Thursday, November 29, 2012


Before continuing the narrative of how religious life died, it is important to say something more about the contentious word obedience. The root of the word is to listen, not just any listening, but a willingness for whatever. In fact, the whole point of Christian life, much less the religious life, is to help people fine-tune the art of interior listening, what I often refer to as attentive, responsive receptivity, to 'seek to the beholding'. This acute listening assumes a community of mature people who respect one another.
The reality is that such communities are few and far between, if they exist at all. In the flush of trying to live an 'authentic' monastic life—which, of course, is self-defeating—people tend to turn unthinkingly to the stereotypes, often romantic and unrealistic, to apply to their own situations. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to gather a group of like-minded, mature individuals to live together and allow the life simply to unfold under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that little needs to be said or written down as was the case in the 4th century desert.
Obedience is often abused, in part because the sense of this acute listening at the deepest level has been lost in the miasma of words and inherited misinterpretations that now constitute what is horribly called formation. Instead of acute listening, obedience became, and to a large extent remains, a series of power games. There are ridiculous stories of how far obedience has been pushed in the past, and I'm afraid that a lot of them are true. Novices used to be taught that they should be so obedient that they should anticipate a superior's orders. This implies that the subject should be fixated on the superior, and as noted above, dependence mistaken for obedience is no obedience at all. Perhaps the reality underpinning such a statement is that one should be so tuned in to the community and the common good that certain orders should not have to be given.
But the impression that a superior gives orders and the subject obeys them is a caricature of what is meant by obedience. This notion comes from a too-literal reading of stories of the desert fathers and mothers where novices are told to plant dead sticks in the desert which then miraculously sprout and flower. Such stories, based on the reality that some plants, especially grapevines, when dormant do look like dead sticks, are rather parables of the soul: the new novice is a dead stick, but if he plants himself in the desert, that is, in silence, simplicity and singleness of heart, if he waters the seemingly sterile sand with his tears of repentance—his efforts to come to that listening silence—then he will bear fruit.
Certainly there are times when a superior gives orders—job assignments, for example. But the superior is not infallible and can mis-match people and jobs, in which case the subject should make representations. If she finds out that she is the only person available and the job must be done, then she should give it her best shot. But it is also true that sometimes there are situations when the person, obedient to the inner voice, will be treated with gross unfairness bordering on abuse, but who perseveres because he or she is aiming for a goal that is perhaps beyond the view of the superior. Someone might find himself in a situation where carefully made arrangements for living alongside a community or as a long-term guest are disregarded by the superior, and all sorts of outrageous things done to try to dislodge him. But, having entered the situation to learn something that the superior is incapable of understanding, the person simply accepts the irrational demands because he or she realises that a higher goal is being fulfilled. Such a response can enrage a superior who is  using obedience for political ends, which means that the arrangement will be eventually terminated in any case, but the person can walk away having learned what he came to learn—the joy of service without any thought for oneself, for example, or the ability to love people who hate, or a strengthened fidelity to an inner voice that is steadfast and not subject to caprice or power games. This sort of thing does not happen very often, and the circumstances have to be very unusual—it is more common, and usually wiser, to terminate such arrangements before they get out of hand—but they do occur. If the inner vision is strong enough, the person will do just about anything, and put up with just about anything, to follow it. This is the reasoning behind Benedict's suggestion that the aspirant be kept waiting outside for two or three days.
All the vows merge into one vow. All the vows are intended to help a person to beholding no matter what the circumstance. Poverty and chastity (not to be confused with celibacy) strip away the distractions of ownership and entanglements. In their healthy forms they increase appreciation and respect for the material creation and other human beings because the person learns to listen at ever deeper levels. None of the practices traditionally associated with these vows is an end in itself; the vows are means to an end. They help a person to live in equipoise, integrated and responsive to whatever situation he or she may find him or herself in, whether inside a formal community or living an ordinary life in the world. The vows are simply an extension of baptismal vows, which are only a token of a life-long process of learning to behold, to re-centre in the deep mind. Here is Cassian:
'But we ought to be aware on what we should have the purpose of our mind fixed, and to what goal we should ever recall the gaze of our soul: and when the mind can secure this it may rejoice; and grieve and sigh when it is withdrawn from this, and as often as it discovers itself to have fallen away from gazing on Him, it should admit that it has lapsed from the highest good, considering that even a momentary departure from gazing on Christ is fornication. And when our gaze has wandered ever so little from Him, let us turn the eyes of the soul back to Him, and recall our mental gaze as in a perfectly straight direction. For everything depends on the inward frame of mind, and when the devil has been expelled from this, and sins no longer reign in it, it follows that the kingdom of God is founded in us, as the Evangelist says "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation, nor shall men say Lo [ecce/idou] here, or lo [ecce/idou] there: for verily [ecce enim/idou] I say unto you that the kingdom of God is within you."' Cassian, Conferences, 1:13; translation

