Saturday, September 29, 2012

Inward/Outward: New Monastic Spirituality

Inward/Outward: New Monastic Spirituality
Rev. Ron Robinson, at Unitarian Universalist Church of Stillwater, OK  Sept. 30, 2012

 Text: Mark 9: 49-50
Next June, the General Assembly of the UUA of Congregations will convene in Louisville. Near the Convention Center is an intersection of Fourth and Mohammed Ali Boulevard, what once was called Walnut Ave. There is a monument there to an event that happened on March 18, 1958, at that intersection, when the great Catholic mystic prophetic Zen Buddhist inspired social justice peace and civil rights activist poet monk Thomas Merton  had a famous epiphany some 17 years after he had entered the monastery near Louisville.  

It was an epiphany of a connection between the interior life and the outside world; it was about the very incarnation of an Eternal Spirit in each and every one and thing; it was an erasing of what we tend to think of as separate sacred space and time and vocation and secular space and time and vocation.

About it, he wrote: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, “spiritual men,” men of interior life, what have you. [I will break in here to say that for the monastic life, substitute the religious life, or maybe worship, and also substitute the activist life, or for a growing number of people who walk neither a worship path or social action path, substitute the consumer life]. Merton goes on:

“….though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous.

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: “Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.” To think that for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God…became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

“This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions… My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. "

Merton’s epiphany was an expression of being “salted with fire,” what the writer of the Gospel of Mark alluded to milennia before in a text that is part of the weekly readings for today in churches of many kinds. Our hymnal responsive reading tags it onto the Beatitudes, in a way that points us to how the Beatitudes themselves are not just about other people and other conditions, but also about cultivating our own spiritual depths, finding the blessings awaiting always for us regardless of the kind of day we are having. In Mark the text reads: “For everyone will be salted with fire.50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” I am reminded that a book of essays on Unitarian Universalist Evangelism that came out in the 90s used that phrase for its title: Salted With Fire. Signalling that if we want to grow, if we want to have something worth sharing with others, we need to season ourselves.  

Seasoning also has the meaning of the kind of wisdom, the kind of patience and non-anxious or peaceful presence that comes from experiences of action and reflection on that action over the seasons. It is the kind of conditioning of the soul that is able to hold the sufferings of others and of one’s own life and still be able to be a comfort to others, to be in the world.

Back home in our low income low life expectancy community on the northside of Tulsa we are known as a very small but externally oriented, mission to and with others focused, inside-out church. I have preached here before about all we do incarnating our values in the community, and I have to say that what we do, or have a hand and heart in doing just keeps multiplying exponentially. (I would be amiss not to mention our online contest….the nonprofit selected to represent Oklahoma in 50 States For Good contest….)…But I want today to talk about a vision not just for a missional community, but what is emerging onto the new religious landscape even among progressives, lastly among progressives often, as new missional monasticism.

Those two terms, missional and monastic, should really not be seen as opposites but as being carried within the other, the way inhaling and exhaling are two sides of breathing. They are the ends of the spectrum of church itself. And ought also to be the ends as in the aims. And yet, So much of what we do in church is to stay away from the poles, the ends of the spectrum, which is where the energy really is like in the two poles of a Jacob’s ladder, and instead we keep to the middle, playing at missional, playing at monastic, studying both the mystic and the prophetic without embodying either, under the pretense that we are keeping them in balance… but we are too often simply avoiding both by allowing ourselves to be distracted by the noise of the drama and busyness and activity of the day, remaining on the surface of life instead going deeply inward and instead of going adventurously outward.

Merton ‘s life is an example of one who learned to go inward and outward, and how he intentionally lived on the edges of things and movements and places even; even in the monastery he eventually moved from the common house to a hermitage on the acreage, and yet at the same time his social action increased; on the edges, he allowed the inner and outer life to nourish one another.  In a time of cold and hot wars he was on the front lines for peace, even reminding the peace movement how it too often took on the characteristics of the Empire at war; in a time and place of segregation, he was an early ally in the struggle for civil rights; he was a monk born in Europe and formed as an adult in the United States and became steeped in the traditions of his faith community but he fully engaged with Asian religions and was known as a Zen Christian and was an early proponent of Christian Buddhist mutual understanding and transformation; all the while he was cultivating and sharing a deep journey into the soul.

