In Praise of Useless Life
From my encounter with some cloistered Carmelites, Poor Clares and Cistercians; I can say that they have joy in their hearts and are contented with their lives. For the outside world it might be a useless life, but for those who live it that becomes the most beautiful way of life.
By Deslin Chelatt SJ
How often have you thought or wondered about the beauty of silence? Is it worth living a life that is hidden, doing daily chores without seeking any accolades or praises? Certainly you or me might give an answer like that of an agnostic or will use the hopeless word ‘Impossible’. Today’s world has shaped the minds to not ‘waste’ a second. Silence and solitude are seen as unproductive. Present culture pesters people to engage in something that gives one immediate sensual pleasure or ‘profit’. The virtues of patience and fortitude are despised or not cultivated. Humankind is in a rat race to assert individual prominence, power and self-glory. Noam Chomsky, the famous American social critic and philosopher says, “People with power understand exactly one thing: Violence. The amount of violence, hatred, communal clashes and war that tear apart this world stems from this human craving for Power”.
Is this only a phenomenon of the current century? No. It existed before too. In the fourth century, after becoming a royal religion, Christianity turned its direction to power and wealth. The idea of conquest crept in. As a consequence, spirituality and value system of the church began to regress. In order to protest against this culture of power and wealth that engulfed and blindfolded the church and as a reform movement, some people went into the desert and started living a life of silence, solitude, prayer and penance. They felt a void within which the institutional, hierarchical church could not fulfill. Thus monasticism began as an antithesis to royal Christianity. The context that existed in the fourth century exists today in the church and the society. Therefore, it is right to reflect about monasticism and its relevance now. By monasticism, I do not intend about the usual monks whom we see who engage in active ministries. I would like to go a little deeper; into the contemplative monastic life.
Years ago I watched an award winning movie ‘Into Great Silence’ directed by Philip Gröning. The movie cum documentary was about the life of Carthusian monks. Carthusians are the most austere Order in the Catholic Church. I was astonished by the way those men lived their lives in utmost austerity and solitude keeping up the tradition. It needs courage to live such a life. The beauty of monastic life was portrayed well in the film. The blend of solitary and community life of Carthusians was depicted with all the details. The same daily routine with more penances can make us feel bored, but the reduction of constant change can help one focus on a single goal. Monotony can lead one to focus into the depth of oneself. Only in still waters we can see the fish. Monotony leads to creativity that emerges as the fruit of the depth dimension formed. That’s why Einstein said, ‘The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” The life of Teresa of Avila, Theresa of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, Basil Pennington, Paisios of Mount Athos and others like them substantiates it. Monasticism has not lost its relevance today. In fact it has become more relevant now. Many are still fascinated by this form of life.
Thomas Merton OCSO
Monk comes from the Greek word ‘monachos’ which means ‘single’ or ’one’. A monk is a person who wills only one thing. That one thing is the transcendental being ‘God’. Metaphysical definition of being is that which one, true, beauty and good is. Kierkegaard mentions that the characteristic of a saint is to will one thing. Willing and living for a single goal that is beauty and truth, with undivided heart brings tremendous changes in the person and in the world around. Willing one thing leads to depth. Profoundness in words, deeds and thoughts are that which can lead humanity to peace and harmony. World looks for depth. People with depth are like magnets that can attract many. Today we see the surge of many foreigners to the orient lands in search of meaning and depth. Not only are the people in the West, all of us actually having a longing towards something deep. People are realizing slowly the meaninglessness of the materialistic and hedonistic culture and they look for something deep. As Augustine rightly pointed out, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” Monks are on this journey of finding God in depth, a much more focused journey towards this end. The contemplative traditions of Benedict, Bruno, Teresa of Avila, and Colette give us a glimpse of this fact.
Contemplative life is not aiming at individual salvation but it aims at the cosmic salvation. A contemplative offers his or her life of prayer for the whole world. The whole cosmos is its concern. That’s why still people seek the prayers of contemplatives in their needs. We know from history how St Theresa of Lisieux who never stepped out of the Carmel Convent became Patroness of the Missions along with the great missionary, St Francis Xavier. We cannot close our eyes towards the good they do through their prayers. On the occasion of the Pro Orantibus Day, held November 21, 2018 Pope Francis while speaking to the contemplative men and women asked, “What would become of the Church without the contemplative life? What would become of the weaker members of the Church who find in you a support to continue the journey? What would happen to the Church and the world without the beacons that signal the port to those who are lost on the high seas, without the torches that illuminate the dark night we are going through, without the sentinels announcing the new day when it is still night?”
