Via Contemplativa, Via Activa

Reflections on the Contemplative Life

The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”

William Wordsworth

Some of you reading this may have seen the Millennium play On the Green Rock by John Cregan which chronicles so vividly the most dramatic event in the history of Shaftesbury (where I live) : the dissolution of the once mighty Abbey of Saint Mary and Edward the Martyr. The last Abbess, Elizabeth Zouche, is presented in the play as vacillating and worldly and most of the nuns (though not Dorothy Clusey, the central figure) are unattractive figures, gossipy, malicious and devious. Nonetheless, those of us who, as in a sort of time warp, witnessed the nuns in their blue robes leaving the Abbey gates for the last time with quiet dignity singing the haunting Agnus Dei under the watchful eyes of the Royal Commissioners, probably had the uncomfortable feeling that, for all that can be said against the monastic life, something precious and irreplaceable had been lost.

The note of the sublime, which is as unmistakeable in the humble plainsong chants of the twelfth century as in the organ music of Bach or Mozart’s Requiem, bears witness to a particular range of emotional experience which has almost completely disappeared because there is no place for it in our wholly secular era. Although the West had to wait another two centuries before the definitive triumph of rationalism, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was a point of no return. It marked the shift from a feudal and clerically dominated society to a modern commercial and scientific one — no bad thing one might think. Yes, but it also marked the transition from a society which recognized a reality beyond the physical and valued the contemplative life to a society which sees our present physical existence as the be-all and end-all and which is almost exclusively concerned with the making and spending of money.


from the modern point of view the Dissolution was a big step in the right direction even though present-day rationalists and economists might baulk at some of the methods used. The main thing was that Henry VIII had got rid of a lot of people who were just a drain on the community and were sitting on a great deal of valuable land. Cardinal Wolsey, who began the whole movement by closing one or two smaller religious houses, used some of the proceeds for purposes we would today regard as perfectly acceptable, namely endowing university colleges. Henry VIII, however, who presided over the full-scale Dissolution used the money from the sale of lands — he gave very little away — to finance his unnecessary and unsuccessful foreign wars.

But to centre all the attention on the personalities of Henry VIII and his notorious (though very able) minister Thomas Cromwell only blurs the real issue. A ruler whom posterity judges much more sympathetically, Frederick the Great of Prussia, a child of the Enlightenment and patron of Voltaire, might well, in a similar situation, have acted just as ruthlessly as Henry VIII and, if he had diverted the money to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, modern historians would be positively enraptured. Practically everyone today believes that the replacement of Abbeys by university colleges and business schools is a thoroughly good thing : instead of singing psalms and praying people are more sensibly employed cramming their heads with facts and doing something about increasing the Gross National Product.


for reasons that are still somewhat obscure, Protestantism, especially the Calvinist variety, favoured commercial enterprise and technical innovation. The burgher Dutch republic soon eclipsed Venice as the leading European maritime power while Catholic Spain and Portugal, after a few decades of glory, sank back into priestly superstition and commercial stagnation.

We can see this social evolution even at such an early date as the Dissolution (1539). Many of those who acquired the vacated estates were already noble, but there were quite a few new men as well, go-ahead merchants and lawyers in the style of Arundell in On the Green Rock, persons who lost no time in managing the lands they had bought in a much brisker fashion than the Abbots and Abbesses of the preceding era. Up to then many of the tenants of lands owned by religious houses paid their landlords in kind but we now notice a switch to producing for the market and the replacement of cereal growing by sheep farming since there were fortunes to be made from wool during the sixteenth century period. One of the results of the new agricultural economy was galloping inflation. Enclosures and the replacement of arable land by fields given over to sheep-farming did not begin at the Dissolution but the pace of agricultural change accelerated tremendously during the English Reformation — in fact so much so that it began to seriously alarm the State authorities who had done so much to make it possible.

In any case, we do not have to subscribe to a narrow economic theory of history : ideas have, up to a point, a life of their own. For some time already the pendulum had been swinging away from the monastic ideal. It was not so much that the monks and nuns in the early sixteenth century led particularly scandalous lives : the picture one gets is certainly not of a motley crew of drunkards, rapists, murderers, racketeers and vice girls in nun’s clothing, simply of a lot of people who were not particularly into spirituality and so were in the wrong place. The vast majority of the religious houses meekly accepted their dissolution and one suspects that quite a few inmates were secretly relieved to be out in the open air again especially since they were often given very decent pensions.

