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.]