't solve the overwork problem - unless those involved take seriously the need for empty time. In the monastery I was in, work kept creeping into the times for prayer, contemplation or leisure. The older sisters often went on working in their offices after the warning bell for prayer rang, squeaking into the oratory at the last minute, sometimes skipping prayer altogether. Even on Mondays - which were formally designated as empty, "desert days" - we got in trouble if we didn't keep busy with garden or house work.

I've read blog posts by practicing hermits that limiting their work to a few hours a day is one of the hardest aspects of that life.

Whether it's nursing, reading, teaching, housework, running retreats or a money-making craft - many modern monasteries are all about doing.... and doing to excess, just like the rest of workaholic America. (Although maybe this is more pronounced in women's monasteries due to added fear of an "idle" woman.) Monastery culture can be just as prone to put spiritual growth after overwork as any other institutional culture that never pretends to be about spirituality in the first place, like hospitals, universities, law firms or corporate offices.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Unity Is Not Comfortable Or Safe

A few weeks ago, I listened to a speech by Abbot Primate Notker Wolf "the highest representative of Benedictine men and women worldwide." He had been asked to speak on "ecumenism in the 21st century." Being as I am almost entirely deaf to the nuances of Catholic culture, I may have misunderstood him, but what I thought I heard was very interesting.

Most of his speech argued that calls for religious "unity" were asking the impossible, given human diversity and nature. He supported this contention with personal experiences and global examples.

He pointed out that tolerance of diversity might be common in some areas, but religious tolerance was not "unity." Protestations that we "all get along" or "learn we all share the same faith" generally covered the expectation that everyone else would change to become just like one's self. An insidious hidden agenda of many calls for Christian unity, much less calls for unity with other faiths, this actually caused disunity. A similar expectation undermined the commonly stated Christian desire that we "all be one."

Yet after a long, torturous journey through disheartening realism, Notker Wolf's final message was uplifting. If we really care about "unity" we must learn to live together and love one another with all our differences intact. He mentioned that he meant really live together, not simply host one another as guests, and then go home to our separate communities (as Benedictines are so adept at doing.)

"Ecumenism" meant joining together, and learning to live together, despite old enmities, without first curing those enmities.

What a breath of fresh and bracing air.

Near the end of his rule, Benedict says that as monks grow in humility they learn to support with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of character and body. Benedict expects monks to be full of weaknesses. The goal is not curing your own faults, much less your neighbor's, but learning to embrace each other - annoying weaknesses and all.

If real "unity" is a matter of joining across difference, it is not going to be safe or comfortable. It requires letting go of fear, letting go of the need to own and control, and being willing to open to those different enough to feel very dangerous - without expecting that they will change in any way.

Do I think I can do this? Not to any very great extent. But I desperately wish to try.

It's very heartening that a prominent Benedictine such as Abbot Primate Notker Wolf would set such a hard, realistic agenda for Benedictine communities. He makes me think some mainstream Benedictines might be ready to try also.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Is Obedience To Tyrants A Spiritual Good?

In his Rule of monastic life, Benedict required the Prioress to be a dictator, but with radical balances. She was to be a living example of humility. Above any worldly concern, she was to place helping all the community members grow in love. She was to respond to each member as an individual, understanding that the response that helped one might damage another. She was to consider every member’s opinion before making even small decisions, giving special weight to the views of new and young members. These balances on authority have been tossed aside throughout history.

The Benedictines are not the only monastics to value obedience to dictatorial authority. Yet in my experience, this is a bad spiritual practice. It allows the powerful to avoid self-reflection while protecting their egos with a group illusion. This stymies everyone’s spiritual growth, both of those on the bottom, such as I was, and those at the top who wield the power.

It takes incredible humility not to fall into this error or to otherwise avoid abuse of power. More humility than I have, or any of the Benedictines I knew had. Pressures for expediency, the ego desires of oneself and close associates, fears for survival: all undermine a dictatorial leader's spiritual aspirations, even one who starts with the very best of intentions. As they say: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This is one area where I believe Benedict was wrong, reflecting Roman cultural expectations, not spiritual efficacy. Too few of us humans are humble enough for dictatorial power, and submission to tyrants can’t teach divine love.

Monasticism is worth pursuing. Despite the foibles of the leaders, I felt amazingly full of life in the monastery. The aspects that created that spirited life were the emptiness of limited social activity, silence where chants reside unbroken beside wind and bird song, daily meditation and owning little.

But the old sisters wanted to "use" me as they saw fit, without consideration for any service I felt God had placed in my heart... They saw that as the only way to live Benedict's Rule. And that's where my strong call to the community conflicted with my, equally strong, creative call. I kept going a long time hoping "God" would solve this conflict. When they kicked me out - explicitly saying that they couldn't have an artist (e.g. one with the need to follow individual inspiration) - this struggle ended.