The ordinary people were the immediate losers by the Dissolution since, apart from the commercial spin-offs which came from being near places of pilgrimage such as Shaftesbury, they lost free distribution of food and firewood and a network of hostels stretching across the country where travellers could put up for the night. It is thus at first sight surprising that more citizens did not rally to the support of the religious — the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace was the only serious revolt and it was restricted to Yorkshire. One reason was that people felt some sort of blow for national independence had been struck, somewhat akin to what the Egyptians felt when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. But there was a question of ideas as well. The inhabitants of England and the Northern countries of Europe by this time seem to have largely ceased to believe in the efficacy of kissing saints’ bones or touching fragments of the true Cross. The Reformation was not, and was not intended to be, a progressive rationalistic movement but it indirectly favoured the growth of scepticism and eventually science because the list of miraculous events and implausible dogmas you had to sign up to was a good deal shorter than the Catholic one.

This movement of ideas did not necessarily concern the contemplative ideal as such, only specific abuses like the trade in relics and indulgences, and it seems that some of the disbanded nuns and monks continued to live together voluntarily in lay communities. There were even a few Protestants, like those grouped around Nicholas Farrer, who in effect founded new monastic-style organisations. But they remained very much the exception : the idea of retiring from the world to a life of prayer and contemplation was definitely a thing of the past. The Puritans were certainly not that way inclined : they not only believed that men and women of God could but actually should soil their hands with trade and should remain at their posts within the corrupt society to reform it from the inside, or alternatively emigrate to make their own, very unmonastic, society in America. Surprisingly though, there did eventually emerge a Protestant group which persisted in giving great importance to the Via Contemplativa while producing quite a few men who were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, namely the Quakers.


Voltaire, in a typical passage, paints a heart-warming picture of honest burghers going about their business at the Amsterdam Stock Exchange and follows this up with the description of a Council of black-robed ill-tempered doctors of the Church arguing incessantly about obscure points of doctrine. Like many thinkers of his time, notably Adam Smith, Voltaire sincerely believed that there was no fundamental conflict between self-interest and public interest and he would have wholeheartedly endorsed Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “there are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in making money”. The blithe assumption made by practically all Enlightenment thinkers that the mass of humanity would, if only given the chance, ‘naturally’ behave in a public-spirited way appears today to be unbelievably naïve.

In any case the contrast Voltaire makes is false since in the days of a triumphant market economy there are still plenty of conventions of intellectuals endlessly arguing about obscure points of doctrine though the topic is more likely to be scientific or psychological than theological these days. But contemplation, chanting, a concern with non-material values or a reality beyond the physical and so on, is quite a different matter. This sort of thing is not only archaic but positively offensive because there is an implied put-down, a tacit rejection of everything the present society values : material possessions, travel, comfort, noise, speed, status in society, display, physical excitement and, of course, last but not least, sex. Today married persons in India still occasionally retire from the world after having brought up children, concluded a career &c. &c. but they cease to live together and typically retire to different if related ashrams. This is possibly one way out of the dilemma of squaring one’s obligations to society with the desire to look at ‘the other side of life’.

Is it necessary to take such a drastic step? Maybe not, but there is no doubt that there is a battle for one’s attention going on every minute of the day and it is a battle that commercialism is winning hands down. You can’t hear the “still, small voice of calm” with cars hooting, electric drills hammering and rock music blaring away full pelt.

Contrary to popular belief Christianity did not invent either monasticism or asceticism : both, as far as the West is concerned, seem to have originated in Northern Greece and to have been associated with the mysterious figure of Orpheus. Although Orpheus is mainly known today as the minstrel who charmed wild beasts by his playing and went down into the Underworld in search of his wife, the cult that sprung up around him was otherworldly and his followers typically foreswore meat and wine, practised austerities and believed that there was a fundamental opposition between the divine element in man, the psyche (‘soul’), and the physical body in which it was imprisoned. The strand not only of otherworldliness but of positive contempt for the body which is so prominent in the Early Fathers should be traced back, not to Judaism, but to the tradition of wandering Greek holy men who included amongst their ranks philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras.