Trappist Monastery in Kentucky
The inner desire that humans have to be united with the One, led some to take the paths of the cloister. Many of the critics of contemplative life say that the cloistered men and women are wasting their lives inside the four walls. Is it true? A few encounters with those sublime men and women who have dedicated themselves to this way of life are enough to dispel this ignorance. Openness too is required to understand such lives. After all, we live our lives because we want to live and we want joy and meaning. If something that gives meaning can make you choose less travelled roads then it is worth walking through such paths. From my encounter with some cloistered Carmelites, Poor Clares and Cistercians; I can say that they have joy in their hearts and are contented with their lives. One of them told me that if she gets one more chance to live in this world, she would choose to be a cloistered contemplative nun again. What made her make this statement? The inner joy that it gives. She found the treasure. For the outside world it might be a useless life, but for those who live it that becomes the most beautiful way of life. I could also speak to an Indian Jesuit priest who wanted to become a Trappist monk and lived in a monastery for a year outside India and returned. He acknowledged that his one year of life as a Trappist observant changed his life drastically. It changed the way he spoke, the way he did things and the way he related. He attributes those changes to his one year life as a cloistered observant in the monastery. The silence changed and transformed him, in essence. He added that the one year life as a cloistered religious has turned his heart into more compassionate to the poor and suffering. Yes, it is true indeed that your heart turns into a channel of love and compassion as you live in the school of love i.e. in a contemplative life. What else can it be when the heart, body and the whole being is continuously purged, illumined and transformed in the fire of silence and solitude? It is like the change that happens to the iron rod when it is placed in fire. This analogy can explain the contemplative life to some extent, yet it remains a mystery that creates awe in our hearts. One becomes united with what one pursues.
Can we all leave this world and become a contemplative, closing ourselves in a monastic enclosure? No, but we can learn lessons for life from monasticism. ‘Ism’ means to take side with or to adhere with some doctrine, belief or ideas. In this sense monasticism can be understood as a way of life or practice to bring meaning to life compared with various other isms which had an oppressive nature. We can live like a monk in the secular world. There are many lay people who try to do that. Many of the Abbeys have lay contemplative branches. The values that monasticism proposes to the world are focusing, long term commitment, patience, respect for others and creation, the dignity of labour, silence and so on. In this narcissist, consumerist world monasticism can help create a better world. That’s why St Ignatius Loyola the founder of Jesuits wanted his men to be ‘contemplatives in action’. He emphasized the importance of both equally. He clarified that a man who is not a contemplative cannot do anything productive with right intention.
Today the world has developed, but there are a lot of confusions and problems. People often find it difficult to make long term commitments. People are choosing only those acts which can benefit them. Minds that are shaped in our current instant culture forget the value of waiting with patience. Hedonism that has crept in everywhere has led people to avoid discomfort and pain. These can lead us into individualism where we don’t care for each other, and we treat others as means alone, not ends in themselves. The numbers of people who get treated for mental illness and depression are increasing day by day. The ecological imbalance that we experience now is the consequence of our way of living only for profit. In this critical juncture the values of monasticism can bring a lot of change.
Many of the companies have already studied the Benedictine rule and motto ‘Ora et Labora’ where time is equally divided for prayer, work and rest. They have realized that productivity can be increased if time is given to the employees for proper rest and silence. In our lives full of tensions, giving at least 15 minutes of silence can transform us greatly. All value silence, theists or atheists. Silence is a treasure that is priceless. Developing a monastic rhythm in our lives can change us. Ultimately, we look for peace and joy. Monasticism can offer it to the troubled humankind. If the world would have stopped for some moments in silence dodging away from the mad race, it would have become a better place to live in. A balance would have been established. The monasticism offers a counter culture which is very valuable. It opens us into the realities of life. It helps us to just ‘be’. It gives us a clear vision of every reality and about our being. It cannot be considered and rejected as a useless life, but it needs to be praised. In our utilitarian culture, where we suffer from a collective compulsion to do something practical, helpful, or useful, and where we feel compelled to make a contribution that can give us a sense of worth, contemplative prayer and monasticism is a form of radical criticism. It is not useful or practical. It is simply to waste time for and with God. It cuts a hole in our busyness and reminds us others that it is God and not we who creates and sustains the world.
Saint Martin of Tours on horseback handing his cloak to a poor man
(Saint Martin of Tours – Feast Day November 11. Born about 316 AD in Hungary, Martin of Tours settled in Gaul and established his first monastery there. In art, he is usually depicted on horseback, handing his cloak to a poor man.)
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