It’s time to conclude these musings and, as I mentioned at the end of the last post, this entry will address three questions. The questions were posed by three participants at the Merton celebration and, I hope, will be relevant to our readers. Of course, I have to take responsibility for the responses. Thomas Merton was in no position to field these questions; but the month between the anniversary gathering and now has given me time to locate a few quotes.
This conclusion will be in three parts, published as three posts–enough to occupy us till the new year.
One woman asked, isn’t this also relevant to people who are not monks? Can’t believers who lead normal lives in society, raise a family and hold down a job live this spirituality? Of course the answer is yes. Basil the Great, the theologian of the Holy Spirit, the Bishop of Caesarea was also the superior on a monastic community intimately involved in the life of his local Church. Part of his influence in the Orthodox East was to establish monastic asceticism as the norm for Orthodox spirituality for the entire Church, laity included. Not that married Christians would exercise those values in the same way as monks and nuns, but the vows of Poverty, Chasity and Obedience would impact and shape the lives of all the faithful.
If this monastic spirituality is basically a desert spirituality. Contemporary Orthodox spiritual writer, Fr. John Chryssavgis, in his In the Heart of the Desert: the Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, believes that this experience of faith is not limited to monastics.
It is the clear understanding of these elders that one does not have to move to the geographical location of the wilderness in order to find God. Yet, if you do not have to go to the desert, you do have to go through the desert. The desert Fathers and Mothers always speak from their experience of the desert, even if they do not actually come out of that desert. The desert is a necessary stage on the spiritual journey. To avoid it would be harmful. To dress it up or conceal it may be tempting; but it also proves destructive in the spiritual path.
Ironically, you do not have to find the desert in your life; it normally catches up with you. Everyone does go through the desert, in one shape or another. It may be in the form of some suffering, or emptiness, or breakdown, or breakup, or divorce, or any kind of trauma that occurs in our life. Dressing up the desert through our addictions or attachments–to material goods, or money, or food, or drink, or success, or obsessions or anything else we may care to turn toward or may find available to depend upon–will delay the utter loneliness and the inner fearfulness of the desert experience.
I think that provides concrete illustrations of the desert and the darkness that Merton described. This is what we need to appropriate as the ground, the environment of that sort of prayer that is an authentic relationship with God. This is the context that we must not evade; we cannot afford to turn prayer into an escape from all this.
Clearly, any human life has this agenda; it is not reserved to monks or nuns. It is interesting to me to learn how many people presume that a monastic life shields nuns and monks from all that; yet it is our common ground. Our monastic culture can support appropriating the desert we pass through as essential to building our relationship with God. Yet it cannot guarantee that a monk or nun will do that. We can safeguard being more likely to respond appropriately by being accountable to someone. If we have that accountability to the superior, it has to then be more than a formal, juridical relationship with the superior; I’d have to risk a genuine vulnerability.
But it doesn’t have to be the religious superior, so this spirituality is not limited to monastics. Even in the monastery, it can be a “spiritual friend”, a spiritual guide, someone to accompany me, a confessor, a wise old man or woman. I know such people don’t grow on trees for the picking but they do exist. It may take a search and much prayer. In my own experience, I find such people are there not too soon, but never too late. By my standards, it may seem too late until I have actually been interacting with him/her and realize in retrospect that I was wrong. Perhaps God knew I needed to stand on my own two feet for a while and unlearn a certain passivity; or I needed to be healed of my blindness or prejudices because the right person was there all along and I couldn’t see it. Perhaps I needed to persevere in prayer to discover what has been lacking in my relationship with God–or myself. The search for a spiritual guide or spiritual support, accompaniment, is as fruitful as finding that person.
to be continued