Of course where does one begin? In Merton’s case he rooted himself in a physical place of the interior life and let it motivate him outward; in a case like Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement and Houses of Hospitality, she grounded herself in a physical place of mission with the poor and let it motivate her inward to her own soul’s residence. But each set their life to reflecting both the inward and outward expressions of what it meant for them to be a person of faithfulness.

In his “Book of Hours” for daily prayer, Merton wrote this lesson that sums up for me much of life and the life of our churches, our institutions, and it also reflects too much the lives of the ones who live in constant struggle for simple daily life, and the lives of the ones who connect with them and seek to love them. He wrote:

“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to the limit and to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products of our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest… There is [however] a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it. Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite thinking, not entirely responding, but we are more or less there.  We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are “part of something”—although we are not quite able to define what that something is—and probably wouldn’t want to define it even if we could. We just float along in the general noise.”

What I seek is to quit floating in the general noise, and to go to the depths and up to the heights where Love breaks open in every breath.

Like Merton, like his fellow Catholic Peter Maurin who founded with Dorothy Day the Catholic Worker social justice movement and who said “The problem is those who think don’t act, and those who act don’t think”, like them we are discovering and envisioning the power of a peaceful prayerful presence conducted in what are called the Abandoned Places of Empire, those places like ours where the realtors don’t want to take you if you have any money at all to spend on a house, those places in the city where pizza deliveries aren’t made, those places where you often end up if you can’t end up anywhere else, at least according to the values of the Marketplace.

We are finding that one of the most important things we can do in our neighborhoods, moreso even than giving out tons of food each week and working to seed and nurture renewal projects, as vital as those still are, what we are finding especially as a way to enter into relationship with neighbors, is to give out also a sense of Sabbath, a respite from the struggles of the drama in people’s lives that keep them on treadmills of not thinking they have enough—of things, safety, friendship, love, forgiveness, hope—never enough to be able to share themselves with others.

We are finding truth in one of the maxims of the missional movement in religion that your priority is not to focus on projects but on people. Over and over, when we and our community are tested, we are reminded that our main task is simply (but oh how difficult at times) to live in such a way that our love for neighbors show, that we learn, as Merton did in his epiphany, to see the sun shining through them and ourselves, that we see even those who vex us in many ways as part of the Divine and Everlasting Life. A new mantra we took from a leader of the new monastic movement, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, for those times and with those people is “Christ, it’s you again.”

 Bearing in mind as Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, so many people kill community in the desire to create it; by loving their idea of community more than the actual persons who make up the community. And we are finding, and are hoping to embody as we turn toward the next chapter of our community’s history, the ancient truths that now we have taken the first move of locating ourselves among the ones others leave, that spending time with ourselves, alone and continually with one another and any who care to come by, in silence and common prayer and attention to Creation, will do as much for our part of the world as those amazing endeavors will that keep presenting themselves to us. Living a life in a spirit of abundance in a community of scarcity is The Project, is the curriculum, from which all else flows. Especially when intentionally owned by us.

To nurture that spirit of abundance, in all the diversity that it inherently contains, will come in many forms for us—gardening devotion praying in the dirt, praying the hours of the day and night with a common liturgy, eating together and celebrating and sharing life’s stories, counseling one another and teaching one another and risking and failing and being picked up by one another as we serve others, taking a break from one another too, welcoming others and suffering the changes that come.

A peaceful presence who has influenced my life, and the life of our free church movement, someone who embodies much of this synching of the inward and outward growth of the Soul, is the Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus of one of our historic Boston churches and receipient of the highest award the UUA bestows. Among his many publications, Carl has a book entitled Never Far From Home, a collection of his short radio segments on Boston radio each week. One of those mini-essays captures this vision I feel emerging in many places among us. There is even a facebook group exploring UU monastic possibilities; it comes up often at retreats and revivals and not just among the Christians and Buddhists among us, though we in the UUCF are talking with the UUBF about ways in Louisville at GA to jointly commemorate the influence of Merton, and who knows what actions might emerge from it. They are many who, as Carl Scovel titled his radio address, are “Hungry For Life With God.” Let me close with his vision.

