Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Laborious Theology

Here, a final look at the question I've posed: what would it mean for theologians to learn from the Cistercian commitment to an "ordinary, obscure, and laborious" life? In this third meditation, specifically, how (and why?) might theologians seek to be "laborious"?

Perhaps we should admit at the beginning that there hardly seems to be a need to address this at all. Despite the continued perceptions that those involved in study and teaching aren't "really working," most of the theologians I know are incredibly busy. Class preparation, reading, writing, meetings with professors, meetings with students, job applications, tenure applications, work connected with conferences and the larger guild, email, committee meetings, collaborations of various forms, Facebook, and a thousand other projects—almost all of them very worthwhile. I myself have now begun to participate in the following ritual of greeting: "How are you?" "Busy!" "Right!" [exchange of wan, knowing smiles]

There is only one problem here. The Cistercians have not urged us to be "busy," but rather to be "laborious." And discerning the distinction between the two makes all the difference. Great spiritual masters have long spoken of simplicity, focus, an inner unity of purpose that marks the movement toward holiness. It is, in other words, the very opposite of distractedness, dividedness, and confusion. It is the opposite of "busy."

This is not to say, of course, that the one who labors does so effortlessly. As is often noted, this word for "work" is also the word we use for bringing a baby into the world. Surely we all know that this involves a little effort, and—almost always—suffering. As those who have experienced "good labor" can attest, though, this effort and suffering can be attended by a profound sense of focus and of purpose. Indeed, in moments of intense pain, the greatest danger is to lose that sense of purpose. Working  hard accomplishes much good, and even accomplishes good in us, but this is only truly insofar as it is ordered in this way.

So, just a practical question to bring this little meditation to its end. What would it mean for you, theologian-budding-theologian-or-hopeful-theologian, to work very hard in the good and worthwhile vocation with which you have been blessed, but not to be busy? Would it mean  simply taking on fewer projects? Would it mean, coming full circle, to anchor your work in silence and prayer? Is there a way to do very much the same tasks you are doing now, but with a quite different inner reality?

"Laborious" and "busy" may, after all, look similar in many ways. They may, however, indicate the dividing line between vocations of completely different kinds. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Obscure Theology

The monastery, I've suggested, is a powerful reality that can direct those doing the work of theology toward great goods like silence and prayer. It may be worth it, in fact, to turn even to less well known monastic ideals. The Cistercians, for example, seek a life that is "ordinary, obscure, and laborious." What might these sorts of commitments mean for theologians?

Having pondered a bit the first of thesewhat it might mean for theologians not only to tolerate, but to embrace, what is "ordinary"what might we say about the second? Theologians should seek obscurity? Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but could academic theology really need to be any more obscure than it already is?

Surely, though, the point here is not that we should seek to do work that no one can understand. We better understand the call to obscurity when we see it in the context of the whole monastic life.  This is a path of radical unmooring from every form of reassurance and distraction. Poverty means letting go of the basic means by which we sustain and steer our lives. Chastity in a sense cuts even deeper, setting aside marriage and family and some of the deepest joys that belong to this life, not to mention a sense of natural legacy. Obedience, in a way, subsumes them all, insisting, "Your life is not your own."  The call to obscurity, we might say, focuses this renunciation in a very specific direction. Here is a call to give up not marriage or money or power but recognition. (Or, as you will, pick a similar description: "honor," "glory," "fame," "the praise of others"...)

That towering intellect, St. Augustine, saw this clearly. Augustine was a philosopher, after all. Palatial houses, worldly power, bacchanalian entertainment: all of these, he could see right through. But praise from others, and in particular, praise for his intellectual achievements...  there, he knew his own weaknesses too well.  (Augustine, in the end, of course, seeks a doxological cure. Here's a reason to re-read the Confessions: think through it all as an extended essay on the sinsick and salutary possibilities surrounding praise.)