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Saying No to Women Bishops

Several readers have written to ask if I would comment on the failure of the vote to approve women bishops in the Church of England, and so I will interrupt this series on Why Religious Life Died to do so. Be warned: I am afraid this will be something of a rant.

I will begin by noting that the continuing effect of men's misogyny in the church means that in women's religious communities, women also adopt the same devaluing, misogynist attitude towards each other that men have towards them. It doesn't matter how profoundly or insightfully a sister may speak: until a male ordained person says something similar, no one listens. In fact, quite the reverse: the insightful sister will be persecuted, even scorned. The male, of course, is celebrated as being so original, so helpful, so holy, etc. etc. etc. Religious life of this sort deserves to die.

This mentality is just as rampant in the church at large and in the UK as it is in women's religious communities. The UK is so misogynist that even the men who purport to support the women have no awareness at all of how misogynist they are. There are exceptions, of course, but they are very few. Women in the UK on a daily basis put up with treatment from men that is appalling by any standard, but, in the vicious cycle of abuse, even they don't realise how badly they are treated.

Of all the misogynistic academic disciplines among the humanities, theology is perhaps the worst. The misogyny is inherent. Women's theological work, no matter how original and creative, is regarded as fair game, and male scholars—especially men in high positions who hardly need any more accolades—rip women off all the time, using women's research and even their phraseology without attribution.

The irony is that women also do it to each other. As someone who presents herself as a strong feminist, but who shall remain nameless, said to me after her demonstration lecture at one of the top five universities in the world, 'While I was lecturing I kept thinking about how much I owe you, but of course I couldn't footnote you because you're not fashionable'.

As far as the vote on women bishops goes, what puzzles me is why anyone is surprised that it went the way it did, after the years of GAFCON's stonewalling and intransigence, years when they refused even to pray with the other bishops but went off to party instead. There is nothing of theology in this debacle. It's all about power: about minorities holding the majority hostage; about petulant extremists refusing to play, gleeful for having succeeded in jamming up the works. But it's not just the misogynist minorities who are after power: it's the women themselves.

The women are just as oblivious to the true nature of the problems as the men; just as deaf to anyone not ordained; just as rabid for power; just as devious and manipulative as the men, if not more so, because they have not yet achieved equal power. Again, there are exceptions, but they constitute a tiny fraction of the cohort of ordained women. Doesn't anyone stop to ask what these power struggles have to do with alleviating the desperate spiritual suffering of the laity?

As I noted in my essay 'The Seven Devils of Women's Ordination or She Who Lie Down with Dogs Catch Fleas' (which was published in the book Crossing the Boundary but is also on this blog at [many thanks to BR for finding this link]), instead of being a force for changing the power structures of the church, the women have bought into this thoroughly corrupt and repulsive system.

None of this sorry business is about helping people deepen their life in God; none of it is about the self-emptying God weeping over the creation. The way clergy are selected and trained obviates any possibility of these two issues being addressed. The the most fundamental way we understand Christianity has become completely distorted, degenerated into a lot of  fine-sounding babble that has lost its referents. The church needs far more to address this problem and to try to recover the ancient and patristic tradition, than be preoccupied with clergy power games. All of this kerfuffle about women bishops is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

So much of the post-vote breast-beating shows just how out of touch the clergy are. As someone noted in one of the newspapers this morning, every time the church tries to be relevant it just becomes more irrelevant. This is not to say that women shouldn't be bishops, just that the present situation was utterly predictable.

