Thursday, August 1, 2013

Comment from a monastic on Attachment to Emptiness

I checked out your blog and started to comment on your most recent post, but ran out of space, so here is the rest:
I began by saying that your description of moving out of the cave of emptiness back into the messiness of the world reminded me of my own journey into a cloistered contemplative monastery and out again, into a monastery that allows for contact with the outside world and all its messiness. 
In the monastery, we were actively encouraged to develop what one retreat master called "holy indifference,” which I think he said was a Jesuit expression. In terms of our daily activities, we were to be invested in whatever task we were assigned at a given moment, but be ready to give it up at any moment. Idem our cells, any plans we might have for the little free time we might have, etc. etc. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, we renounce all ownership, even over our own bodies, and the kind of total, radical obedience that was required was/is supposed to lead ultimately to the realization that on some level, nothing matters. The incarnation of this principle in every detail of daily life serves as a kind of litmus test that reveals, day by day, minute by minute, the extent to which one has actually integrated the recommended attitude of holy indifference.
A couple of stories, by way of illustration: 
1) A young doctor enters our monastery as a postulant. The first time she catches a cold, the novice mistress gives her some medicine. The young doctor/postulant looks at it and says, "I'm not going to take this. This isn't what I need." The novice mistress, acknowledging the postulant's superior medical knowledge, replies, "Learn to be a monk first. Then be a doctor." And the postulant has a choice: she can take her medicine or leave. (She chose to stay, and is now the novice mistress.)
2) When I went to Japan on an interfaith monastic exchange, I was given so many gifts that I had to buy an extra suitcase to bring them home. After a day or so back in my home monastery, the gifts were all displayed in the community room. Then they disappeared and I never saw any of them again. This was normal, and came as no surprise to me. A few years later, when I was spending a few months in Windsor discerning the option of a transfer of my vows, I had an opportunity to travel to Mexico for the opening of a zendo by a young couple whom I had met in Japan. The Roshi of their Japanese monastery was there to do the honors, and he brought gifts of his calligraphy for all the participants. Without knowing about my plans to transfer to Windsor, he gave me his calligraphy of "Coming home on the ox's back." Through his translator, I told him what I was in the process of doing, and how apt his gift was. I also told him that because of my monastery's strictness, I hadn't been allowed to keep the other pieces of calligraphy he had given me in Japan, which made this current gift even more precious." When I told the translator what had happened to the collection of Japanese gifts, her eyes widened and she said, "Wow! I know theoretically that nothing in my room belongs to me, but you really practice it in a radical way!"
A big part of the ethos in my French monastery, the philosophy that is taught to novices, is that "We want to start living here and now the beatific vision that we'll enjoy once we're dead." The longer I stayed there, the more this turned into an actual, physical reality. There I was, in a gorgeous place, a rural setting not unlike Windsor, with a wonderful, loving community, singing the praises of God day and night, with all your basic needs taken care of, and little or no possibility of contacting the world we had left behind. It was like signing up for the cave of emptiness for the rest of your life, and without some fancy finagling, which I have managed, there's no way out, because your vows are for life. As the few contacts that were permitted diminished over time, I began to realize that this wasn't what I wanted right now. In a few years I'll be dead for eternity, unless there's reincarnation, and so for whatever time is left, I want to be connected with the planet, instead of hovering above or beyond it in some beautiful but remote monastic space ship. The Windsor monastery provides a happy combination of monastic life with contact with non-monastics. (In my French monastery, going for a day of recollection such as the one you arranged with Francis Bennett would be out of the question.)
In reading your blog, I was surprised to learn that there are non-monastics who need to be helped out of this state of emptiness and back into a state of re-engagement with the rest of the world. You appear to be providing an unusual kind of psychotherapy. I'd enjoy pursuing this further, but right now it's time for breakfast.
Sr. S

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