Now, no doubt, wise reader, you have a whole set of questions rising immediately in your mind. Can this really be a call steadfastly to avoid all recognition? Isn't it, after all, precisely excellence in academic pursuit that elicits recognition in the first place? Should we hide our thoughts, our writings, from our companions and colleagues and from a broader readership, in order to avoid the possibility that they might judge them to be, say, good—and that they might say so?

But if you are asking these questions, then we are already having the conversation that must take place. There are no simple answers, as the monastics themselves knew. You need look no further than certain communities of Benedictines, who, having vowed poverty, then established themselves in quiet, disciplined forms of industry and production... and fairly promptly began to grow rich. Or, think of the complicated discernment that any religious order must undertake in order actually to live its vows. Even the most primitive Franciscans, after all, have never quite followed their founder in removing all their clothes. (When I think of my new, Franciscan colleague stepping into his Intro-to-Theology classroom this fall, the wisdom in this choice appears anew.) Even as they seek to live the counsels of perfection, Christians face the messy reality of life in this world: a rich and complicated path of seeking many, distinct goods.  

So, it may be that, just as the Franciscan comes to own a habit or two, we theologians sometimes deal in praise. The collective wisdom of the monastery, though, urges care. Seeing the complexity doesn't mean ignoring the danger. The radical, reforming impulses of the monastery insist that we can never simply go unthinkingly along with the way everyone around us does it. At the very least, theologianswho often note with both frustration and a hint of self-satisfaction their relative lack of wealth or secular power—would do well to keep one eye on that which may tempt them most of all. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ordinary Theology

If monastic wisdom informs, in certain ways,  the work of theology, it is nevertheless the case that there is much more to learn.

On my first visit to Mount Saint Mary's Abbey with my students, one element of the sisters' corporate life, in particular, left us all unnerved. Even after we had joined in their beautiful liturgy and sampled their unbelievably good chocolate candy, we all left with the same thought--"I could never do this"—and for the same reason.  

It happened after Sr. Karen had explained a bit about the community's daily life: rise at 3am, pray, eat, pray, work, pray, eat, pray, and so on until it was finally time for bed at 8pm. We had already begun to soak in the rhythm of it all: regular as clockwork, unhurried as the ages. Then, one of the students casually asked how often the sisters left the abbey for outings. Sister paused, and she did mention one or two exceptions—one of the sisters might have to go to the hospital, someone was assigned to purchase groceries—but, of course, in a cloistered community, the answer for most was clearly something very close to "never." Their property runs to a square mile or two, and that is where the sisters live out these absolutely regular days, as the weeks stretch into years, and years into decades. Even if I had known it intellectually, I was almost knocked flat in absorbing this reality right along with my students. These sisters did not follow their rule in anticipation of a weekend or a vacation or a leave. The horizon of their lives was exactly what we saw: their rule and their place.

The Cistercians speak of living of intentionally seeking a life that is "ordinary, obscure, and laborious." The very first in this triad was exactly what my students and I encountered. In our bones, we could feel the life that the sisters describe as their vocation: resisting the lure of everything special, exciting, unusual, they face head-on the temptation to distraction and to entertainment. They choose, by God's grace,  instead to sink themselves deep, and deeper, into in the rhythm of their rule. Ordered and ordinary.

They do insist, I should say, that once they have committed to their rule and their place, they experience it as a wide and spacious world. "In monastic life," writes Sr. Katie of Mount Saint Mary's, "one is led out into the desert where there is no place to hide... The horizons stretch as far as the eye can see, allowing hearts to expand on the journey towards the God..." It is clear, though, that this freedom is found not in turning aside from the ordinary, but by giving themselves to it completely.

What would it mean, I wonder, for those of us engaged in theology, to take a commitment of this kind to heart? What would it mean, in both our study and our teaching, for us to count orderedness and ordinariness as deep wisdom? We have our own rhythms—weeks and semesters and years—and we certainly have our own work, which can seem as tedious as any. What would it mean not simply to get through these, or to look to novelty or distraction? What might it mean for us to cling to the ordinary, and to consider, it, even, the possible path to the salvation of our souls?

In the world of a thousand innovations, and schools, and movements, ordinary theology may be what we need most of all.

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.