Tuesday, January 11, 2005

"What life have you if you have not life together?"

Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of God,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
T.S. Eliot

Christian mystics and monastics seem to contradict our notion of a relational body, of believers who share "life together," as Bonhoeffer called it. We think of them as withdrawn from the world, of their lives given over to prayer and meditation, lives spent apart from the common concerns of humanity. But they are, we say with Eliot, connected to us in praise of God, in prayer for the Church, "the body of Christ incarnate." Or we resort to paradox: their "inward" searching for God somehow becomes achieves an "outward" manifestation. Their withdrawal from the world, we say, leads them back into the world again. But our metaphors betray us; the paradox is more an invention, than a reality.

Take the anchorite, the most extremely withdrawn of the monastics. A not uncommon practice of the medieval church, anchorites lived alone in their cells, where they spent their lives. But the solitude was far from total. Hildegard of Bingen actually began her vocation by being dedicated, by her parents, to live in with an anchorite in her cell. Julian of Norwich lived in a cell attached to a church just off one of the main streets of Norwich, England. The anchorite, before entering the cell, went through their own funeral, so that they would be dead to the world, but alive always to God. They weren't dead, of course, and Julian of Norwich spent much of her adult life in her cell, studying, learning to read and write, and revising her description of the revelation she had, the "shewing," during a near death experience. Clearly she was often available to the world. "There was a `Rule of Life` associated with this order drawn up in the 13th century, which stated that the cell should have 3 windows that opened; one into the Church, so she could hear Mass and receive the Blessed Sacrament; one to communicate with her servant, who would have lived close at hand; one to give advice to those who sought it." (Father Martin Smith.) "Dead" to the world was not as severe as it might sound today.

Whihc is why we have to be careful; metaphors betray us here. "Dead to the world" is one. "Moving toward the center" or "protecting the boundaries, are two others. Just as the death of the anchorite was not absolute, was meant, indeed, to benefit the community through the anchorite's life, the "center" and the "boundaries" are not spatial concepts. Moving spatially away from the world into an anchorite's cell, is neither a physical concept, nor did it mean a movement away from the world. The desert fathers of the 4th century are another example. Had Julian been truly dead to the world; had the desert fathers truly left the world for the Egyptian desert, we would know nothing of them today. In fact, their solitude exemplifies the fact that we never move away from the world. But we do move, metaphorically speaking, throughout our lives: away from, or toward, the center. This is what the fathers, and the anchorites, try to teach us.

Metaphors, again, can lead us wrong. "Center" here means what is most important, but not necessarily "essential." It is not an essence we are seeking, or trying to recover. St. Teresa of Avila speaks of the "interior castle" within the soul, and the journey to its heart. But she doesn't mean a physical location, and she doesn't mean a spatial journey. She means movement toward the center. So moving toward the center, seeking the center, means neither movement, nor discovery. It does mean pursuing revelation, following wisdom. And it means pursuing what is of first importance, what Tillich would call the "ultimate concern."

We have to start there, to start to understand how the center holds, by not concerning itself with the outward spirals from, the lines that form the boundaries that are themselves products of illusion of power, which is control. We have to come back to it, to be sure; but we have to start, here. The center alone always holds. But it holds, by being the center; not by confusing itself with the boundaries.

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