Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Gospels As If for the First Time

John Fenton was one of the finest New Testament scholars of the last century, but his work has never received the attention it should, in part because he was a very modest man, and, I believe, a very holy one.

The only problem for today's reader is that at an early age he was inculcated with a draconian form of Anglo-Catholicism via von Hugel, so his sometimes hyperbolic statements on the self have to be read with a large handful of salt. He understood the self that observes and the self that is observed, but, working with only one epistemology, he does not understand —although I think he intuits—the unfolding truth  of the self in the deep mind.

Although I had the privilege to know him as a friend, we rarely talked shop, and for some reason I never read his books while he was alive, but I have just finished reading three of them, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Much of his learning must have rubbed off on me by osmosis, as it were, through his preaching and presence—in any event, I cannot recommend these books highly enough:

Finding the Way through Mark
Finding the Way through John
More on Mark

All three books were published in the  UK by SPCK and are still available.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

XIII Why Religious Life Died

Within a few years of my departure, many communities, especially women's communities, changed beyond recognition. The mandate of Vatican II for Roman Catholic communities, which of course spilled out into Anglican communities—(which always had one eye on Rome and another on England—so much for authenticity)—had been for the communities to recall the spirit of their founders and regroup accordingly, with new constitutions. Little did the Vatican realize that it had opened a Pandora's box, because many of the women founders of women's communities were radicals who had been forced into enclosure and subjected to other strictures because of the misogynist and restrictive eras in which their communities were founded. But now the women took the bit in their teeth, and were off, especially in America.
Some, like the Ursulines, recovered the spirit of their foundress, Angela Merici, and cast off the enclosure which had been imposed on them, which often had prevented them from optimally taking up the tasks of education of women and care of the needy that she had enjoined. At the opposite end of the spectrum, others, like the Carthusians, recaptured the vision not of their original simplicity (huts in the woods, the simplest of food, clothing, and only the necessities for their work), but rather the time of their greatest grandiosity when the Grande Chartreuse was built and when they enjoyed the patronage of kings and queens (at one time they owned the steel monopoly in France). Their new statutes ooze with self-congratulatory phrases and Jansenism: we are the best, we are the elite, we are a church within a church (meaning a law unto themselves and abuse of the human person), and the distorted 'more masses more merits', 'suffering is good for you' quasi-magical and sado-masochistic attitudes of the Counter-Reformation.
As far as the women were concerned, the back-pedalling by the Vatican began almost immediately. Pope John Paul II, that echt  misogynist, wrote an encyclical on the religious life, pointedly aimed at women, which said, yes, they'd always had less money and poorer living conditions than the men, but that they should submit and be content and stop causing trouble. Of course the encyclical neatly overlooked the fact that in a number of cases, nuns had entrusted money to their brothers to buy them (the nuns) some property, and instead the monks had used the nuns' money to buy property (always the best pieces) for themselves. Today, ironically, the remnants of these women's communities, who have been pioneers for social justice and other causes in every corner of the world, are being subjected to repeated scrutiny by the Vatican males—mainly for being uppity, one suspects, which, being interpreted, means claiming their humanity.
The Anglican communities, having been founded relatively recently, also had some out-of-date, mainly Victorian, attitudes to break free from, as well as the death-dealing, Manichean spirituality they had adopted wholesale from their RC sisters (or which had imposed on them by their male founders) transmitted through von Hugel and Evelyn Underhill. The Anglican view of habits, however, was different: Anglican nuns historically had to fight for the right to wear them, whereas among RC women it was mandatory, and many RC sisters couldn't wait to ditch them. Many communities went first to modified habits, which were often extremely ugly, and then to secular clothes. A few dug their heels in and went in the opposite direction, living an even more exaggerated and dehumanising life than was the case at the beginning of Vatican II. Only a handful had the sense to retain some sort of community dress for liturgy and formal occasions. No-one undertook what was, I believe, at the heart of the Council's mandate, which was to rediscover the reasoning, psychology and theology behind certain practices that made up religious life at its best and give them contemporary expression.
All of the communities, Anglican and Roman Catholic, went through a time of questioning and change that was often ill-considered and far too rapid. The churches were introducing changes into the liturgy, which were even more ill-considered. No-one seemed to know what discernment meant any longer. No-one seemed to apply consistent criteria to the changes under consideration. Silence was abolished. Talk in the common room degenerated into discussion of individual pension pots and ecclesiastical advancement. 
