Tag Archives: monasticism

The Way, the Truth

It’s striking how similar world religions can be. Granted, the concept of “religion” as a separate sphere of life is a western one, but throughout the world thinkers have drawn similar conclusions. Until the World’s Congress of Religions of 1893 in Chicago, however, most Americans knew only of the monotheistic traditions. Jews and Muslims had been in this country almost as long as Christians. Nobody paid much mind to the indigenous religions of the original occupants. In any case, in 1893 other religions—those of eastern Asia—entered American consciousness. Buddhism and Hinduism were exotic, if pagan, belief systems. There wasn’t much of a conceptual foundation upon which to build, however, so early on people tended to focus on the differences between them rather than the commonalities.

For me, I first really learned about such traditions in a World Religions course in college. I’d never heard of Daoism (or Taoism) before. The Dao, or “way,” pervades ancient Chinese religious thought. There’s a sense of flow to it—one of the main ideas is not to resist the way, but to bring yourself in line with it. Doing so helps you to realize that you need not be rich to be happy. Sufficiency is, well, sufficient. Meanwhile in the west, Christianity mostly bought into greedy consumerism. Our happiness is measured by what we have. And having, we want more. I’ve been reading about Daoism recently, and it occurs to me perhaps there are some accidental Daoists here in the west. This reading made me think of my father.

I can’t speak much for who he was, since I barely knew him. I only saw him once as an adult, before he died. For a brief moment he took me into his apartment. He owned practically nothing. A television, a few things to sit on. A magazine or two. That was about it. Did he want to acquire more? I didn’t know him well enough to ask. He was raised as a Christian, and I do not know what his religious beliefs were, if any. Thinking back to that experience, however, was the result of reading about Daoism. Being content with little. Not all of us are cut out for monastic life, but my visits to such communities have always left me with the sense that having less is more than enough. I know I’m over-simplifying here. I’m not an expert on Daoism. I’m certainly not an expert on my father. I do believe, however, that things can weigh us down. And even Christianity, read in a certain light, agrees.

Monks and Keys

Whoever doesn’t understand that something being free doesn’t mean people won’t buy it is pleasantly naive. I write this as someone who once worked for a publisher who routinely sold books that were reprints of material freely available online, where you could print out a PDF at very little cost. Being a bibliophile, however, I understand the sickness that makes one want to purchase a printed, bound book form of what you might otherwise get for nothing. One of the gifts under the tree that I can’t wait to explore thoroughly is the print form of Atlas Obscura. I found the website (where the contents of the book are free) through a friend and although I have little free time, a fair amount of it when it does occur, is spent on this website. The same friend recently sent me an entry I’d missed about a town in Austria that is looking to hire a professional hermit. Wait. What? Hermit for hire? This raises so many questions that it’s worth the three minutes it would take to read the post.

Perhaps oddly, the offer from Saalfelden is strangely compelling. Apparently the competition for the post is considerable. Here I sit with a laptop in front of me, happily married, a family man, and thinking about a hermitage. As my family can attest, I still display monastic tendencies even in a somewhat conventional life. The concept of self-denial was strongly instilled in me during my youth. That means that many of the things I like the most I very seldom have. I rise early and go to bed early and eat plain food in a cheerless cubicle at work. I may as well have taken a vow of silence for as little as I say on any given work day. Where is Saalfelden anyway?


No, I don’t really have what it takes to be a monk. There is, however, much about the self-denying lifestyle that recommends itself during this era of extreme self-absorption. There is much to be commended about thinking of others before yourself. As an ideal it is to be welcomed and applauded. In application it’s tougher than it sounds. I can’t walk across Manhattan without having to assert my desire to hurry along to work over the needs of those sleeping on the streets without getting paid for it, or even those who amble along on obviously painful legs and feet. Perhaps a cave in a mountain is s spiritual retreat, but it can also be a way of hiding from the needs of the world. There is a balance here and self-serving can take many forms. Even in a cave, the needs of the world require our thoughtful attention. Some of us just aren’t cut out to be monks.

Daily Bread Plus

I have a confession to make. I’m not a foodie. These days such an admission is tantamount to a venial sin, but the fact is I’m one of those who eats to live, not lives to eat. Still, like many people I’m concerned about whence my food comes. I can’t grow my own and just about all of it comes wrapped in plastic. Thus I found a BBC article my wife sent me to be of great interest: “An uncanny mixture: God, alcohol and even cannabis” by Kait Bolongaro. Focusing on monasteries and their brewing and distilling traditions, Bolongaro uses the foodie angle well. People want to know where their grub comes from, and the current interest in knowing the location of the source plays well into this. European monasteries have long been known for their production of alcohol. Even Jesus drank wine.