Instead the church should wake up to the fact that its interpretation of its heritage is wildly wide of the mark because it is based on an anachronistic Cartesian methodology that makes a dog's breakfast of the ancient and patristic tradition; that it has taken all the substance, wisdom, and psychological resonances out of translations of the bible and the liturgy; that it is poisoned by the lingering magical thinking and narcissism introduced by Paschasius in the ninth century; that there is an ever broadening abyss between the clergy and the laity, which gained momentum in the twelfth century. As R. I. Moore notes in his wonderful book The War on Heresy, Peter Abelard '. . .said, citing other distinguished masters in his support, that in celebrating the Mass the words of consecration themselves were sufficient, regardless of who said them'. (p. 152) 'The idea of ordination now came to designate a ritual in which an individual was permanently endowed with the power of conferring the sacraments, rather than simply being appointed to carry out certain functions in the community. That such power could not be vested in women or laymen was not ancient or firmly established doctrine. It emerged in the first decades of the twelfth century... the clergy was a separate order of society, and set firmly apart from the laity'. (p. 155)

 Someone has remarked that the church should catch up to modern thinking, but misguided efforts to apply modern thinking are exactly what has taken all the beauty and mystery out of Western Christianity, which is what people seek in this increasingly flattened, debased and ugly society which has wrecked its environment. Modern thinking is why the women have to play men's power games in order to have any role at all in the church. Doesn't anyone stop to think how insulting it is to women to be discussed as if they were problems to be solved? Do women even have to fight to be acknowledged as fully human? Which is precisely what misogynists refuse to acknowledge.

Rather, the church should provide a corrective to modern thinking. Another person said the C of E no longer has any credibility, not realising—or choosing to ignore—that no one has been listening to any church for years, not only because of the very un-Christian infighting among the factions, but also because very few of the clergy have anything worth saying beyond a lot of sloganeering. There is a dearth of practical instruction that will help people live their lives in the beauty of holiness and root their lives in contemplation so that they can survive the increasingly abusive milieu in which we live. Another person said that the church would become a laughing stock—for a lot of people it already is, people who do not realise the tragedy that is unfolding in front of their own eyes that affects their lives whether they will or not.

As for the extreme minority who claim certainties, few of their members stop to think that attributing stasis to God is a form of blasphemy. 'The compulsion to find ...certainty is its own punishment', says the poet Christian Wiman in his profound and light-filled book of essays, My Bright Abyss, to be published on April 2 of next year. Salvation, in one of its oldest definitions, means to be released from a trap, and nothing traps like the squalid little self-conscious world of certainties and navel-gazing that tries to keep the contingencies of life locked in the closet, and push every one and every thing including God in its own little procrustean compartment.

Why can't we find some way to convey the message that self-forgetfulness is the source of joy, whereas self-preoccupation is the source of exactly the sort of conflict we have seen for far too many centuries but has reached a new low in the present day?

The only certainty is free-fall in the love of God.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