The liturgy was degraded to hyperverbal squawking; the attempt to make it more sensitive to gender was a disaster: no-one had any idea what invaluable subliminal signals were being lost—for example, the use of 'he' for God, when it indicates the reach, the stretch of mercy and kenosis, which is far more astonishing when it appears in men (who are physically stronger) than in women. Chant was suppressed. Ancient hymns and glorious music were exchanged for endless, repetitive, simple-minded explorations of the key of C, and the banal and sentimental words one might hear in a third-rate cocktail lounge. As Annie Dillard once put it, 'Who gave the nice Catholics [and Anglicans] guitars?' [Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper and Row, 1982) 18-19]
There is a singing group in this Catholic church today, a singing group which calls itself "Wildflowers." The lead is a tall, square-jawed teenaged boy, buoyant and glad to be here. He carries a guitar; he plucks out a little bluesy riff and hits some chords. With him are the rest of the Wildflowers. There is an old woman, wonderfully determined; she has long orange hair and is dressed country-and-western style. A long embroidered strap around her neck slings a big western guitar low over her pelvis. Beside her stands a frail, withdrawn fourteen-year-old boy, and a large Chinese man in his twenties who seems to want to enjoy himself but is not quite sure how to. He looks around wildly as he sings, and shuffles his feet. There is also a very tall teen-aged girl; she is delicate of feature, half serene and half petrified, a wispy soprano. They straggle out in front of the altar and teach us a brand-new hymn.
It all seems a pity at first, for I have overcome a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing in order to attend Mass simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars. Why am I here? Who gave these nice Catholics guitars? Why are they not mumbling in Latin and performing superstitious rituals? What is the Pope thinking of?
The community in which I had been a novice was no exception. Most of the original nine founders left or died. The new sisters, following Sister Q, were hell-bent (I used the phrase advisedly) on getting ordained and becoming celebrity gurus, whether or not they  had anything to teach. The superior, who had been my nemesis, tired of men, tired of the double life she was leading, and, way ahead of the times, left the community to live with a woman with whom she had fallen in love. With all this drive towards careers and stardom and sex, and a growing sense of entitlement, the community became more like a women's club than a religious community, forgetting, as if it had never known, that human beings are not limited to, are far more than sex, ambition and consumption. These activities may bring short-term self-esteem in some cases, but it is bought at the price of long-term self-respect. The pornografication of global populations, now blatant and overt, was already well under way.
The rich lady's money was accepted, and the baroque harpsichord duly made its appearance in the austerely beautiful, starkly modern chapel; Gregorian chant disappeared. The Offices were cut both in number and content. The two most essential elements of religion—mystery and beauty (not just aesthetic beauty, but the difficult, often upside down beauty of Christianity)—were suppressed without anyone's seeming to notice.
Ambition, competition, fashions, politics, careerism; any pretence of community life, in the sense of supporting one another in the way of contemplation, overflowing into loving and serving the community and the world without counting the cost, vanished. Every passing fad was, at least for a short time, enthusiastically embraced until the members got tired of it or something more diverting came along. This is a key word, for conversion, the basis of monastic and Christian life, was exchanged for diversion. The house was no longer a home but a hotel. 
As time passed, the rich woman's legacy disappeared through profligacy—frugality was evidently no longer an integral part of the life—and the house, and other houses, had to be sold. What is left of the community has retreated to a small convent in a distant state where they lick their wounds, wondering whom to blame, and what went wrong.
While many Catholics, both clergy and laity, were demanding that the Council's vision of full participation for all in the church be realised, the Anglican rush to ordination meant that the Episcopal Church and the Church of England (and other Anglican churches) were becoming more clerical: laity were and are considered by many clergy no more than necessary nuisances, numbers of bums in pews bearing pocketbooks that need to be picked, however genteel-ly. Again, there was and is little regard for discernment—not only have the criteria been lost, but the selection committees seem to be looking for salesmen rather than those who seek holiness and wisdom—but then, the whole idea of vocation has degenerated into a sense of entitlement. The seminaries have been just as bad as the religious communities, and there was and is little or no resistance to the heedless, rudderless juggernaught that has been unleashed. Is it any wonder that religious have left their communities in droves and the laity have disappeared from the churches?
While the cultural context has contributed much to the degeneration of the churches and the communities, there has not, on the other hand, been any attempt to resist or even discriminate what was and is appropriate to inculturate and what is not. The situation has been complex, but my feeling is that the catalyst for the attitudes that have led to the dead end (with the emphasis on dead) of western Christianity in which we find ourselves is due in large measure to one person: Thomas Merton.