I’m no connoisseur of spiritous liquors, but the story is quite interesting. Many people don’t realize that monastic orders, in addition to praying and not having sex, also support themselves through industry. Many make goods to sell. Those in this article make booze. As Bolongaro points out, the fermentation and distillation process is an exacting one. In fact, it is a science. In the case of Chartreuse only three monks know the secret formula. They control the temperatures and conditions remotely, by computer. And I thought Bible Gateway was the only place the religious spent their time.


Science and religion actually have a very long history of cooperation. Gregor Mendel, whose work gave Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection its actual mechanism, was a monk. Other religious have been close observers of nature and processes. There is no commandment against good beer, as many Teutonic brothers would no doubt point out. But to get it right you have to know your chemistry. As the article says, some things can’t be rushed and monastic life lends itself to such slow processes. The rest of us in our secular pursuits rush through life far too fast for religion or science. Contemplation requires “down time.” Time off the clock. The kind of time, we’re told, that simply doesn’t exist any more. The story, after all, appears in BBC Business. I’m no foodie, but I have to confess that the cheese and pretzels purchased from the Amish in Lancaster do tend to taste better than those that come wrapped in plastic. There may be a religion to science after all.

The Friar’s Tale

Being a fan of Gothic fiction, I recently read an anonymous story from 1792 entitled, “The Friar’s Tale.” Those who linger among Gothic conventions know that the monastery is a common trope in the genre, often with debased clerics who use their authority to make their charges miserable. (Hmm. I wonder why I keep coming back to this kind of fiction?) Literary scholars tend to point to the late eighteenth century as the origin point of Gothic sensibilities which coincide with the Romantic movement. This then, is an early example of what people feared as industrialism and modernity encroached on a world once natural and full of mystery. The tale contains nothing to frighten a modern reader, but it does offer compelling commentary on the one organization that would seem most to benefit from retaining a pre-scientific worldview—the church.


The story involves lovers separated by a cad who is after the lass’s money and who connives with the mother superior of a convent to lock the girl away from both her money and her lover. She comes to the realization that religion has ruined her prospects. The friar narrating the tale refers to religion as “that constant comfort of the good, and powerful weapon of the wicked.” Of course we had already experienced Reformation vitriol by this point in history, and rage against the use of religion as a means for personal gain had been thrown out for any who would care to utilize it. Clearly the author of “The Friar’s Tale” found it essential to the plot.

The truly interesting aspect of all this is how, in the intervening centuries, religion has continued to present this opportunity to the greedy and corrupt. Not all religion succumbs, of course, but when it becomes a hierarchy of any description there will follow those who find it a means of personal gain. The Prosperity Gospel movement comes immediately to mind. Those who putatively follow a man who is recorded as having said to give away all that you have in order to be his disciple have somehow missed the message and keep their treasure where moth and rust pose constant dangers. We think ourselves advanced since then, but the words of a fictional friar from centuries ago may still hold some wisdom for Gothic readers in the present.

Saving Sin

ScienceoSin Although it makes little sense, I have always tended toward a monastic outlook. When I see something I want my first impulse is not to get it. I will sometimes deliberately not order my favorite dish when eating out. I never even went on a date until my Junior year in college. With considerable help I’ve overcome some of these tendencies, although I still wear clothes I bought in in my undergraduate days. So it was with considerable interest that I read Simon M. Laham’s The Science of Sin: the Psychology of the Seven Deadlies (And Why They Are So Good for You). Despite my monastic proclivities, I have never accepted the seven deadly sins as Gospel. They aren’t biblical and don’t always seem that serious. I mean, murder doesn’t even make the list. (And something need not be organic to be murdered.) In that sense Laham ‘s book exhales refreshingly unpolluted air.

More importantly, The Science of Sin demonstrates what sin becomes when God is removed from the equation. Sin is sin because God says so. As Laham clearly illustrates, the underlying bases of the seven deadly sins may be good for you. At any rate, they’re natural. Laham isn’t calling for a free-for-all, a no holds barred orgy, or the downfall of civilization—he just wants science to inform our natural urges rather than the ideals of some seriously outdated monks. That seems perfectly reasonable. I especially liked his demonstration of how asceticism tends to lead to more negative behavior than “gluttony.” What the church wanted to avoid it inadvertently assured.

Looking back over half a century of thinking pleasure might somehow be evil, it seems that maybe I’ve missed some, if not much, of what life offers. My years at a particular seminary were as close to monastic as a happily married man can get. I have yet to find a higher concentration of disreputable behavior than observed in such a religious setting, and I work in New York and live in New Jersey. Perhaps it is inevitably human that what we set out as ideals often becomes the very source of their dissolution. It is true that the seven deadly sins are beginning to show their advanced age, but perhaps the concept of sin retains some of its utility. When the behaviors condemned by the religious become frequent practices of that selfsame body, what other term fits as well?