From Welcome to the Wisdom of the World
Monasteries are curious places. To the occasional monastery-watcher, they can seem so uniform, so boringly organized. Monastics, for the most part, live a common schedule, say a common set of prayers, live under a common Rule of life. They eat together, live together, work together day after day for years and are formed together all their lives. The inclination is to assume that monastic communities are one-dimensional places that spawn one-dimensional people. Maybe, but not in any monastery I know, regardless of the tradition, however undifferentiated the group. Not in my monastery for sure.
In fact, I sat with a group of Eastern and Western monastics at an international meeting recently, fascinated by their apparent sameness and acutely aware of the differences among them at the same time. They all wore long robes. (But no, come to think about it, they didn’t. I didn’t, for instance.) They all wore some identifying mark, at least – beads or pins, or crosses, or colors of robes or shawls or cinctures.
The swamis came in wearing orange robes but soon began to appear in small wool skull caps – a grey one here, a white one there. The Buddhists wore sandals, some with socks, some without them. The Western monastics wore robes or pants, simple street clothes or long burka-like dresses.
All of them, almost every one of them, in other words, deviated at least a bit from the norms of even their own groups. Who was the perfect monastic, then? Who was the one who lived the monastic ideal most truly? And did it matter? Did it really affect the degree to which they lived the real monastic ideal? What was truth here, where, even among those most intent on putting down all the nonessentials of life, no absolute norm seemed to apply?
Then, all of a sudden, I began to wonder if the real question might now be, Is uniformity really a measure of anything, including holiness? Maybe it is we who have the great need to reduce sanctity to some kind of spiritual sameness. Maybe those who are truly simple and open to the workings of God in life are the ones who know best that it is very easy to make a god even out of devotion, even out of detachment, even out of self-effacement. Is it really self-effacing to have to stand out for being perfectly self-effacing?
I have often wondered over the years whether it isn’t precisely what appears to be a common mold that is itself the ground for differences. Isn’t difference in the face of the commonplace the very sign of the singular and intimate relationship between God and every one of us, individual and separate? Here in the place of homogeneity, in fact, the most minuscule differences glare like beacons in the night.
However uniform monastics may look, differences mark us like the mist of soft snow in winter, barely visible and silent – but certain. So, in all our sameness, differences abound.
If anything, then, monasteries are a study, a reminder to us all, of the irrepressible in human nature. Behind every long leather cincture of plain black belt lives a personality that, like the rest of us, is struggling its perfectly particular way toward God. At least ours did.
Sister Rosalia, for instance, had been a first-grade teacher all her life. Her soul operated on an invisible clock. She walked out the door of the small convent in which we lived to cross the church parking lot to her classroom at the same time every morning, and she returned at the same time every night. Rosalia was the epitome of regularity, and order, and fidelity.
She was what my novice mistress called a model of the “living Rule.” She kept silence – always at night, almost always during the day. She never consorted with “seculars.” She walked head down, eyes on the ground – just as the spiritual masters for centuries had recommended we do as an aid to acquiring perpetual “recollection” or consciousness of God. Her room was sparse and antiseptic to the core. She cut no corners, took no liberties, strayed from none of the disciplines.
Sister Rosalia was the walking symbol of the ideal. Somebody’s ideal, at least.
Sister Marie Claire, on the other hand, was not.
Sister Marie Claire, a music teacher, lived strewing beauty wherever she went. She had mysterious ways of getting cut flowers of extraordinary color for her music room, grew pots full of African violets large and full and in jungle proportions everywhere. They covered every window sill in her music room, overflowed into the guest parlors, grew recklessly in the solarium, multiplied and multiplied and multiplied. Marie Claire brought a sense of abundance to life.
As far as Marie Claire was concerned, nothing was impossible, nothing was forbidden. People flocked to her music room for counsel, for support, for fun. She stayed there – long after the little music students had gone home, long after the rest of us had already gone upstairs to read in silence – meeting people, holding court. You could hear the laughter, muted but regular, wafting up the front stairwell far into the evening hours.
Marie Claire lived, generous and open-hearted, an Auntie Mame figure who swept into every room with a smile on her face and a warm handshake or arm hold for every person there.
Marie Claire was no “walking symbol of an otherworldly ideal.” No, she was instead an icon of the spirit of religious life, the irrepressible joy that comes with confidence that whatever is, is good – or will be, somehow, someday, somewhere.
Now, here’s the problem: Which of them was really true to Truth? Which of them was truly religious? Which of them made religious life true?