Monday, January 21, 2013

XII Why Religious Life Died

Before continuing the narrative, it is necessary to say something about the state of psychology and therapy at this time (mid- to late- sixties). While psychoanalysis had become popular among film stars, ('terminable and interminable'), it was still unusual as regards the general population, and certainly among religious. This was, in part, because analysis among many people had already begun to take on nuances of being 'guilt free' instead of 'appropriately guilty' and then resolving that guilt to add a building block to character. In other words, analysis was coming to be associated with license, which has degenerated into today's 'if it feels good do it' and 'have your cake and eat it' attitudes. 'Therapy' as distinct from the full analytic programme was just evolving; therapists and analysts who were not medical doctors were just starting to emerge. There also was still a stigma attached to therapy; it raised all sorts of difficult questions. To be in therapy was not something one readily acknowledged on the more conservative East Coast.
There were very few psychologies beyond those of Freud, Jung, William Alanson White, Melanie Klein, and Winnicott. The Esalen Institute had not yet become well known—or notorious, as was to be the case later in its history. Cognitive therapy (equivalent to putting a bandaid on a compound fracture, in my view) hadn't yet been invented, in part, I suspect, because Skinner had only recently been discredited, and most people who sought therapy quickly learned that for it to be effective they had to work; it wasn't a quick fix. The mechanistic view of the human had not yet entirely taken over. But there were already deep rumblings in the therapeutic community, along with those already breaking out in society at large.
Among a minority of therapists and analysts, however, there was still some concern for the question, What makes us human?, and above all for discovering the potential integrity in a person and building on that, along with imparting tools for living. This approach was badly needed; women's liberation was just getting off the ground, and many women in their twenties and upwards had led rather sheltered, stereotyped lives. Among religious, especially women, the number going into therapy was snowballing, although the mass exodus had not yet begun.
Suffice it to say that I was both very lucky in the person with whom I had therapy, and also very unlucky: lucky because he had an eclectic, lateral, interdisciplinary approach [he taught at three institutes: Freudian, Kleinian, and William Alanson White]; unlucky because he was much too soon to show signs of early onset Alzheimer's disease, one of which was being sexually predatory towards his patients. I had a few of his best years; I left, much to the outrage and cries of 'betrayal' of my colleagues in his seminars (see below), because I sensed something was going very wrong, not only with him, but with the whole situation. He was diagnosed with dementia shortly after my departure, and died in his mid-fifties.
Along with doing analysis he also ran some interdisciplinary seminars for professional analysts already practicing. I was admitted to these, and they proved to be foundational to the work I am doing now. He was one of the first to recognize the importance of ecology to understanding the human person—the word was barely known among the general population in those days—and of the psychological insights contained in texts of various religions. As I was already groping in the dark in this direction, these seminars were a godsend. He was way ahead of his time: the majority of the books we used—now generally available, often in multiple editions—were fabulously expensive, as in those days they had to be bought from Ann Arbor Microfilms. In addition to reading in theology and philosophy, we read biology, medicine, history of art, psychology, and literature. In an era of increasing specialization, whose devastating effects we are only now in the 21st century recognising as we come to dead ends in many specialities, and as many certifications are revealed to be less than worthless, these seminars were definitely swimming against the cultural and analytic tide.
After six months of therapy I realised there was no hope of a future for me in the community—and little hope for the community in terms of the solid monastic ways it had lived in the past, no matter how fumblingly. The pendulum was swinging wildly away from the contemplative towards the dizzying array of options opening up for communities, most of which were to prove to be the religious equivalent of junk bonds, heedlessly thrown like confetti from every passing bandwagon.
I knew by then that I was not crazy, though I was appropriately depressed and disproportionately anxious, and needed further work to alleviate the effects of my pre-monastic life—though they would never entirely go away—of what today would be called PTSD, a term and a problem then entirely unknown. Finally it was presented to me, very gently, by Sister C, that while there was no question about my vocation as far as the community was concerned, if I wanted to continue in therapy I would have to leave for the simple reason that the community had many professed sisters that needed therapy more than I did, and the community was too impoverished to pay for everyone who needed it.
By that time, even in the lunatic aftermath of Vatican II, and the maelstrom of material that therapy had exposed in my psyche, I had come to a kind of clarity and detachment about the directions this particular community—and religious life in general—would go next, and history has sadly proved these premonitions to be more or less correct. It was a bleak vision, which I shall describe in the next post. I dreaded leaving the context of religious life, which suited me perfectly: the silence, the beauty, the Office, the mystery and all the rest of it; but I also knew, that these were precisely the elements that unwisely would be discarded.
With $100 dollars, one dress, and a very heavy heart, I left the monastery for New York City.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

