Into Great Silence is a movie set in the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. The Carthusian monks who reside there belong to a strict contemplative order and speech is restricted to hymns and collective prayers. They have not renounced the world so much as embraced a life of reflection and meditation. There is no requisition in prayer. It is simply a way of honoring God and disciplining the mind to think only of him.
Isolation from the world and a life of solitary prayer is not new. Christ wandered in the desert for spiritual strength. The Gospels – especially John present him as a complex Man-God, sent from the Father, but also existing eternally before Creation and his transubstantiation. Many critics have noted Christ’s hesitancy to state that he is the Messiah, and some even wonder if he – as a man – fully understood this. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus prays fourteen times. Like the monks he is not supplicating his Father nor beseeching him. He is only contemplating his nature, his place on earth, and his responsibility to his Father and to Man.
In the Gospel of John )12:27-28), he is very clear. He makes no appeals to his Father:
Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say, 'Father save me from this hour'? No it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.In one of Christ’s longest prayers to his Father (17:22-25), he again makes to supplication; and his prayer is a reiteration of his purpose on earth and a celebration of God’s divine plan:
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.Hindu sadhus and Tibetan monks have both sought the high Himalaya as a place of prayer and solitary contemplation.
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me.
Christian monks and Hindu holy men arrive at the same conclusion but by different paths and for different reasons. Hindus believe that the world is illusion (maya) and that we are deceived by our senses into believing that it is real and important. The only purpose in life is to recognize this illusion and turn from it to God.
Since Christ was both man and God, Christians do not see the world as illusory, but as a necessary spiritual proving ground. Christ in his responses to the Devil in the desert offered the promise of heaven for those who toil on earth. Christ, as Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor points out, could have created a world without suffering, misery, and penury; but chose one which would force men to use their free will and choose between good an evil. Accession to heaven would be conditioned by faith; and that faith could only be strengthened through trial.
The Christian monk contemplates John’s God – a mysterious Trinity, a Hellenistic logos or pre-existent reason, and the miracle of God made flesh. His thoughts are necessarily on Christ, the Son of Man and Christ, the Son of God. The sadhus ‘prayers’ are about releasing the mind, removing all traces of cognition and logic, and being one with God. The Catholic monk, like Augustine, Aquinas, Tertullian, and Marcion before him, cannot know God without logic and a reflection on the paradox and contradiction of the nature of the Christian God.
Ultimately, the goal is the same – subsumption within the mind of God.
There are relatively few purely contemplative monastic orders in the United States today; and many – especially Franciscans and Benedictines - encourage evangelism and community work. Both are increasingly popular alternatives to the rigorous, isolated, and strictly disciplined life of the Carthusians or Carmelites.
Both secular and religious critics have challenged the premise of a contemplative life. “What is the purpose”, they ask. Prayer as enunciated in the Gospels and Epistles is a personal, spiritual exercise, one which has no relationship whatsoever with events in the external world. Prayer is meant to put the worshiper in the presence of God and to express faith – the sine qua non of personal salvation – not to beg for divine intervention for himself or others. If this is correct (Catholics are a bit more giving on the nature and purpose of prayer), then what could be more self-serving and selfish than an inbred community of men shut off from the world?
Evangelism, pastoral ministry, and good works are the modus operandi of most religions today. The church provides solace in time of emotional or spiritual crisis, evangelism opens the possibility of salvation to millions, and good works (Catholics) help others and gain attention in heaven.
Monasteries are useless supernumerary vestiges of the Middle Ages, some critics conclude.
On the contrary, contemplative monasteries serve a very useful purpose. They exemplify the state of mind that all religions have insisted upon for salvation, enlightenment, or peace. Everyone must face at one time or another unanswerable questions – how did I get here, where am I going, and what does it all mean?
Tolstoy spent the better part of fifty years trying to reach a conclusion about or at least some accommodation with these conundrums. In A Confession he wrote of his years of intellectual inquiry, never leaving a stone unturned in philosophy, science, literature, and history for some clues as to being. At last, worn out, exhausted, and dispirited, he gave up and gave in. If billions of people have believed, the reflected, then why shouldn’t I?
The contemplative life in both Hinduism and in monastic Christianity encourages exactly the opposite course to that of Tolstoy. Intellectual inquiry will get you nowhere; but an a priori acceptance of God and a life of contemplation will ultimately end in spiritual renewal or enlightenment. There is enough complexity in the concept of logos or the Trinity to satisfy anyone’s lingering attachment to logic.
A cloistered monastic life is for the very few; but the idea of monasticism should be considered by many.
Meditation, inspired by the Sixties generation and a practice essential to the Hindu spiritual path, is of little use today. Meditation is essential for the Indian sadhu because it has a distinct, canonical purpose – for dispelling illusion, contemplating the oneness and universality of God, and for accelerating the path to spiritual enlightenment. It was never meant as a technique for relaxation or temporary calm. Without the fundamental underpinnings of Hinduism (or Buddhism) the principles of which deny the value of the visible world, meditation can only be a thing to do. Meditation (contemplation) for Christian monks is no different – accepting the divinity of God, reflecting on its complexity and universality, and praying for an enlightening understanding.
For a Carthusian monk, contemplation of the nature of God and the Trinity is the means to an end – a complete, absolute, and unquestioning acceptance of God; and a progressive deepening of faith. There is no real difference between this last absolute, profound faith and Hindu nirvana.
Few have the patience, diligence, commitment or belief to join the Carthusian brothers or even to adopt their spiritual way. Most have neither a Hindu belief in maya or a profound Christian acceptance of the exceptional complexity of the Trinity. Professed religion is simple, prescriptive, routine, social, and comforting. Prayers are intemperate, exaggerated, and often trivial. Our worship is likely to be more for community than for faith. Few of us have even a glancing familiarity let alone understanding of the complex, subtle, and rigorous theology of the Bible. In other words, where would we start? Our thoughts would be scattershot and purposeless.
Yet the Grande Chartreuse lessons need not be so demanding. Perhaps it is enough to doubt temporal purpose as the first step to a valuation of a spiritual one. Perhaps a reading of history is enough to convince us of the perpetual repetition of events and by consequence their meaninglessness. Perhaps we have read enough Dostoevsky to question the paradoxes of faith and suffering.
I am reminded of Bruce Springsteen’s song The Ties That Bind:
You been hurt and you're all cried out you say
You walk down the street pushin' people outta your way
You packed your bags and all alone you wanna ride,
You don't want nothin', don't need no one by your side
You're walkin' tough baby, but you're walkin' blind
to the ties that bind
“We all die alone”, said Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan spends his whole life trying to structure events to suit his convenience, eventually realizes how vain a pursuit this was, and how ignorant he was to rely on other people’s false love and compassion. Tolstoy had a point, and suggested that we might all do better to think about singularity, contemplation, the ties that bind, and our death sooner rather than later.
Perspective is the easiest term to describe this amalgamation of religion, philosophy, and common sense. It takes no genius to see that history has no point, nor does human existence. We have evolved from a few minerals and electrical charges to homo sapiens. We will soon evolve into a post-human cybernetic existence; and that too will come and go. The universe is infinite or God is infinite, and it doesn’t really matter. We have what it takes to put ourselves in the minds of the Carthusian monks; and that is a start.