The struggle to recognize the truer truth is not new to monasticism or to life in general. Strands of the problem emerge in the definition of sainthood from one century to the next. In almost every case, great people have been identified by some as saints and by others, good people themselves, just as certainly, as sinners. Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John XXIII – Jesus – were all a sign of truth to some, a sign of contradiction to others. So how do we know where truth lies?
The monastics of the desert faced the problem, too. They preserved in the monastic literature of the third century a small story that invites us all to go on wrestling with the problem, even here, even now.
Once upon a time, a brother wanted to see Abba Arsenius at Scetis. When he came to the church, he asked the clergy if he could visit with Abba Arsenius.
They said to him, “Brother, have a little refreshment and then go and see him.”
But the brother said, “I shall not eat anything till I have met him.”
So, because Arsenius’s cell was far away, they sent a brother with him. Having knocked on the door, they entered, greeted the old man, and sat down without saying anything. Then the brother from the church said, “I will leave you now. Pray for me.”
But the visiting brother, not feeling at ease with the old man, said, “I will come with you,” so they both left together.
Then, when they were outside the cell of Abba Arsenius, the visitor said, “Take me to Abba Moses, who used to be a robber.”
When they arrived, the Abba welcomed them joyfully. Then, after visiting a while, Abba Moses took leave of them with delight.
The brother who had brought the visitor said to his companion, “See, I have taken you to the foreigner, Arsenius from Rome, and to the Egyptian, Moses. Which of the two do you prefer?
“As for me,” the visitor replied, “I prefer the Egyptian.”
Now a Father who heard this prayed to God saying, “Lord, explain this matter to me: for Thy name’s sake, the one flees from men, and the other, for Thy name’s sake, receives them with open arms.”
Now just then two large boats were shown to him on a river, and he saw Abba Arsenius and the Spirit of God sailing in the one, in perfect peace. And in the other was Abba Moses with the angels of God. And they were all eating honey cakes.
We are left with an important question for our own lives: Which of them, Abba Arsenius or Abba Moses, embodied Absolute Truth? And if both did, is Absolute Truth nearly as absolute as we like to think it is? Is the illusion of alternatives really the most untrue thing of all?
Isn’t the real truth that both men showed us not only a different spiritual gift but also a different face of the God who is all being, all Truth, as well? In them the truth we really see is that the God of mystery is many-sided. There is no one truth that is the total truth of God. We each embody a bit of it; we all lack the rest of it. Even together we are not the voice of God because we simply do not speak the language or understand the language or know the whole of the language that is the Word of God.
We pretend we do, of course. We tell ourselves and everyone else that we know truth, that we are it, that to be true everyone else must follow us. Such arrogance would be sinful if it weren’t so laughable.
And yet we all know, too, that there are some things that are really not true, cannot be true, will never be true.
So what is the key to the recognition of truth? Easy: truth is what truth does. When that which purports to be true – the perfect government, the true church – sins against the truth that must be God, sins against the justice, the goodness, the love, the openness that must be God, then something is untrue about the truth it is teaching.
I was young when I lived with Sister Rosalia and Sister Marie Claire, but I understood the problem immediately. I had to figure out what truth was here. Which one of them really incarnated what it was to be a “religious”? Which one of them was truly a nun? Which one of them gave me the whole picture of what religious life was meant to be?
It took some years to really understand the implications of the question, but eventually I saw what was there for me to see. The truth is that they both, each in her own way, were the best we had to offer.
When Sister Rosalia died – valiant, steady, just a little woman – we cried. The community had lost a saint.
When Sister Marie Claire died – open, great-hearted, free, loving – we cried. The community had lost a saint.
The real truth is that God is too great to be lost in the smallness of any single sliver of life. Truth is One, yes, but truth is many at the same time.
The greatest danger of them all may be in buying into too small a part of the truth. When that happens, change, growth, repentance, and development are impossible. We find ourselves frozen into the shards of yesterday.
If the question is, How shall I know the truth when I see it? the answer must be, truth is that which does the good of God and does it kindly so that none of the people of God are hurt by it.
Truth is the Jesus who said, in the face of the rules, “Rise and walk,” and in the face of destructive license, “Go and sin no more,” and in the face of irresponsible affluence, “Go and sell what you have and give to the poor,” and in the face of human needs, “The Sabbath was made for us, not we for the Sabbath.” There are no rules of any institution anywhere that supersede the truth that is the love of God.
Truth is not any one truth, not any one institution, not any one way. Nor can we truly bend ourselves to all of them. Instead, each of us must live out our own singular piece of the truth with love. What else can possibly be the final test of what is truly true?