XI Why Religious Life Died

After my conversation with Sister Q there was a lull; but none of us was fooled. She continued to retain the title of novice-mistress, and to preside at our meetings, but beyond that she made it clear by her behaviour that she was more or less unavailable. We were aware of more comings and goings than usual among the professed, especially Sister Q, but we were mostly ignored. One by one, novices packed their bags and left, defeated by the general disintegration and lack of any vision or way forward. 
One of the professed swam the Tiber and went to an RC community. One went to a mental hospital; one fell apart in-house, and sequestered herself in her cell with a pair of (very smelly) kittens; one, who had a compulsion that bound her to open any closed door, became more and more agitated as she yanked each one ajar with increasing vehemence. Most of the remaining novices simply went through the comforting routine of the day, trying to stay sane, aware that the professed were winding themselves up tighter and tighter. Some were better at this than others.
In the middle of this mess, one of the juniors, Sister G, came up for profession. She was controversial not because she was a diva, but because she was so exceptional in her ordinariness. To say that she was physically unattractive is to put it mildly; she knew it, which made her even more awkward, though she tried hard to smooth over the rough edges. She tried too hard, that was part of the problem. When she was still a novice and was coming to novice recreation, many of us inwardly groaned if she began one of her interminable and banal tales; sometimes we failed her badly—and even more our selves and the life we were trying to live—in private when she wasn't there. 
But she was intelligent, she had a good heart, and she was faithful to the life and loyal to the community almost to a fault. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever for her not to be accepted for profession. The unwritten rule was that a person was not received for temporary profession if there were any major doubts about her suitability for final profession. Sometimes people panic after making commitments: the temporary vows gave them some breathing space.
The afternoon of the vote she rejoined the novitiate as we grouped together in the common room, united behind her. No matter how each of us might feel about her personally, we all supported her courage to go forward into the unknown, to commit herself to a community in flux, whose future, financial and otherwise, was uncertain. Being underdogs ourselves, we also supported her as a fellow-traveler. 
From my point of view, this vote was an acid test: if they didn't accept her, then they were not a monastic community but rather a sorority—an attitude which unfortunately had become the norm after the Reformation; it is one of the main causes of the death of religious life. Communities are like ecosystems: they need diversity. If they become mere aggregations of the like-minded, they are doomed.
It would have been totally wrong to turn Sister G down: she had lived her novitiate and her juniorate in sincerity and truth, and with a good heart; she had put up with a lot with great grace. There were no grounds for dismissing her. I had long had the feeling that, as happens far too often in communities, she had been accepted for simple vows simply because everyone was too embarrassed to do otherwise: it had been more of a default than a positive vote, letting the situation slide, putting off addressing it until suddenly they woke up to the fact that this woman was now going to be a permanent, voting member of the community. There was no reason she should not be.
The vote should have been perfunctory, but the Chapter meeting—the sisters who lived in other houses already had voted by mail—dragged on and on. The more time that passed, the more intensely we supported Sister G, who, being no dummy, was acutely aware of the significance of the long wait, becoming more awkward by the moment, while we became more and more supportive. In those hours of waiting with her, we forged a bond that went far deeper than any sense of community we'd had up to that point, and Sister G's courageous attitude made us respect her all the more. The longer we were made to wait, the less our regard for the community of the professed.
Finally she was summoned to the Chapter. After so many hours, our relief and joy was somewhat muted; she burst into tears, then got hold of herself and went off to be received. If she had been turned down, she would have been told privately. Her profession day also was somewhat muted; a decade later, she left the community.
But this was hardly the end of the community's throes. Suddenly the novices were subjected to a battery of tests. One or two of us had studied psychology and knew the tests and their error rates; what were tests going to tell the professed that our years spent living with them had not? We cooperated because we had no choice, challenging the person administering them whenever possible, which person was highly amused instead of being insulted. In any event, testing was not the way to discern a vocation; it was only useful for weeding out extreme mental illness and even then it was not difficult to beat the tests. The testing was, in fact, a kind of displacement activity on the part of the Chapter. Unable to find direction for themselves, they took their frustration out on the novices. All of us came through with flying colours, of course, but the mood in the novitiate was darkening.
Then it was my turn to come up for first profession. I was torn: I knew the life was all I wanted but I also knew that the way it was lived was going to change, and not for the better. Professed were already jumping onto post-Vatican II bandwagons of one sort or another. Sister Q departed for New York City and seminary, having somehow finessed taking the Graduate Record Exam; she was bound and determined to be one of the first women priests whether anyone else thought she was suitable or not. 
Ten years later, when I was doing my second novitiate as a solitary, she wrote to ask if she could come to see me. I was gobsmacked, but I had no reason to say 'no'. We sat in my hermitage; after a silence she said, 'I'm trying to find a place to do my dying.' It turned out that this was more a bit of self-dramatising than an expression of self-knowledge; there was no immediate health crisis, only the intimations of mortality that come with late middle age. She said that she had been ejected by the community—but she was still in vows, so I wasn't quite sure what that meant and didn't ask.
By this time virtually all the people I had known in the community had departed, and the community had changed beyond recognition, of which more later. It became clear that Sister Q hadn't come to see me because she thought I had anything to offer—she still thought she was sui generis and couldn't imagine why anyone would reject, much less eject, her—but rather because she envied my 'alongsider' status while I was waiting for profession, and wanted to finagle something similar for herself. As I had no long-term prospects and, indeed, was to make my solemn and irrevocable vows in a state of homelessness, I was not in a position to offer her much of anything. I had little doubt—and this proved to be true—that her predicament was only a temporary setback. But I offered her what comfort I could, somewhat appalled at the whole situation without quite knowing why, not just her apparently tenuous position in the community, but the fact that she had come to see me at all.
The new novice-mistress, Sister C, was a wonderful Hispanic woman with a great gift of common sense. She hadn't been professed very long, but she had a real knack for understanding what we needed in the context of all the upheaval. We discussed my situation without tension. I realised that I was not in a position to make a decision, that either the community was crazy or I was, and I was pretty sure it wasn't me. She assured me that there was no doubt whatsoever about my vocation, but that given the current state of a foundering community, the future did not look good for someone with a contemplative bent. But there were no other contemplative communities in the Anglican Communion that weren't burdened by the history of having a misogynist male or series of males in their background, or who weren't afflicted with the competitive class-and-manners disease.
I knew I couldn't commit myself, yet I also knew I couldn't leave. Not yet, anyway. I asked for an extension to my novitiate, and, reluctantly—because my family had instilled in me that seeking help was letting the side down—I asked for some therapy, even though I knew the finances of the community were now stretched to the breaking point.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Coming Soon from Cascade Press

