Thursday, May 15, 2008

Beyond The Shadows

There is a sense in which life in the modern world forces us to prostitute ourselves. It’s not the way of life that we necessarily want or have been created for. Yet, we yield ourselves through some necessity to the dominating economic and political forces that surround us like the armies of the Roman Empire. In this atmosphere we seek out ways and means that allow us to utilize our intrinsic gifts and talents to secure both place and position in a world that gorges itself and consumes those that feed it. Some work to get by. Some work to get ahead. In the end, though, we all lie dead in the ground and the last thing to be remembered about us is the cost of our funeral.

This isn’t intended to be a scathing accusation or to be taken as some sort of fatalism. “Even the worst society has something about it that is not only good, but essential for human life. Man cannot live without society, obviously. Those who claim they would like to do so, or that they might be able to do so, are often those who depend most abjectly upon it. Their pretense of solitude is only an admission of their dependence. It is an individualistic illusion.”[1] It is the illusion and pretense that I desire most to escape, not life in the world where I find myself.

To live in the world without being part of it[2], if we take the words of Christ in all earnest seriousness, is not an easy proposition to live up to. Those early eremitical’s, the Desert Father’s and Mother’s, felt the need to remove themselves as far as they could from the mainstream of life in the world. Rome had converted. Christianity was now popular. All the ease was unsettling for many who headed for the caves to live out their faith. Many of them did, however, continue in some degree to trade in the world. They sold or bartered their baskets and other works of their hands. Commerce, itself, is not intrinsically evil.

St. Benedict, before settling into a societal form of monasticism, headed for a cave. He withdrew from society for a length of time where he lived in deep solitude and prayer, an experience that set the stage for the rest of his life as the one remembered as the founder of Western Monasticism. He tells us that “The second step of humility is that a man loves not his own will nor takes pleasure in the satisfaction of his desires, rather he shall imitate by his actions that saying of the Lord: I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me (John 6:38). Similarly we read, ‘Consent merits punishment; constraint wins a crown[3]’.”[4]

Although we live in the world as Oblates of St. Benedict, we are not trying to escape from the realities of life. We seek to embrace them in a way that transforms even the difficult realities into opportunities for deepening prayer and contemplation where the Great Reality transcends, fills, and redeems all of reality. To make the most of this involves a great amount of personal renouncement, something that is more difficult at first but always presents itself as a challenge as we make this passage.

Those men and women who enter life within monastic enclosures don’t do so to escape reality. They do so to discover and embrace reality most intimately. Their vows are not only vows of renouncement but are equally vows of acceptance. As Oblates, though we make promises rather than vows, like our internal monastic brothers and sisters, we “have felt the terrible insufficiency of life in a civilization that is entirely dedicated to the pursuit of shadows”[5] and we seek life beyond the shadows.

[1] Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, p.178
[2] Christ’s Priestly Prayer, John 17
[3] “we read” The quotation is not from Scripture but from the Acta Anastasiae 17, in reference to the martyr Irene (A.D. 304) who chose death rather than to be forced into prostitution [RB 1980, p. 196]
[4] RB 7:31-33
[5] Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe, xviii