Few people have the option of life in a monastery. I’m grateful I had a chance to try it. I'm glad I experienced a life and joy that once tasted always calls. But perhaps that call is more healthily pursued outside grand, religious institutions. Big institutions have such tendency towards oppressive dictatorship and repressive cultural norms - and these are as likely to take people away from God as help them closer.

You might say this is just the sour grapes of one who was rejected, but still...

I've discovered that the same light shines out here, where most of us live our ordinary, extraordinary lives. All I need to do is empty the clutter and listen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Little House That Many Faiths Built

I mentioned in a previous post that last May I went to four dharma talks by the Dalai Lama. Before saying that all faiths had useful things to offer the world (though only understanding of emptiness and no-self led to liberation form suffering), he said it was dangerous to switch from your birth tradition. The big danger was confusion. Since every religion’s concepts grew out of cultural assumptions, anyone not raised in a similar culture could fail to understand the concepts.

I'm pretty sure the DL is right. I will never understand exactly what he means by emptiness as there are cultural nuances I cannot access. Although, as he also pointed out, it is only the understanding that comes from direct, personal experience that turns intellectual knowledge gained from study into wisdom.

I was raised by agnostic parents who originally came from different religions. They said, “go to services with your friends and then make up your own mind.” So we did. As my family traveled around the world, this became an interfaith experience.

From my global nomad background, I have my own peculiar, cultural basis for understanding. I also have my own path to knowledge from direct, personal experience. I trust the knowledge, cultural perspective and wisdom my path has brought. Will these bring me to the ultimate truth? Unlikely. But that is not my goal.

I like the metaphor of a little house. My perceptions and experiences (personal and cultural) open up a tiny window out of which I peer at the Beyond Vastness of ALL. I know I'm only getting a small and skewed glimpse. However, all around me are others whose different personal and cultural experiences open up other windows.

How much more I get to glimpse when I listen to the descriptions of those others – even if I can’t understand all the subtle nuances of their view.

The facets of the ALL that others perceive come to me as second-hand "concepts." Without my own direct experience, I can't judge their truth or authenticity. But if mine is legit, I like to assume theirs are also.

And anyway, inclusion makes for a much more fascinating universe.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Praying the Psalms

When I first entered the monastery, my biggest struggle was with the liturgy: a thrice daily chanting of the psalms - with scripture readings from the Catholic lectionary.

Although the monastery's early-morning start was a physical challenge for an insomniac night person, I found that a day punctuated by three chant liturgies and two meditations was incredibly invigorating. And I loved the liturgical rhythm of chant and silence, totally devoid of sermonizing.

In the Benedictine liturgy, silence is as important words. In fact originally, the words weren’t thought of as “prayer” at all, but preparation that opened a monk to listen in a following silence (often while lying prostrate on the floor). That receptive listening was the actual prayer.

If only the text didn’t leave me gritting my teeth.

Before my monastic sojourn, I was simply not a scriptural kind of gal. I'd always been easily inundated by divine presence while carving, writing or walking alone outdoors. I read some “teaching stories,” e.g., of the Zen or Sufi masters, and sayings texts such as the Tao or the Gospel of Thomas, but other sacred scripture of all traditions left me cold.

The Bible seemed immanently uninspiring, full of slaying, raping, pillaging, “holy” men who were abusive, drunkard fathers (Noah) or lecherous murderers (David), and an angry, judgmental God. And that was just the Hebrew Bible. In the Gospels, a poor fig tree was blasted for not bearing fruit out of season, masses of people were cast into outer darkness with gnashing of teeth, and “God” was so jealous, angry and cruel “He” could only be appeased by the torturous murder of an innocent.

Yet my call to Benedictine community was unmistakable. Right in the middle of a mundane social event, joyful radiance had filled my heart. From then on I was tethered to the monastery. It felt as if a thick cord of living light had grown out of my chest and been sunk into that land. After two years of “discernment” discussions, my call remained undeniable and the sisters agreed to take me.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the novitiate. I learned that the early Christian hermits like Evagrius or Syncletica (a Desert Mother) had a very Zen way of reading the psalms (as in Norman Fischer’s modern Zen translations). The "enemies" they asked God to smash or save them from weren’t other people, but their own derailing passions - fear, loneliness, boredom, anger or pride.

One Tuesday morning (the monastery’s first day of the work week), I was feeling mighty grim. The liturgy included psalm 88. This is the only psalm that starts as a lament, goes on as a lament and ends in despair with, "My only friend is death." All other psalms resolve upward with a last stanza of praise or thanks.

Psalm 88 fit my mood exactly.