It is quite astonishing (and repulsive) to read what some early Christian and late medieval monks put themselves through in the pursuit of spiritual development, but modern psychologists who are convinced it was all down to sado-masochism rather miss the point. The aim of these exercises was to develop latent powers, not to enjoy oneself, and Dodds* seems to me to be quite right in ultimately tracing the whole business back to the devastating influence of shamanism to which the Greeks became exposed with the opening up of trade in the Black Sea area during the seventh century BC. Out-of-the-body experiences, if genuine, seem to imply that the ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ really is separable from the body and this idea was taken up and given tremendous respectability by Plato who may himself during his youth have been a candidate for initiation at Eleusis.

The mainstream Churches, in both the West and the East, have always stressed that the aim of ‘spiritual exercises’ and austerities is not to develop mysterious psychic powers which are, in the long run, more of a hindrance than a help. But just as persistently the ‘ordinary people’ tend to judge holy men by their paranormal abilities. Christ himself, though he raged against a sinful generation always on the look-out for signs, nonetheless owed much of his reputation to his miracle-working and it was precisely this that annoyed the Pharisees and Sadducees (since they could not match him on this level). In sixteenth century Spain people fought over scraps of clothing and hairs from the head of Saint John of the Cross when his body was still warm. Even in our own time, there are plenty of fairly well-documented stories of Tibetan monks being able to cause rain, dematerialise objects or warm themselves in near arctic conditions and, nearer home, in contemporary Italy there is the case of Padre Pie, now in course of beatification, who, apart from the stigmata, allegedly had the shamanic power of bilocation — people claim to have seen him in more than one place at the same time.

I am mentioning this not because I think the sensational side of monasticism and the contemplative life generally is, or should be, the essence of the phenomenon but because it is important not to deceive ourselves. Although I would claim that there is a certain capacity and need for contemplative experience in most of us, the sort of training undergone by monks and yogis was, and still is, extremely intensive. It cannot be regarded as ‘natural’ in any obvious sense of the


* See E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational especially chapter V. The author (not to be confused with Dodds the Biblical scholar) was not only a Professor of Greek but also for two years President of the Society for Psychical Research.
word — though one could argue that human beings seemingly do have a recurrent need to do unnecessary, extreme and apparently ‘unnatural’ things. In biological terms, the entire phenomenon of monasticism and the intensive practice of the

contemplative life which, if we trace it back to Orphism and Pythagoras, has been going on for well over two and a half thousand years, constitutes a vast, apparently unsuccessful attempt to provoke a mutation in the human species. The aim seems to have been to create a new type of human being, new in the sense that the men and women who underwent the life-long training would develop senses more attuned to a ‘deeper reality’ (would ‘experience God’, ‘achieve enlightenment’ &c.) while on the human level they would succeed in transforming their natural selfish urges into wholly altruistic ones (as Christ or the Buddha had done). In a word, the aim of monasticism was to produce saints and saints are not normal people.


monastic practice can be justifiably criticised if it depends on the labour and generosity of lay persons who, to add insult to injury, rate lower in the spiritual scale than the people they feed and clothe. But many abbeys and monasteries started off as self-supporting and part of their success lay in the peculiar way in which their wealth was preserved : individual monks owned nothing but the Order as a whole might have at its command extensive lands*. In many cases it would not be going too far to say that the religious orders had wealth imposed upon them. For rich people frequently left property to religious houses in their wills, either because they were genuinely impressed by the example of people giving up the world or, more often perhaps, because they regarded the money spent as a sound investment which would pay them dividends in the afterlife. The problem is not specific to the West and Christianity : Buddhism was brought to China by penniless monks but by the eighth and ninth centuries Buddhist monasteries were enormously wealthy with great statues of the Buddha in solid gold and on top of that the Buddhist monasteries were exempt from taxation.

A much more telling criticism is the charge that the monastic style of life is counter-productive : instead of improving the character of the monk or nun, it makes it worse. The iron discipline, lack of comfort, restriction of movement and so on makes the individual irritable and aggressive ; the sexual abstinence leads, not to ‘purity of mind’, but to complete round the clock obsession as in the case of North African hermits such as Saint Anthony who ended up by hallucinating and, as it were, producing their own porn. Alternatively, those who do manage to get the sexual instinct under control run the risk of becoming power-mad control-freaks so the cure turns out to be worse than the disease.

