Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going monk

We had a guest presider at Mass today: a wacky and hilarious young Trappist monk. I've known friars, but never monks--and part of the reason for our guest's presence was to talk about what monks do and why it has value: what's the point of living in silence in a cloister? What does that contribute to the world, or even to their lay co-religionists?

I've heard intermittant reports that vocations to religious life have risen slightly in recent years--but whether or not that's true, the contemplative life does seem to be having a minor moment in popular culture: The New York Times keeps turning out articles about urban professionals going on spiritual retreats, or families and individuals declaring digital fasts (or trying to), or what the rest of the world can learn from introverts. For that matter, just ask yourself: how many thoroughly secular people in your life have sung the praises of meditation? How many were doing it ten years ago?

For all the popularity of meditation, mini-retreats, or mini-fasts from one's gadgets and devices, there's still something challenging and counter-cultural, even uncomfortable-making, about those who actually live out the contemplative life in a monastery, convent, or ashram. Who are these people? Narcissists and dilettantes, searching for some kind of nebulous personal fulfillment? Weak souls in thrall to what's more or less a cult? Or asocial wackos who can't get along in the real world?

Those charges are also familiar to academics: why do you get the summers off? What's this "sabbatical"? What good is it to spend ten years writing a book that maybe 300 people in the world will read and understand?

I'm not trying to aggrandize what we do by suggesting either that it's so very radical or that it has a deeper spiritual purpose--and the monastic roots of the scholarly enterprise are well-known. But seeing this self-deprecating, low-voiced monk utterly charm our urban congregation made me hope that, as teachers who are also scholars, we bring our undergraduates a version of what the monk on leave from his abbey brings to a busy and skeptical laity: a sense of what we do with our lives and how it might be relevant to theirs.

Or as our guest said, "there's a little monk in all of us."


Anonymous said...

My favorite monastic quote ever (actually one of the sayings of the desert fathers) seemed very applicable to my life in graduate school. It goes: "One hour of sleep is enough for any monk if he is a fighter."

Dr. Virago said...

"A little monk in us" = homunculus? Heh heh.

But seriously, I wish I could have heard his talk. I'd love to hear a modern monk talk about his life.

Historiann said...

Dr. Virago, FTW!

Contemplation and prayer are not monetizable, ergo they are mistrusted by most Americans. I actually think that it's the celibacy that really blows most non-Catholic Anglo-Americans' minds. The celibacy of priests, monks, and nuns has always been hated, feared, and mistrusted by Anglophone Protestants going back nearly 500 years.

Flavia said...


Monks are hard-core, yo.

Dr. V:

FTW, indeed.

It was really charming. Their abbey is less than an hour away, and I'm seriously thinking about doing a day trip or overnight retreat at some point.


Yes, exactly! The contemplative life is not monetizable, and--especially when celibate--not productive in any terms the rest of the world values.

I know there's been good scholarship that examines vowed Christian celibates in the context of queer and feminist theory, though I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read it. But just spending time among a community of sisters or friars takes one outside of the sphere of heteronormativity in a really palpable and powerful way.

I'm 100% supportive of ordaining women and married people, and when that day comes I'll cheer it as loudly as anyone. But there's a countercultural potential to celibacy that I do admire. And I hope the vowed religious remain a voice in twenty-first-century Catholicism.

anthony grafton said...

What a beautiful post: thoughts to chew over--indeed, if I'm capable of it, to meditate on. Thank you.

Withywindle said...

OK, I'm clearly behind the times ... if he's Trappist, how can he be speaking to you at all?

Flavia said...


I'm not an expert on All Things Monk, but my understanding is that Trappists don't actually take a vow of silence--they just speak only as necessary. They still have multiple daily prayer services, though, and most communities support themselves somehow (this one makes bread and other baked goods), both of which seem to presume speaking occasionally. And since this particular monk is also an ordained priest (some monks are, though most aren't), I'd guess that means he officiates at Mass and hears confessions among the brothers, etc.

He mentioned that he only sees his family once a year, for a period of three or four days, so his life is still relatively cloistered. I'm guessing that going out and speaking to lay congregations occasionally is a designated, special ministry.

Susan said...

My best friend in grad school was a monk. I'll just say that the tradition matters -- he was from a Benedictine Abbey, and the scholarly tradition was 1500 years old! What's interesting is that I think in general monastic life is much more communal than is the scholarly life. So I see what we have in common -- our dedication to something without obvious outcomes, whether it be prayer or research -- I see big differences.

One of hte things that Kathleen Norris talks about in The Cloister Walk (I think- I'm not at home to check references) is the way celibacy, the turning ones back on certain kinds of relationship, opens monastics up to other ones. So I wonder: what are the things we have turned our backs on? Most of us are clearly not in it for the money, but what else? And what does that open us up to?

To put it another way, are there other things we share in common with monastic life beyond the dedication?

Historiann said...

Flavia, great point about the "non (re)producive" nature of monasticism. That gets to Susan's question about "what we share in common with monastic life beyond the dedication?"

I don't want to push too hard on this point because REAL monasticism is a very different calling from our ersatz monasticism, but I think what we do and who we are usually puts us at odds with American culture at large. Also, I don't think I spend much more time with my parents or extended family than Flavia's monk does, as the craptastic job market usually means that we have to live at quite a distance from our families. Finally, women with Ph.D.s are only slightly more likely to be mothers than cloistered nuns, for all of these reasons plus the fact that finding a partner and making children is difficult when one has neither very much money, time, or familial support.

That's where the communal nature of monasticism starts to look pretty darn good!

Flavia said...


Those are two great points. And I've definitely seen numbers that suggest that ordinations to the priesthood are higher these days among orders that involve communal living; I can't even imagine how isolating it would be to be a parish priest, living alone in a rectory--now that there's rarely more than one per parish. (My last parish, in Manhattan, was run by Franciscans, and their community was full of such joy and energy--seeing them interact was like witnessing a loving but sometimes fractious family.)

I'll only add that the greatest pleasure and surprise in my professional life has been its communal aspect. You're right that we perform our work in much greater isolation than monks do--but I have a profound sense of being a part of a community and of relying upon and being relied upon by others (I feel this much more now than I ever did in grad school, though I know other people have the opposite experience). Social media are a great help here.

But I do want to spend some time thinking about your last question, which is what kinds of relationships the contemplative life opens us up to. Like Historiann, I think one answer is that it opens us up to different kinds of relationships to space and place (like some religious--although usually not monks!--we go where we're "sent"), and we also have to value and invest in very short-term human relationships, most obviously with our students, but also with colleagues, neighbors, and so on.

Being able to enjoy and even cherish the things and people one has now, while recognizing that those relationships are in most cases not permanent, is perhaps another point of connection between scholars and monastics.

But I'd love to hear what others think about your question.

Susan said...

I think the counter-cultural thing scholars share with monks is a lack of interest in utility, crudely defined. That is, I research the things I do because they are interesting (and yes, they are usually interesting to me for some reason connected to the present) not because there will be some great societal benefit from them. My scholarship is not useful in any simple way. And this is true for basic science research as well as most humanities and social science research. We may talk about how studying X helps us understand Y, but that and $5 will get you a latte.

Similarly, the monastic practice of prayer is done because it's done. That's what they have promised.

Current discussions of education make it clear that thinking, exploring, doing things for the sake of doing them, is probably the most counter-cultural thing we do.