A few days later I noticed that a joyous line from psalm 118, "this is the day our God has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” was playing like background music in my head all the time. I could dissolve any ugly feeling by tuning into it.

Yet saying ALL the psalms on a schedule generally meant praying emotions and concepts that were not mine at the time (if ever). At first a source of aggravation, this became a surprising source of spiritual vigor.

Most of us are used to prayer as asking for something we actually want. In scheduled praying of the entire Psalter, another person’s inspired words become a rope we can use to let ourselves down into the pool of spiritual energy that is always present - if only we can reach it. It is irrelevant whether we agree with the literal meaning of the words. The rope works either way.

This turns out to be incredibly powerful. Although daily psalm chanting was the most annoying part of monastic life when I entered, it is now the part I miss the most.

* * * * *

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


You may not be able to guess from reading my posts, but I belong to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I joined a Unitarian congregation because I like inclusive, interfaith worship, but I was born a Universalist. (a brief summary of these beliefs in Christianity history)

I simply know there can be no such thing as “hell.” I can see every living being shining with radiant, inner light. Every human, no matter how they behave, also shines. All, absolutely ALL - no exceptions, no excuses - are part of a single, continuous field of divine energy. "Individuals" are spots, locations, in a field, not separate BBs banging against each other in a can.

Kabir must have seen the same thing because he said he waslike a pitcher of clay floating in the river, water inside, water outside. Now suddenly...the pitcher is broken! Inside, outside: O friends, it's all One!" A continuous substance, a field where "the drop is submerged into the ocean, and the Ocean is submerged in the drop. So who can tell what is what!"

All material beings and all non-material beings, everything that is perceived or unperceived is part of one divine whole, one "God." So punitive "judgment” for the earthly mistakes of a little human simply makes no sense. It would be like your head deciding to burn your toe "eternally" as punishment for it stubbing itself.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Universalist and Unitarian Balance

I was sure I must have been the only UU to have entered a Benedictine monastery while remaining a UU, but I recently learned at least one other UU woman has done the same.

I had an oddly mixed reaction to this news. My first response was "Waaaa! I wanted to be the only one." But almost immediately that was replaced by excitement. If there are others, my call to Christian monastic community was not some quirk of an eccentric personality, but part of something much larger.

Modern, American Unitarians seem to do a bang-up job of honoring our founding principles (from the Reformation on) of inclusive worship devoid of any gatekeeper creed, and using the mind as the primary instrument for spiritual seeking. We are also stellar at honoring our social justice and ecological principles. However, singularly Universalist perspectives have often been lost. I'm thinking of such practices as following divine inspiration, listening to the heart, celebratory and ritual-rich worship, and giving people hope instead of condemnation (to paraphrase John Murray).

At least from the time of the revolution, American Unitarians, such as John Adams, studied other faiths than Christianity. In the 19th century Emerson and the Transcendentalists brought understanding other faiths into the big time. After the 1961 merger between the Unitarian and Universalist churches, most of the newly UU congregations shucked their prior Christian identities for conscious inclusion of people of any faith or no faith. So UUs inherit a good century and a half of trying for faith inclusiveness.

It's not surprising that, as interfaith groundbreakers, some strategies we tried had unforeseen, negative consequences. One such was that, in a sincere effort to have inclusive Sunday meetings, we often got rid of "worship" itself. Everyone shared social justice concerns. Services designed around social justice lectures didn't exclude anyone. Unitarians love discussion; we were founded on respect for rational inquiry. By using scriptures and teachings from many faiths, but only as historical or intellectual references, we could include all without offending any.

In trying for faith inclusiveness, it seemed like we often removed faith all together. In essence our services became mostly Unitarian with only the odd dash of Universalism.

It was an easy mistake to make, but one that leaves me very unsatisfied.

The Benedictine monastery I entered had a liberal (and for Catholics, radically inclusive) Eucharist. This nicely balanced the Sunday services at my UU meetinghouse. The first was very monastic: full of psalms and ritual punctuated by long silences. The second was typically UU in welcoming any believer or non-believer by drawing on many faith and cultural traditions, and concentrating on social justice themes. It was also typically Protestant in wordiness: an hour stuffed with readings, reflections, stories and hymns.

Alternating attendance at these services provided me with a worship balance I needed. Now that I no longer attend the monastery's Eucharist, I miss this contrast.

I want a Sunday service that balances rationality with ritual and emotion. I like to hear about social/humanist concerns, but need hope-inspiring worship that supports my prayer life. Obviously I'm not alone among UUs. The tide has already turned. Many congregations and ministers are bringing more "worship" into our services.

Forty six years after the merger, it is high time for Universalism to come into balance with Unitarianism. Because Universalism isn't just a nice, liberal belief; it is an entirely different way of life.