There is no easy answer to these criticisms since in so many cases they are obviously just : many of them were made at the time of the Reformation by Erasmus and others. The best that can be said in reply is that in other cases the monastic or monastic-style training apparently ‘worked’, that is, produced quite exceptional individuals who would, on their own admission, not have been like that left to their own devices. Contemporary atheists and religion-bashers get embarrassed


* Any modern company which could imitate the organisation of a monastic order would rapidly become extremely successful because it would have negligible labour costs and little risk of litigation with the personnel — although, surprisingly, there are one or two cases of monks demanding certain ‘rights’ from their Abbots.
when confronted with people like Mother Theresa or the nuns and monks heroically tending AIDS victims in Africa at this very moment. It is an uncomfortable truth that many of the worst, but also some of the most admirable, human actions have been done by people who, rightly or wrongly, believed themselves to be vehicles of a higher power. It must also not be forgotten that secularism has its own kind of fanaticism which is (in Europe) rapidly becoming much more of a nuisance than the religious variety.


Many mystics have excelled in poetry and music but the contributions of the contemplative life to science and learning — at any rate the learning we value today — have not been considerable and tend to be exaggerated by religious apologists. People in the past did not withdraw from the world to study the natural world and even today monasteries do not contain laboratories — why should they? We owe one or two important innovations to monks such as the Russian Cyrillic alphabet; also, priests and monks have, from time immemorial, always been much concerned with the calendar and thus astronomy. But such matters are basically off-shoots or side-effects : a written alphabet was required to spread the word of God and the main point in establishing an accurate calendar was so that churches far and wide could celebrate the religious festivals (especially Easter) at the ‘right time’.

What one can, perhaps, say is that the meditative religious outlook did contribute to a fruitful cultural ambiance which well outlived the heyday of monasticism : Kepler, Newton, Boyle, Leibnitz and so on were all profound believers who thought they were glimpsing the mind of God when they wrote down the equations governing planetary orbits. Newton, who never married and was something of a recluse, would probably have been a monk during the Middle Ages. This worshipful attitude which persisted right through the ‘classical’ period of science and mathematics (17th and 18th centuries) has now long since disappeared. Ask a theoretical physicist whether he ever spends a few moments in prayer or meditation before sitting down to a tableful of equations and he would think you were mad. “We don’t do God here,” as Alisteir Campbell put it so memorably.


“Leave off this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Who do you think you are worshipping in that lonely dark corner of a temple with all the doors shut? Open your eyes and see that God is not in front of you! He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathbreaker is breaking stones.”

This passage from Rabindanath Tagore, which at one time I heartily agreed with, now strikes me as being seriously off the mark. He is making a typical twofold attack on the Via Contemplativa by arguing (1.) that you do not need to be inactive to ‘find God’ and (2.) that the divine is everywhere around you so there is no need to single out a particular place like a temple or church as being ‘holy’.

As a matter of fact certain Orders, especially the Benedictine, very much emphasize the importance of manual work alongside devotional practices — “at fixed times, the brothers should be busy with manual work” (Rule of Benedict). And if we move eastwards to China, the Cha’an (Zen) school made manual work obligatory for all monks and placed ‘ordinary day-to-day activities’ at the very centre of things

“Miraculous power and marvellous activity —

Drawing water and hewing wood!”

Tagore is quite wrong to imply that there is something necessarily unhealthy in searching out a special place (temple or church) where there is seclusion, quiet and a dim light, or that there is something ridiculous in repeating over and over again a simple movement like telling beads. Most of the features of the monastic or solitary meditative life, the regularity, the avoidance of noise, the repetitive movements and so on, are means to an end : they favour, or at any rate can favour, the unfolding of a certain way of feeling and living which without these conditions does not develop, or only with the greatest difficulty. As someone who grew up in sixties and seventies I, like most other people at the time, despised all kinds of discipline and tradition as curbs on spontaneity. But in practice this laissez-aller approach doesn’t work : it just leads to a general dissipation of energies and aimless self-indulgence. The Taoist and later Zen cult of spontaneity arose as a reaction to the extreme ceremonialism of the dominant Confucian moral code ; the simplistic message “Do what you feel like doing at the moment” is, within the lax, consumer-orientated culture of the West, no sort of ‘wisdom’ at all since there are so many people out there whose job it is to tell you what you ‘really want’, namely the product they happen to be selling

There are in any case serious drawbacks to a straightforward pantheistic creed which is what I assume Tagore was in favour of. Nature is totally indifferent to the emotional needs of the human individual and even to his or her survival : if you fall ill or get old, from Nature’s point of view the best thing you can do is die. We modern Europeans live in one of the rare parts of the world where Nature is relatively benign, but in places where monsoons, earthquakes, hurricanes, scorching heat and freezing cold are everyday occurrences ‘Mother Nature’ is more likely to be pictured as a ferocious blood-sucking goddess like the Hindu Kali.