     [click on the image to enlarge]

Friday, January 11, 2013

X Why Religious Life Died

When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I was momentarily lost, having rarely found it necessary to go to the professed part of the house, where in any event I would only have been allowed to speak to the superior. But in the heightened mood that now possessed me, I could have located a mouse in a blacked-out mausoleum, much less a force of nature such as Sister Q. 
She had taken over two adjacent cells, using one as her office. She was sitting at her desk, sideways to the door, which was ajar; she pretended to ignore me. I rapped softly, as was the custom, to get her attention. After a moment she looked up to study me, as if I were some loathsome creature that had just crawled out from under a rock. She then motioned me to come in, and gestured towards a chair beside her desk, facing her.
She glared at me for a long moment. Finally, in a voice dripping with contempt, 'What is the meaning of this?'
I met her glare with what I hoped was an adequate version of a basilisk eye, and replied, not caring if she heard the iron—and irony—in my voice: 'She was crying. In the sewing room. I heard her on my way up last night. It would have been cruel to ignore her. They are terrified of you. The professed too.'
Sister Q absorbed this information—and my tone of voice—while a look of consternation crept across her face, replacing her usual rigidly controlled expression. As a headmistress she had been accustomed to receiving the perfunctory accolades, however forced and insincere, that someone in her position is accorded; evidently she had long ago forgotten that the person in authority is always the last to know. She had assumed all her life that she was loved and adored—anything else was inconceivable—that she was smarter than everyone without exception; that she was the exception to all rules; that any problem could be resolved by behavioural conditioning (read manipulation by her). She heretofore had conducted her bullying with impunity.
I continued to meet her stare with cold, concentrated fury—and she blinked first.
'Tell me,' she said.
I gave her a thumbnail sketch of each person in the house (except for Sister Machiavelli, whom she knew from earlier days, and with whom she was already conniving), and described the general atmosphere of quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) chaos. I spared no-one, including myself. One by one her illusions were skewered and deflated. Occasionally she would nod as if to confirm the truth of what I was saying. I did not, of course, know about the superior's sexual adventures, but her erratic and often irrational behaviour, and the dark undercurrent of deceit (there are no secrets in a monastery), had broken through even Sister Q's denial. She had known many of these women a lot longer than I had, but evidently she thought my analysis was not wide of the mark. 
And she also must have seen me as a threat because, when I finally fell silent, all she said was 'I'm making you my secretary'.
I stood up and left, hoping she did not see how badly shaken I was by my own audacity, and wondering what being her secretary could possibly entail. I dreaded being anywhere near her. 'Bad vibes', was a term not yet current in our small world.
As it turned out, being her secretary amounted to not much. The impact of our conversation was that she more or less lost interest in the novices and the community. My best guess is that she had agreed to become novice-mistress because she thought it would be a doddle, that she could ride rough-shod over us the way she always had over everyone else, and get on with her private machinations. But when, after our conversation, it dawned on her that in addition to the in-house problems she would also be required to participate in the community's transition to the brave new world of post-Vatican II religious life, she realised that her tenure was not about to be a quiet little picnic in the country—just another village fête where she would be celebrated and fawned upon—and lost interest.
She would not be the first person in authority to abandon ship  when the going got rough (while retaining membership in the Order and whatever cachet went with that): far in the future, when I was consulting for RC communities, I was to encounter more than one person who was happy to have control of the novices as long as they appeared healthy, were not much trouble, and remained more or less malleable; but who abandoned them as soon as they started falling apart—as novices invariably do—refusing to go with them through the process by which they faced whatever inner demons they harboured and came out the other side, transfigured.
One monk summed up by saying: 'I can see what I have to do to sustain this,' meaning  not only his own benefits from the work of silence, which he had been practicing for six months, but also helping the novices for which he had responsibilty, 'and I don't want to suffer,' the last five words negating his entire vocation. It almost goes without saying that he, like our superior, was engaging in sexual adventures, and had been for years. Neither of these people, as it turned out, had ever really had a proper novitiate in which they learned the basics; each of them had been so formidable that they were allowed to skate through the various steps of initiation with little self-knowledge—and with disastrous consequences.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Environmental Racism

