Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What We've Learned—and Have Yet to Learn—from Monasticism


It's striking, really.

It's at least a thousand years ago that the work of theology began to shift from the monastery's cloister to the halls of schools. For us in the west, there's now no question: theology means classrooms and degrees. And yet, all these centuries later, so many of those doing the work of theology still feel a pull that's hard to describe. We dust off a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain, we find ourselves at rest in a spare, stone abbey chapel somewhere, or maybe we have the good luck to receive spiritual direction from someone who knows the great monastic traditions. In any case, when we go back to our busy lives, a quiet voice remains. And although we may not speak of it at all, the monastery shapes the theological work we do.

Even beyond the individual experiences of individual theologians, I think we see certain larger impulses that hearken back, that mark the ongoing, silent presence of the monastery. In the loud and disorienting world of contemporary theology, when more and more of the work is done by those living in "the real world" (read: the world of car payments and and kids and committee meetings), certain elements appear and reappear as reminders of a very different world. Monasticism is still teaching us some foundational truths...

Theology flows from, and culminates in, prayer. We know these two are interwoven in the larger reality of the Church, but we feel the immediate, concrete way in which prayerin all its many formsbelongs with reading, writing, studying, and teaching. In the midst of it all, we know that this funds and informs what we are trying to do. 

Theology requires our whole selves, our whole lives. Others may see theology only as an "interest" we have, as a hobby, as a job, or even as a career. We know better. Even those of us who never made solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience can feel the way in which the reality we approach in theology does indeed make demands not only on our minds and souls, but on our bodies, our wallets, our lives.

We are marked by encounter with what exceeds us. In Book Nine of his Confessions, Augustine describes the moment, when, in conversation with his mother, he is transported beyond the physical world. Being pulled toward God in love means a silencing of created things"tongues' and "signs" and transient things"that allows him to hear what they actually say: "We did not make ourselves." Even if we haven't quite had a vision like Augustine's, the heart of the monastic experience is to know the same is true of us. We have not, we do not, make ourselves. Even as we pursue the tasks demanded of usattending or teaching classes, writing or grading papers, trying to understand theological ideas—that unnerving and healing reality is never fully forgotten.

These and other monastic markings that remain with us. On the other hand, it seems to me that there is monastic wisdom yet to be learned. Our particular moment waits for us to remember other forms of unnerving and healing insight.

Many of us are familiar with that great foundational order of monastics, the Benedictines. But it is their offspring, the Cistercians, that have me thinking since I began to visit a community of Cisterican nuns near my home. The Cistercians claim for themselves the charism of a life that is "ordinary, obscure, and laborious." In the next three posts, the implications of this Cistercian vocation for theologians, considered.

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