Thoughts from Trappist Monks
“How do you feel about the world around you? Do you feel like grappling with the world in all its complexity would be difficult?
As regards “grappling” with the world, in its present state, I will frankly confide to you two very personal vulnerabilities which would make living outside the cloister very difficult for me. First is my impression of the general formlessness of life in America today. So many people today live without a coherent language, symbol system, tradition, or rituals to give concrete expression to what they believe and so speak of seeking “happiness,” “contentment, “light,” “fulfillment”… The abstract formlessness of how Americans talk about matters of ultimate concern wearies me deeply.
The other is the loneliness that characterizes life in America today. Mother Theresa, visiting the U.S. for the first time in the 70s, said she had never seen poverty like what she saw here and she meant the loneliness of Americans. The breakdown and relinquishment of shared value systems and traditions, has left individuals adrift in a private search for God and meaning. This is a terribly lonely way to live. In America, loneliness can become like the blueness of the sky. After a while, people don’t think about it anymore.
Out of curiosity, do the monks in the cloister watch the daily news? Are you interested in cultural changes in the world?
Father A: The motivation is to focus our hearts and attention on the Truth of God that resides at the center of our being and is supremely Simple. (While living at Walden, a visitor one day asked Henry David Thoreau did he read the story in the paper about the man in Concord who committed suicide. “I don’t need to read the story”, he answered, “I understand the principle.”) We do not watch television and so would not have access to the daily news, but do keep informed about important developments such as the financial crisis, by means of newspapers.
I wonder if a lot of the cultural complexity you refer to seems interesting to people because they have lost so much consciousness of [their] ancestors and the long view afforded by a knowledge of history. If you don’t know history, everything today can seem quite novel. But in the larger context of the story of human history, much of what fascinates, today, is quite redundant. There is, for example, nothing “new” about the “New Atheism.” You see it heralded as complicating our world in a challenging and refreshing way, but its claims were much more intelligently pressed in the past and rejected by our ancestors. It is astonishing to me that, after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, and China, people can speak of the experiment with radical secularism as if it were “breaking news.” Been there, done that.
Father B: I worry and pray about world poverty, overpopulation, consumerism, the moral bankruptcy of laissez-faire capitalism, the polarized, simplistic “thinking” in our country; about the public face and stupid blunders of the Catholic Church, about politicians who capitalize on religion; about veterans, war refugees, migrant workers; about people in jail (I used to do intervention work in the Criminal Justice System and in the inner city) and people with no meaning in their lives. I didn’t come here to get out of the real world but to get perspective on the real world.
I still believe that intentional community, communal ownership and a community of goods is a viable human endeavor, but I look for no utopia. My faith could not survive without engaging the concretely realities of human experience. My faith is forged in that collision. I find the here-and-now of vital importance, but not ultimate importance. It’s important because it is ephemeral; this moment is here and gone. How I respond to it is the vital question. Do I respond to it from my deepest values? that’s the important thing for me and the reality of my faith.”