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Monday, January 07, 2013

IX Why Religious Life Died

One of the observances that Sister Q had banged on about at the morning meeting was the observance of silence. She merely assumed, without any evidence, that we had far too many infractions of both the greater and the lesser silence. 
The community at that time still observed the lesser silence in keeping with its more contemplative bent, even though it thought of itself as a 'mixed life' community, combining contemplative and active, but with the provision for a more contemplative way of living for the older professed. The lesser silence was welcome, but the way of keeping it was not. If we were working in the kitchen and had a question, we'd have to write a note, instead of adopting the common-sense option of 'necessary speech' conducted in a low voice. If the question were complicated, the ensuing discussion generated ridiculous quantities of note exchanges, and took up far too much time, often to the detriment of getting meals out at the appointed hours. Sister K was the exception; she would just barge ahead and speak quietly; of course I had no way of knowing if she ever added breaking the lesser silence to her culpa at the professed meeting—I rather doubt it. She had no time for foolishness and affectation.
I wasn't aware that anyone had been particularly talkative in the Great Silence, but then, Sister Q was the sort of person who would have criticised us whether or not the infraction was in fact being committed. Her harangue that morning had the predictable result that during that day, many of the novices and postulants started creeping around as if they were walking on eggshells, reduced to quivering blobs of anxiety. I wasn't one of them. I just got angrier.
The Great Silence that night began, as always, with the beautiful Office of Compline. As I was sacristan at the time, needing to prepare the altar for the morning Eucharist, to turn out lights and blow out candles,  I was the last person out of chapel and walked, as usual through the silent house, checking doors that were supposed to be locked, and making sure lights were out. But as I reached the top of the novitiate staircase, I heard muffled sobbing coming from the direction of the sewing room. Fully aware of what I was doing, but supported by my anger, I quietly opened the door, shut it behind me—and discovered the postulant I had been so worried about, in full flood, trying to suppress her sobs with an old rag.
My appearance made her sob even harder. I asked her what was wrong, and she choked out that she was terrified of Sister Q, and now that I had come in, she would have to confess at culpa the next morning that she had broken the silence both by her weeping and by talking to me. At this point, something in me snapped. I said, don't worry, tomorrow morning you start, and I will break in and take the responsibility. 
I had no idea what Sister Q's reaction would be, but I was determined to rattle her cage. If we couldn't give comfort when it was needed, or, worse, when comfort was needed because of the bullying of a superior, then I didn't particularly care what happened.* I can't remember what else I said, but finally, hesitantly, not really believing that I would do what I said I would do, the postulant calmed down and we went off to our separate cells. Normally after such an event I would have been awake all night, but on this occasion I slept like the proverbial baby.
The next morning, going through the rituals of choir, breakfast, and cleanup, followed by Terce, I could tell from her body language that the poor postulant was at the breaking point. I tried to catch her eye, but she was too wrapped up in misery. After Terce we trooped up the novice stairs to the common room and took our places around the table. I could tell that Sister Q was practically rubbing her hands in anticipation.
By now the postulant was visibly trembling, and tears were pouring down her face. But I couldn't help her: she had to start before I could say anything. Finally she managed to control herself enough to begin, and at the word 'silence', Sister Q's face darkened and she took a deep breath—at which point I broke in and said with vehemence, 'It's entirely my fault. She had nothing to do with it.'
There was a long, long pause while Sister Q contemplated this lèse majesté, and the other novices and postulants regarded me with emotions ranging from horror, to disbelief, to barely-suppressed merriment (Sister Machiavelli). 
Finally, 'You will see me afterwards in my cell.' I gave her a curt nod for my assent, while relief saturated every pore. The hardest part was over. The cycle of fear was broken, not just for me, but for the entire novitiate. Whatever she had in mind, I was ready for her; my big fear had been that when the moment came I would be speechless and my mind would go blank. Now I realised that was not going to happen. Instead, a new feeling took over: I was icily calm—and somehow untouchable.
The rest of the meeting was perfunctory and quickly ended. No one looked at me as we stood up for the final versicle and response, and dispersed. I waited until everyone had departed, took a deep breath, and went down the stairs to Sister Q's cell.