At the same time there can be no doubt that the natural world is magnificent, unbelievably impressive. Look around you and

“Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In skilled invention and true artistry”

(Ezra Pound)

Like many other people a romantic pantheistic creed suited me well enough when I was young and healthy ; by midterm general disillusionment set in and religious and philosophic systems such as Buddhism which sees life as a tragic error, or Gnosticism which considers that the physical universe in its entirety is divorced from the true God, suddenly seemed to have a dreadful plausibility. Ideally, it should be feasible to combine what is valid in both types of world-view, fuse what is positive in pagan sensualism and in otherworldly Christianity if you like, but in practice this seems not to be possible. Man has one foot in each of two utterly different worlds : alienation is part and parcel of the human condition. We are well aware today of the folly of trying to repress the sexual instinct altogether, but it is equally stupid and counter-productive to repress the religious impulse : all that happens is that it re-emerges triumphantly in a much more dangerous form, in the pseudo-religious frenzy of Nazi rallies or the blind fanaticism of contemporary terrorists.


“The One remains, the Many change and pass”


that there is a reality beyond the physical which was there long before the latter came into existence seems to me intuitively almost certain ; surprisingly, it is of late becoming a rather more intellectually tenable position as well. For the last twenty years scientists and popular writers on science have been dinning it into our heads that it is “meaningless to ask what there was before the Big Bang” and calling anyone who dared to disagree a flat-earther or worse, but there are now on offer several different cosmological theories which posit the emergence of the current universe from ‘something’ which was already there and is completely indestructible.

“Was the Big Bang really the beginning of time? Or did the universe exist before then? Such a question seemed almost blasphemous only a decade ago. Most cosmologists insisted that it simply made no sense — that to contemplate a time before the big bang was like asking for directions to a place north of the North Pole. But developments in theoretical physics, especially the rise of string theory, have changed their perspective. (…) At least two potentially testable theories plausibly hold that the universe — and therefore time — existed well before the big bang. If either scenario is right, the cosmos has always been in existence and, even if it recollapses one day, will never end.”

Veneziano, The Myth of the Beginning of Time

Scientific American Vol. 16 No. 1, 2006-04-30

What seems to be painfully taking shape out of the present welter of cosmological/philosophic speculation is the paradigm of a universe emerging spontaneously from a pre-existent ‘eternal’ matrix to which it will eventually return — which is precisely what the Tao Te Ching, written around the sixth century BC, teaches. The pre-Socratics, especially Heraclitus, taught something similar and indeed it is a current that is to be found in practically all cultures. It must be emphasized, however, that this is a very different concept from that of a universe deliberately created by an omnipotent and omniscient God which is the traditional Judeao-Christian schema.

The present society which is so full of noise, bustle, competitiveness and consumerism is obviously at the completely opposite pole to the ideals and practices of the contemplative life. Never in fact has the latter been so despised and neglected in both West and East. There was a certain scurry of interest in the Sixties and Seventies, especially amongst fringe groups, and a half-hearted attempt in some post-colonial countries to revive Buddhism on the basis of cultural nationalism, but that is about all. Few Christian churches set aside time for silent prayer and meditation and practically all Christian religious today are involved in education and/or social work. I remember meeting a nun who told me that she took Orders because she wanted to live a life of contemplation only to be directed to study for a degree at a modern university — which she could not refuse, of course, having taken a vow of obedience. Such an emphasis on works rather than faith is fair enough in countries crippled with AIDS and famine : I have no doubt that there are better things to do in the Sudan than retire to the hills to watch and pray. But in the materialistic West the priorities are quite different. Instead of so much ‘doing’ most people would benefit from stopping to think where all this is leading, and thinking requires quiet and at least temporary seclusion.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the future existence of monasteries and suchlike places is the obligation to comply with petty EEC regulations and the ease with which such communities get sucked into the system if only because they have huge electricity bills to pay. A correspondent in the Catholic magazine The Tablet recently suggested that the expansion of ‘religious tourism’ was one of the few options left so perhaps we shall soon see managers brought in from the outside to improve monastery performances on the lines of NHS hospitals.