IV Why Religious Life Died

The desert fathers and mothers came from wildly assorted backgrounds. On the one hand, there was Arsenius, who came from a Roman senatorial family and was tutor to the imperial court in Constantinople before becoming a monk. At the other extreme, there was Abba Moses, a former slave who was a thief and perhaps a murderer before his conversion. Both of these men were exemplary in their humility, and Moses was particularly known for his compassion and nonviolence.
Manual labour sustained the desert-dwellers, not only in the sense that they sold what they made with their hands and ate what they cultivated, but also because manual labour provides an essential grounding function for the practitioner. It promotes physical, mental and emotional healing, as well as helping a person to grieve out his or her human mortality. It provides a point of focus for the noisy self-conscious mind and brings it to silence. Immersion in manual work can lead to total self-forgetfulness. It balances the life of prayer and the liturgical hours, whose rites can be quite physical: standing, bowing, and, in some cases, prostrating. Touching, working with the earth restores a kind of wholeness that cannot occur any other way; it is notable that the Buddha is reported to have touched the earth at the moment of enlightenment.
Benedict's rule indicates preference for very few ordained members in the community, only enough to serve its needs; it indicates the dangers to the soul that attach to ordination—a tendency for the ordained to think better of themselves and to look down on the others. Ordained or not, everyone in the monastery contributed to its life through manual work, not only through housekeeping, farming and the crafts necessary to sustain the monastery's life, but also the production of books.
As the institutional church gained power, the rot began to set in. Communities began to be divided into 'choir' and 'lay'. Until Vatican II, lay brothers and sisters, or 'converse' as the Trappist-Cistercians and Carthusians called them, were not canonically monks and nuns at all, though they made simple vows to the community. They were not bound to the Divine Office, substituting repetitions of Paters and Aves for the intricacies of psalms, chants and lessons. The choir monks and nuns were freed from manual work, which proved not a good idea as it left too much opportunity for idle hands and macheavellian machinations, too much time for vying with one another for status and power. On the other hand, lay brothers and sisters could become stunted intellectually, deprived of the life of the mind. After Vatican II, many orders incorporated their lay brothers and sisters into the community so that there were no longer any divisions, and so that everyone was a full member of the community with a vote in Chapter, the governing body of the Order, and bound to the privilege and work of the choir.
This change proved a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it redressed some gross inequalities in education, living standards, and social inclusion. On the other hand, it left those for whom this simpler vocation was a haven, rudderless, as if they had slipped anchor and were floating without direction. There are still brothers in the Trappist-Cistercian order who ask for and receive permission to continue the old way of Pater and Ave, who confine themselves primarily to manual work. Similarly, the Carthusians receive many more applications for the status of lay brothers than for the choir. Lay brothers may now have their own cells like the choir monks, and may participate fully in the Divine Office (still in Latin) if they wish—or not. There is a fine balance, however, between simplicity and refusing the responsibility one has to the running of the community by participating in Chapter and voting.
Among the women the old system was often pernicious. Women entered as young as fifteen years of age. When, after Vatican II, some communities began to pay attention to their lay sisters, they found to their chagrin that many of them did not have the most basic life skills for the modern world: how to drive; how to check in and out of a hotel; how to handle money—even how to use the telephone. Some of them were functionally illiterate. Many of the lay sisters had been set to one side in the sorting process that took place at the beginning of their life in community: the bright women with obvious talents were fast-tracked to higher education, and those designated 'lay' were bundled off to the kitchen and laundry and more or less forgotten. For some, this was a blessing; for most, it meant arrested development and wasted gifts.
       There was the additional problem that women religious—with some significant exceptions—almost always had more cramped quarters and less money than the mens' communities, and their members suffered in consequence. John Paul II had the temerity in one of his encyclicals to tell the women that this was only appropriate. In some cases the lack of resources meant real privation. The lack of space added other pressures: women need room to 'nest' in one way or another; women tend not to know how to leave one another appropriately alone; whereas men have different ways of binding members to the group.
Another difference between the pre-Counter-Reformation communities and those that came after was the fact that early communities took in everyone who knocked on the door if they were at all suitable and showed a desire for God. Communities were very serious about their obligation to nurture vocations, about their responsibilities towards someone with a genuine desire for God. They were loath to dismiss anyone except in extreme circumstances. We hear of brothers and sisters who are simple, or mad, or holy fools; those who have an independent streak who are sent to a monastic prison (being 'sent to Coventry' where the Carthusians had a big one). Occasionally we even hear of violence, such as that of the lay brother who threw the elderly Aelred into the fire not once, but several times.
Religious communities were often dumping grounds for females of noble or royal blood who were surplus to requirements. They were even used as prisons. Offenders of the king's majesty could be interned in a monastery for an indefinite period whether he had the vocation or not. Communities had to absorb all of these exigencies and were the stronger for it. Communities are like ecosystems: they thrive on diversity, but if they become monochrome—an all-heterosexual community; an all gay community, a community of people with identical ideas and points of view—they wither and die.
As time passed, womens' communities in particular became more and more like college sororities: they became refuges of class and manners, wanting only those of 'their own kind', regardless, and sometimes in spite of, the validity of the vocation that presented itself. This state of affairs was detrimental to the community not only because of the wasted talent and rejection of the fecundity of a radically different point of view, but it was also devastating to the rejected candidate with a genuine vocation. In this regard, as noted above, women's communities also confused and still confuse dependence and obedience, as noted above, so that they reject all the mature and gifted people, all the potential leaders. Only those with an extraordinary political skills survive, manipulative abilities which are rarely consonant with genuine creative leadership and can even be psychopathological.
     There was and is also the danger that such self-selected mediocrity of communities would attract those who wished to better their material lives or elevate themselves in social status, but who had or have no genuine desire to love God and serve the values and goals of religious life, and the welfare of the community. Such communities become hotbeds of anger and spite, destructive competition, bullying, psychological and sometimes physical abuse. They are xenophobic not only in the sense that candidates from other countries or strata of society are suspect, but also suspicious of those who might suggest deviation from the very narrow prescriptions and tunnel vision of the stagnating group.

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.]

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Away Until November 14, 2012

As my hostess is a luddite I will have no internet access until November 14. Look for the next post around that date.