* For those who remember The Nun's Story, this issue about keeping the Great Silence rigidly or speaking to patients in need in the hospital at night was exactly the same; it exposed the sado-masochistic Manichean Tridentine literalism of pre-Vatican II religious life. Another of these moments in both the book and the movie, was Sister Luke's failure to obey the local superior in Leuven, where she was studying tropical medicine, who had ordered her to fail her exam—something the superior did not have the right to ask, should never have asked. In addition, the Superior General's statement towards the end of the film, that—it was significant the way she put this—that the religious life came first and nursing second, was another of the distortions of religious life of the time, the triumph of institutionalism over patristic theology and gospel values. If the Superior General had said 'the love of God must come first' then there would have been no conflict. None of these examples has anything to do with genuine monasticism. As Anthony, the first hermit, said, no matter how solitary you are, your life and your death is with your neighbour, and beyond that, religious life is about living your own truth, not destroying or denying the gifts God has given. Hospitality and welcome in whatever circumstance was always the first rule of the desert, whatever the fast day might be, whatever the solitary's personal rule might be. Charity always comes first, especially if it means comforting someone in the middle of the night.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

VIII Why Religious Life Died

The arrival of Sister Q, as I shall call our new novice mistress, who was also the force of nature behind the splitting off of our community from its hapless parent, threw the entire house into a state of panic. To say that this woman was intimidating is vastly to understate the reality. Perhaps the only two people who were not totally flummoxed by her arrival were the two of us remaining from the Terrible Three: Sister Machiavelli and myself. Sister A had been the cement among us; after she left, Sister Machiavelli and I drifted apart.
Sister Machiavelli, seeing the vacuum in the superior's life after the departure of Sister A, and sensing an ally in the new novice mistress, whom she had known before she came to the community, began to write her own ticket. From this time forward she was no longer really a novice, but in a category by herself, and a law unto herself; she always had been; now there was no longer any reason to hide. She was a very slick operator indeed, as well as being extremely bright and well-educated. She was the most political of political animals, and sashayed her way to life vows, a sure trajectory amid the chaos, even negotiating a return to England—where she soon met, and married, the Prior of a venerable Anglican religious community, much to the scandal of all parties. Although the death-agony of both communities lasted for several decades, it was prove the final blow for the English house; the American house has lingered, much reduced. By the time ex-Sister Machiavelli married the ex-Prior, it was the nineteen-seventies, and nothing was really surprising any longer. But I am getting ahead of the story.
For myself, I was anxious about Sister Q, make no mistake; my anxiety levels, always high, were skyrocketing. But I was also angry, angry that the novices and postulants who had already been through so much, who had so little stability and been subject to so much capricious neglect in their context when they should have had peace and gentle guidance, should be facing what—I suspected from the stories I'd heard—would be hectoring, bullying and humiliation from this woman coming in with her hob-nailed boots to ride rough-shod over the vulnerable. There were some particularly radiant young women in the novitiate at that time, but one or two of them were not at all sophisticated or particularly well educated, and there was one postulant especially who had real strength under her fragility, if only it were allowed to develop slowly, with support and encouragement, and whom I was determined to defend from the dragon's breath if necessary.
Sure enough. Without the smallest gesture of getting to know us, or listening to the situation in the house—which I am sure she had imagined ahead of time into one of her mental laboratory templates on file—she announced her intention to tighten up our observance. This happened at the first morning Chapter of Faults and work assignment meeting at which she presided.
This meeting was a daily occurrence every morning except for Sundays and big feasts. We all sat around a big table in the novitiate, with the novice-mistress at the head, the youngest postulant—youngest by date of entry—on her left, and me, as senior novice, on her right. Beginning with the youngest we would one by one, all twelve of us, kneel and recite our infractions of the Rule. Some of us were more honest than others—or maybe we were just stupid to be so honest, but to us, religious life was still about trying to live some kind of truth. Then we would be given some small penance, a prayer, or a task. After the last of us had recited her culpa, we would get our work assignments, or whatever the novice-mistress thought appropriate.
In recent months, the superior/novice-mistress had hardly thought of us at all, and it was clear that however briefly her body might be present, her mind was elsewhere. She may have presided at the meetings, but after the last culpa she was off like a shot, leaving us more or less to our own devices and long-term assigned work. She was jumpy and irritable—and paranoid, with good reason, given all she had on her plate within the community, and the affairs she was conducting outside of it. She took her tensions out on the people she didn't like, and I was at the top of the list, for reasons I never really understood, but partly, I suspect, because she had been an opera singer, while I had a better voice for chant. I was assigned precentrix duties as soon as I was clothed as a novice—but the assignment was given reluctantly, I could tell. By this time she could hardly bear choir; she even swatted me with the back of her hand in choir, once, for some imagined infraction about which I hadn't a clue. She began to be absent a lot. We, in the interest of self-protection, began to 'assume permission' (and neglect to report it) a lot. She must have been hugely relieved to turn us over to Sister Q.
In the event, Sister Q had it in mind to shape up the troops. She may have had it in mind, but she had no idea what she was dealing with. We were not a bunch of flighty high school girls, giggling in corners, and she was not our headmistress. We were women of varying maturity who had fought hard to get to the monastery and had been, for the most part, badly let down by a community in flux, many of whose members really didn't understand why they were living the way they were; some of whom were, frankly, mad; and some of whom were all too anxious, for all the wrong reasons, to take advantage of the upheaval—it was by now the mid-sixties—sweeping through the churches and through the world. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year

When we abandon the natural world we abandon our humanity.