He writes:

In the last year I’ve been reading books by and about monks and nuns, men and women who have left city hall, the college, the hospital, the law office, the lab, and the church, left their apartments and friends and clubs and sandlot softball teams and gone to live with other refugees from civilization, sometimes in a desert, sometimes on a mountain, sometimes in a suburb, sometimes even in a city. These men and women moved to abbeys in part because they felt uneasy with the way they lived in mainstream society. But they moved in part because they hungered for life with God in community with others. The representative of these men and women whom we know best in this country is probably Thomas Merton. New books of his appear each year; old ones are republished regularly. The monks and nuns I’ve met were no such distinguished writers. Most of them left no literary legacy. Many left only a few sentences and two or three reported conversations. A few wrote a great deal. I read their words early in the morning before I read the newspapers.

After studying the words from these monks and nuns, the daily newspapers, with their dull and daily retelling of the ancient themes of greed, fear, cruelty, violence, conflict, and occasionally some touching tale of kindness or wisdom, seem curiously unimportant. I have come to doubt the answer to the world’s problems will come from academics, senators, presidents, bureacrats, lecturers, and workshop leaders. I have come to believe that what we must know in order to survive as humankind will be found in abbeys, monasteries, and hermitages. Rene Descartes said that all the ills of humankind come from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone for one hour. Now that’s simplistic, isn’t it?

Look at the immense problems of global warming, economic injustice, oppressed minorities of race and class and gender, ethnic rivalries, overpopulation, vanishing forests and ozone layer, rising tides and temperatures---I could go on and on. And you could say with some assurance that no simple solution can be found.

Why do I say abbeys are the keys to our survival? Because they have much to teach us. People who live in these abbeys must practice three things: solitude, simplicity, and community. Solitude: a life with God; Simplicity: a life with few things; Community: a life with people. In all three cases one must devote one’s life to not being the center of the universe. In solitude we let God direct our lives. In simplicity we use only what we need. Through compassion, we give ourselves to others.

No monk, no nun, no human being can teach perfection, but we can try to live this kind of life. The intention, not the accomplishment, makes this life a saving life. Dour as it may sound to us, that life has brought deep happiness to millions of people around the world through countless centuries.  I speak as one to whom this monastic life makes more and more sense. I do not intend to join a monastery. I do not intend to move to a mountain, wilderness, or desert. My question is: How does one live this life in the city, in society, in the midst of the madness of civilization? How can we live these values in the midst of the world? I doubt that God calls us all to abbeys, but I believe that God calls us all to solitude, simplicity, and community. It’s strange to think that the abbeys might save the world, but we have trusted stranger thoughts than this.”

We are still finding our way toward such a vision and a calling, both as a movement and in our case on a very local two mile area….We are learning all the time we are serving, serving all the time we are worshipping. What I know is that the more we plant ourselves outside of what we have defined as ourselves, in the lives and neighborhoods of those different in many ways from us, the more we are pulled deep within to prayer and worship in order to sustain ourselves for mission; and the more we dwell in the silence and peacefulness of being a part of a blessed Creation, the more we touch and grow that inner silent self of which Merton spoke, the more we have to offer others in need and the more we see that life with them and for them is the path of our own healing, because, as Merton’s epiphany revealed, our inner silent Self is at heart a  communal relational Self, as is God’s very Self, ever opening up to embrace the whole of the world, even us.


steveoftulsa said...

Ron, excellent stuff. You are speaking to some questions I've been trying to formulate for myself. You are really on to something here, and I look forward to hearing/reading more about it. One question I've learned to ask of late, in trying to understand how one lives a "monastic" life without being in constant retreat (or hide-out) is something like: "Is what am I about to say going to improve on the silence?" I find I am much more at home in company when I keep asking that question. You are enticing me up to Turley. I cannot come often and am never sure when might be the best time. We shall see.

Ron said...

Thanks. It is slowly emerging here too but the basic approach of locating missional and then taking an attitude of presence, solitude, peace, and prayer within this location and the missional work makes good missional sense too, i am learning. But oh the discipline it takes.