it is not easy to specify the benefits, if any, that accrue to the individual or the society from the practice of prayer and meditation. Certainly, I do not subscribe to the idea that an individual ‘gains points’ in this way and that the accumulated merit will affect what happens to you after death. On the other hand, people today seem to think that praying for someone, dead or alive, is not only pointless but in some sense actually ‘wrong’ : the accepted wisdom now is that the best way to help others is to help yourself especially by going out and buying something (because in that way you are helping the national economy).

I have heard devotees of Transcendental Meditation say that the rates of violent crime have been reduced in American cities that have more than a certain number of practitioners, but obviously one would need to see hard data to support such a claim or the similar one that praying for sick people does have tangible medical results. But I do not think one needs to get bogged down in such arguments. As far as I am concerned the alleged benefits are more subtle. ‘Modern’ society is the first society in history that collectively believes the physical world is all there is and that there are no values other than human or man-made ones. Our society is pointing in one direction only and is in this sense totalitarian though politically and socially diffuse. A cartoon that appeared recently in The Economist showed two prosperous looking men in suits with the speech bubble, “Religious discrimination? Certainly not, we all worship mammon.” In any society, but more especially ours, it is important that there should be people who are looking in quite the opposite direction and this is what the basic function of religion should be. We do not need people clamouring about the benefits of the free market, the vote and higher education because there are enough propagandists for these things out there already.

The message of the monasteries and of the contemplative life in general, or at any rate what I choose to take from it, is a simple one. It affirms that there is a deeper reality beyond that of the five senses and the intellect and that one can, to some degree, apprehend it within this life. This knowledge is buried deep down within us all : the artifices of the contemplative life are simply means of bringing it to the surface. Since this power or reality is far more basic than everything else, this puts human achievements and aspirations in perspective. ‘Pull down your vanity, mankind, and know your place in a vaster scheme of things’.

The current society says exactly the opposite : “There is no deeper reality except perhaps abstruse mathematical formulae which only the very few can ever hope to comprehend : all thoughts and feelings about ‘God’, ‘the numinous’, the divine &c. &c. are simply delusions. Mankind has no need to feel anything but pride for its colossal achievements especially in science and technology and has the right to do absolutely anything that suits it including if need be destroying the whole planet. For there is no morality except human convenience.”

The wheel has not come full circle, it has stopped halfway. What during the Renaissance was a defiant affirmation of the beauty and splendour of this world and a rejection of the darkness of medievalism, has five centuries later become a pathological obsession with technology for its own sake that is leading the whole planet to disaster. No one ever debates whether wealth, television, an increased Gross National Product, possessions, education, travel and all the other things are good or bad : it is either taken for granted that they are or that nothing can be done anyway. It is pointless to expect politicians to address the issue since, within the current cultural climate, no politician would ever get elected on an austerity ticket and anyone actively campaigning for higher prices at the petrol pumps would soon receive death threats from enraged motorists. It is for the ordinary person to change his or her life now, not to shift the responsibility onto someone else, for example one’s parents or the current government.


I do not want to give the impression that the appeal of the monastic style of life necessarily has anything to do with ecology or the dangers to the planet : it is not a matter of taking upon oneself the sins of the world like the medieval flagellants. There is something in the rhythmic balance of manual work, prayer, chanting, studying sacred texts and so forth that is immediately attractive and which many people today still aspire to though in general they cannot realise it while following a career within the modern world. It must have been a tremendous relief to the inhabitants of religious communities to have no personal money worries — apart from the Bursar a monk would not normally even touch money. Paradoxically, it is the restrictions of a monastic community that made this possible : within an extremely narrow area you can be free, and not only that you can feel free.
Although my own personal interest in contemplation and a life-style which favours it basically stems from a desire to understand ‘what life is about’, not all schools of meditation by any means take such a serious attitude and some specifically condemn it. Krishnamurti towards the end of his life preached and seemingly practised a general meditative attitude which was deliberately ‘goalless’ and he was extremely critical (excessively so) of what he saw as the artificiality of traditional yogic techniques. As for Zen, what is valuable in it is precisely the cultivation of a particular kind of disinterestedness which is that of the natural world

