Thursday, January 31, 2019

"Does the silence scare you?"

rustypickup put me on to this in comments.  The opening passages, the discussion of the "paradox" of Merton the loquacious monk in an order devoted to silence, made me think of Julian of Norwich, and the idea of the anchorite.  The idea of the anchorite is a very medieval one; it didn't survive the period it arose in, unlike even the extreme disciplines of the Trappists at Gethsemani.  The anchorite "died" to the world; he (usually she, however) went through a funeral service before entering the cell she would spend her life in.  For Julian that was something of a double passage, as she suffered an illness that took her to the brink of death and provided the experience for her Shewings, an experience she meditated on for the rest of her days.  but her cell was not the hollow of a tree somewhere deep in the forest, or in an obscure spot far from human dwellings:  it was in the chapel.  The anchorite could, from her cell, participate in the celebration of the Mass, and could also receive requests from parishioners and offer spiritual counseling to them.  There was no vow of silence, but the ritual funeral was meant to impress upon her death to an old life, and resurrection into a life wholly devoted to God.  Sort of like this:

In addition to his obligations to the community, Merton would always be involved in extensive correspondence with readers. Throughout his life at Gethsemani, he received international visitors seeking his opinions and advice, and he fielded frequent requests for books and articles from New York editors and publishers.

He befriended writers, scholars and prominent religious figures from around the world with whom he would correspond, and some of them would come to Gethsemani. The Trappists, too, looked to him to write religious histories and commentary. The pressures and demands of the writing life were enough to send him dreaming of a hermitage.

The hermitage would truly be a place others would have to seek out.  The anchorite was always accessible (if not always immediately available).

Monastic life is a radical reorientation that questions the priorities valued by the world beyond its walls, but the world also challenges the monastery and is inextricable from it in many ways.

Pondering the practice of the anchorite shows us this challenge is as old as religious devotion itself.  The martyrdom of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles questions the priorities valued by the world, but it is the world that challenges the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, forcing the gospel writers to explain how it is a beginning and not an end, forcing the church to establish doctrines explaining what it means (the idea of the atoning sacrifice wasn't settled until the 4th century, and still faces legitimate, IMHO, challenges today). The individual may challenge the world's priorities, but the world insists on an explanation that doesn't mark the individual as simply lunatic.  There has to be a paradox involved in the sacrifice, else the sacrifice is simply misguided at best, a dangerous example at worst.

Merton's words, which make me think even more of the ancient role of the anchorite:

The contemplative life is not, and cannot be, a mere withdrawal, a pure negation, a turning of one’s back on the world with its sufferings, its crises, its confusions and its errors … The monastic community is deeply implicated, for better or for worse, in the economic, political, and social structures of the contemporary world. To forget or to ignore this does not absolve the monk from responsibility for participation in events in which his very silence and ‘not knowing’ may constitute a form of complicity.
And these words as well:

  ‘The monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the world and its structures,’ he remarked, ‘somebody who says, in one way or another, that the claims of the world are fraudulent.’
The anchorite, beyond the practice of the monk, is dead to the world; speaks to the fraudulence of the world from beyond it.  "I am Lazarus, come back to tell you all, and I shall tell you all...."  Or perhaps that is not it at all; perhaps that is not what I meant at all.

It is so difficult to say just what I mean!  But the nature of the paradox is surely central to the life of faith, whether it is faithfulness lived in a cell, in a hermitage, or among other people of all faiths and no faiths and deep antipathy to faith.

1 comment:

  1. It makes you wonder the extent to which women entered into that life to escape intolerable positions that their societies provided for them if they didn't do that. I remember reading about Ann Lee's vision that led her to see sex as the original sin and to start her Protestant order - which would, after her death, become the Shaker monastic order. Given what marriage was for women, it's a surprise it didn't happen more often.

    rustypickup always finds great articles to read, I always read the ones he recommends. You too.