Thursday, November 08, 2012

III Why Religious Life Died

What records we have of the lives of the desert fathers and mothers tell us that newcomers at the most were taken into the cell of an elder to imitate his or her actions—in silence. When he rose, the novice rose; when she prayed, the novice prayed; when he slept, the novice slept; when she wove baskets, the novice wove baskets. By this silent kinesthetic process the novice learned the rhythms of the life, and slowly gained understanding and insight into the patterns of solitude, as well as learning how they might need to be modified for the novice's own use.
More often, it would seem, individuals would follow the example of Jesus via Antony and, with no further ado, betake themselves to a solitary place or to one of the groupings of hermits in Scetis or Nitria. We do not hear of 'novice masters' or 'novice mistresses', or the appalling word formation until very late in the day, and for good reason: monastic life cannot be taught, it must arise from within through the medium of living the life. Teaching can only be extracted from the elders by asking the appropriate questions, and the appropriate questions will arise only through living.
The notion of formation is entirely presumptuous, in the same way that so-called spiritual direction is presumptuous. Both are inventions of the Counter-Reformation and later efforts at thought control; both require people to be fitted to a procrustean bed; both encourage solipsism as opposed to beholding. Both drag the poor victim from beholding back into the world of the linear and hierarchical and the concern for what other people think, locking the person into the hamster wheel of self-consciousness, and making the place where profound trans-figuration occurs (including behavioural change) inaccessible.
Having said this, it is also true that candidates coming from today's consumer and me-oriented societies—where what used to be considered common decency now has to be legislated—haven't the faintest notion of what it means to live with other people, what impact their lives have on others, much less in silence. Simple courtesies such as closing doors or walking quietly, or cleaning up one's mess in the kitchen or elsewhere to leave the space pleasant and peaceful for those who follow are simply not in the vocabulary of many people. As late as the middle of the last century in-comers could be expected to have enough sensitivity to pick these practices up on their own, but in today's world where people are subjected to the assault of caterwauling and thumping at every turn, and are taught above all to be assertive, no such assumption can be made.
[Non sequitur: even Marks and Spenser have succumbed and are now broadcasting racket in its store in Oxford. It used to be the only shop in the city centre where one could browse peacefully; now it is like every other place which I cannot bear to enter because of the miasma of noise. Fortunately there is no broadcast—yet—in the food section, so if I come in by the back door, I can avoid it. Do they think that adding to people's stress by forcing the wailing, thumping horrors on them—particularly in a store with an older demographic—will add to sales? If so, they could not be more wrong. One of the major reasons Borders went out of business was that the racket inside the store made it impossible to browse among the books. One reason I wear ragged old clothes is that I cannot stand to go into any shop that is saturated with this sort of audial brow-beating—which means all of them—to look for something more acceptable.]


Blogger happy pearl said...

Try and get a group of Christians to be quiet is something of a challenge. At my last attempt I had to do it in half hour bites because most didn't know what to do with it, and for some of them, silence was terrifying.

As for your comment that common decency now has to be legislated - I maintain that has been a significant failure. A teacher may not pick up a child who has fallen over in the playground, but other violations of a child's space appear to continue alarmingly.

I'm enjoying your blog hugely. Thank you.

6:17 am, November 09, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Maggie Ross,

I am writing to express my deepest gratitude to you for your work and your voice, and to God for allowing me to find you.

I learned about you through Carl McColman's site and I have been reading your blog since. I have also shared it with two friends--an Episcopal priest and the parish administrator at our church. (When the priest started reading, he sent me a note that you are, indeed, interesting, if a bit curmudgeonly. To which I responded that you are very curmudgeonly, a trait I enjoy probably more than I ought)

I am a middle-aged mother of three, New Jersey born and bred, now living in a suburb outside Charleston, SC--a diocese now torn by the actions of a few ultraconservatives who wish to leave TEC and, as usual, take the properties with them. As a member of the vestry for a church caught in this conflict, I have had more of a front-row seat to this scandalous nonsense than I ever imagined I would.

I was born and raised in the Episcopal Church, attended Catholic grammar and high schools, and am familiar with the Anglican Communion since my mother is from Liverpool, raised in the Church of England, and I was raised in a family of ravenous readers, introduced to theology, history, philosophy, etc. early on. My family was also plagued by dysfunction, so I also was introduced to less edifying elements such as poverty, homelessness, and deep and early grief. The privilege I knew was intellectual and, for that, I am indebted to the people who gave me life.

I have wrestled with the Unknowable, Unnameable for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of gazing into a star-filled night sky, thinking of the Creator, and being filled with a dizzying amazement. That feeling has never left me. I thought that was why adults went to church, because they were overcome with amazement at utterly everything. I've often felt as though I might at any moment just burst into flame because of this inarticulate welling is difficult to describe. I just love life.

I tried a few times, just as some kind of odd experiment, to see if I could stop believing in God. I could not do it. It is not possible for me. I do not know why.

I saw your recommendations for "Saving Paradise" and have just started reading the prologue. I remember asking my priests why the cross, a Roman instrument of torture, was the central symbol of our faith. Why not the empty tomb? Isn't resurrection the central event?

I also saw you mention Annie Dillard's "Holy the Firm," a book I have returned to again and again over the decades. No one else I know has read it, or heard of it. I recommended it to a friend a few years ago, but she admitted not "getting" it. I just wanted someone else in my life to have read it. No matter. My life is so full of blessings I can barely stand it sometimes. One great joy is that I belong to a church that includes people who think, who ponder, who wrestle with God, and who feed more than 70 children every weekend through a program that provides meals to youngsters whose main meals are the breakfasts and lunches served at school. Our priests are always pointing to the Jesus in the Gospels. That we can not say we love God if we do not love our neighbors--whomever those neighbors may be. We are not in charge of the invitation list to the banquet. This does not endear them to everyone.

I lead a lectio divina group at my parish, something we started in the spring. (My priest friend refers to my way of conducting lectio as entering "the abyss of silence." When he leads lectio there is much more talking and sharing.)

I am simply a seeker and am so glad and grateful to have found you. I can't wait to read your books. I apologize for such a long, rambling comment, that was really all about me. I guess I wanted to introduce myself, so I hope you don't mind. Forgive my clumsiness.

Blessings and peace,


10:37 pm, November 12, 2012  

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