Sitting quietly, doing nothing

Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

Things are as they are : why should they be otherwise? This is not a philosophy that is going to solve the world’s ills but it may be that they are insoluble. As Alan Watts puts it in his book The Way of Zen :

“To the Zen or Taoist mentality, the aimless, empty life does not suggest anything depressing. On the contrary, it suggests the freedom of clouds and mountain streams, wandering nowhere, of flowers in impenetrable canyons, beautiful for no one to see, and of the ocean surf forever washing the sand, to no end”.



so if I think the monastic style of life is so wonderful, why am I not leading it? Well, one reason is that I didn’t find a suitable religious community to sign up to and the non-religious communities I was involved in were pretty disastrous.

Living in a community, religious or not, presents many challenges but I would say there are basically only two really serious problems, neither of which surprisingly is money (at least in the West). The first is what sort of organisation to have. ‘Direct Democracy’ sounds wonderful but usually leads to its exact opposite : the pushiest individuals are the ones who come to the fore. Apart from this, discussing every little issue with all members of a community is unbelievably time-wasting and plenty of people I know, maddened by their experiences of the chaos and endless arguments within hippie-style communities, went to the opposite extreme and joined cults or fringe movements which tell you exactly what to do and think.

The second really great stumbling block of the monastic life is sex and reproduction. The very word ‘monasticism’ has come to mean ‘celibate’ though there is no reason ipso facto why people devoting themselves to a religious life should be celibate — within both Judaism and Islam there is no such sense, rather the contrary, since more children means more believers. A celibate community always needs to recruit from the outside or it dies out — though this didn’t bother the early Christians too much since the return of Christ and the Last Judgment were expected in the near future. But by the end of the third century Christians realized that if too many of their number voluntarily abstained from sex the new religion would never be able to compete with paganism. This was doubtless one of the main reasons why the Church condemned Origen’s simple solution to the problems of the flesh : castration.

Religion is by definition concerned with what is beyond the physical, and thus beyond the sexual also, but sex, as the most powerful human instinct, cannot be so easily discounted as the early Christians found to their dismay. But neither can sex be readily integrated into a religious schema. Religion is supposed to be for the whole community, not just a small group of healthy, good-looking young people, and it is practically impossible to design a shared religious ceremony open to all which is overtly sexual — if you disagree think about staging one yourself. It is possible for a ceremony with sexual content to be acted out by a priest and priestess such as the ‘Sacred Marriage’ which seems to have been part of the Initiatory Ceremony at Eleusis, and reputedly has a place in the rituals of some contemporary pagan groups. Such practices, however, do not develop bonds between the whole community in the way in which a shared meal (the Christian ‘love-feast’) does or non-sexual rituals such as communal singing and chanting, the celebration of the eucharist and so forth. Sixties hippies sometimes staged ‘love-ins’ in California but the majority opted for the much less demanding ‘solution’ of a communal acid trip.

The more perceptive modern historians have pointed out that the Christian Early Fathers, with their pathological horror of sex, were reacting against the extreme sexual licence of the late Roman era. Temple prostitution and the casual use of slaves of both sexes and all ages for sexual purposes by their masters may sound mind-blowing to a contemporary male, but the reality on the ground must have been pretty obnoxious especially since sexual pleasure became increasingly linked to cruelty within the declining Roman world. The early Christians, living in loose mixed lay communities, practised agape or sexless love and friendship which is in practice the only possibility if you want to include everyone, young and old, healthy and sick, good-looking and unattractive.

However, Nature is not to be defied so easily and this ingenious solution to humanity’s greatest problem ultimately proved unworkable. For many members of religious communities what to do with sexual desire was and is a very serious issue indeed : the current Dalai Lama, in a staggeringly ‘religiously incorrect’ admission, when asked what he most regretted missing out on in life, answered bluntly, “Sex”.

Part of the difficulty has little or nothing to do with religious belief or ideology. A tightly knit community where everyone knows everyone else is not at all conducive either to romance or sexual experimentation — you need the anonymity of the big city for both. At the same time it is the soullessness of the great urban centres that makes people long for a more communal life in the peace and quiet of the country. The problem may well be insoluble.

NOTE. This essay is available for purchase as a booklet from Price : £2.50

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