From today's Guardian [phrases in italics are links in the original]:

2012: the year we did our best to abandon the natural world | George Monbiot | Comment is Free | The Guardian

     It was the year of living dangerously. In 2012 governments turned their backs on the living planet, demonstrating that no chronic problem, however grave, will take priority over an immediate concern, however trivial. I believe there has  been no worse year for the natural world in the past half-century.
     Three weeks before the minimum occurred, the melting of the Arctic's sea ice broke the previous record. Remnants of the global megafauna—such as rhinos and bluefin tuna—were shoved violently towards extinction. Novel tree diseases raged across continents. Bird and insect numbers continued to plummet, coral reefs retreated, marine life dwindled. And those charged with protecting us and the world in which we live pretended that none of it was happening.
     Their indifference was distilled into a great collective shrug at the Earth Summit in June. The first summit, 20 years before, was supposed to have heralded a new age of environmental responsibility. During that time, thanks largely to the empowerment of corporations and the ultra-rich, the square root of nothing has been achieved. Far from mobilising to address this, in 2012 the leaders of some of the world's most powerful governments—the US, the UK, Germany and Russia—didn't even bother to turn up.
     But they did send their representatives to sabotage it. The Obama administration even sought to reverse commitments made by George Bush Sr in 1992. The final declaration was a parody of inaction. While the 190 countries that signed it expressed "deep concern" about the world's escalating crises, they agreed no new targets, dates or commitments, with one exception. Sixteen times they committed themselves to "sustained growth",  a term they used interchangeably with its polar opposite, "sustainability".
     The climate meeting in Doha at the end of the year produced a similar combination of inanity and contradiction. Governments have now begun to concede, without evincing any great concern, that they will miss their target of no more than 2C of global warming this century. Instead, we're on track for between four and six degrees. To prevent climate breakdown, coal burning should be in steep decline. Far from it: the International Energy Agency reports that global use of the most carbon-dense fossil fuel is climbing by about 200m tonnes a year. This helps to explain why global emissions are rising so fast.
     Our leaders now treat climate change as a guilty secret. Even after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and the record droughts and wildfires that savaged the US, the two main presidential contenders refused to mention the subject, except for one throwaway sentence each. Has an issue this big ever received as little attention in a presidential race?
     The same failures surround the other forces of destruction. In 2012 European governments flunked their proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which is perfectly designed to maximise environmental damage. The farm subsidies it provides are conditional on farmers destroying the vegetation (which also means the other wildlife) on their land. We pay €55bn a year to trash the natural world.
     This contributes to what I have come to see as a great global polishing: a rubbing away of ecosystems and natural structures by the intensification of farming, fishing, mining and other industries. Looking back on this year a few decades hence, this destruction will seem vastly more significant than any of the stories with which the media is obsessed. Like governments, media companies have abandoned the living world.
     In the UK in 2012, the vandals were given the keys to the art gallery. Environmental policy is now in the hands of people—such as George Osborne, Owen Paterson, Richard Benyon and Eric Pickles—who have no more feeling for the natural world than the Puritans had for fine art. They are busy defacing the old masters and smashing the ancient sculptures.
     They have lit a bonfire of environmental regulations, hobbled bodies such as Natural England and the Environmental Agency and ensured that the countryside becomes even more of an exclusive playground for the ultra-rich, unhampered by effective restraints on the burning of grouse moors, the use of lead shot, the killing of birds of prey and the spraying of pesticides that are wiping out our bees and other invertebrates.
     In the same spirit, the government has reduced the list of possible marine conservation zones from 127 to 31. Even those 31 will be protected in name only: the fishing industry will still be allowed to rampage through them. A fortnight ago, the UK lobbied successfully for quotas of several overexploited fish species to be raised, while pouring scorn on the scientific evidence that shows this is madness.
     George Osborne has done the same thing to the UK's climate change policies. Though even the big power companies oppose him,  he is seeking to scrap or delay our targets for cutting carbon emissions and to ensure that we remain hooked on natural gas as our primary source of power. The green investment bank which was supposed to have funded the transition to new technologies is the only state bank in Europe that is forbidden to borrow. It might as well not be there at all.
    If there is hope, it lies with the people. Opinion polls show that voters do not support their governments' inaction. Even a majority of Conservatives believe that the UK should generate most of its electricity from renewables by 2030. In the US, 80% of people polled now say that climate change will be a serious problem for their country of nothing is done about it: a substantial rise since 2009. The problem is that most people are not prepared to act on these beliefs. Citizens, as well as governments and the media, have turned their faces away from humanity's greatest problem.
     To avoid another terrible year like 2012, we must translate these passive concerns into a mass mobilisation. Groups such as show how it might be done. If this annus horribilis tells us anything, it is that action, in the absence of such mobilisation, is simply not going to happen. Governments care only as much as their citizens force them to care. Nothing changes unless we change.

Twitter: @georgemonbiot

* A fully referenced version of this article can be found at