My man Hanson with another fascinating column. Excerpts:
Monasteries of the mind are an effort to reconnect with the past and disengage psychologically from the present. For millions of Americans, their music, their movies, their sports, and their media are not current fare. Instead, they have mentally moved to mountaintops or inaccessible valleys, where they can live in the past or dream of the future, but certainly not dwell in the here and now.
Count me in. (I have also been known to hole up physically in inaccessible valleys for weeks at a time.) But why? Several reasons, one of them being the lamestream media:
Monastics are tuning out the media. Listening to Brian Williams warn of fake news would be like paying attention to Miley Cyrus’s reminder about the need for abstinence. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who is often said to be the ethical conscience of the paper’s op-ed page, recently begged the IRS to commit a felony by sending him Trump’s tax returns. He went so far as to provide his own address to facilitate the crime: “But if you’re in IRS and have a certain president’s tax return that you’d like to leak, my address is: NYT, 620 Eighth Ave., NY NY 10018.”
Someone belatedly might have gotten the message. Rhodes scholar Rachel Maddow got a hold of two pages from Trump’s 2005 tax return. On MSNBC she went the full Roswell-UFO mode in hyping the scoop until she finally grasped that a twelve-year-old-tax return revealed that her Trump-as-Snidely-Whiplash had paid a greater tax (percentage-wise and absolutely) than “you didn’t build that” Barack Obama paid. Such an inadvertent demonstration is not the purpose for which a Rachel Maddow was hired.
If Paul Krugman can win the Nobel prize, and Bill Clinton and Rachel 'Mad Dog' Maddow are Rhodes Scholars, then those awards have become well-nigh meaningless.
Suppose you and yours join a quasi-monastic community out in the middle of nowhere where you live more or less 'off the grid,' home-school your kids, try to keep alive and transmit our Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman traditions, all in keeping with that marvellous admonition of Goethe in Faust:
Was du ererbt von deinen Vätern hast, erwirb es, um es zu besitzen!
What from your fathers you received as heir,
Acquire if you would possess it. (tr. W. Kaufmann)
So now you are out in the desert or the forest or in some isolated place free of the toxic influences of a society in collapse. The problem is that you are now a very easy target for the fascists of the Left. You and yours are all in one place, far away from the rest of society and its infrastructure. All the fascists have to do is trump up some charges, of child-abuse, of gun violations, whatever. The rest of society considers you kooks and benighted bigots and religious fanatics and won't be bothered if you are wiped off the face of the earth. You might go the way of the Branch Davidians.
Is this an alarmist scenario? I hope it is. But the way things are going, one ought to give careful thought to one's various withdrawal options.
Monks come in two kinds, the cenobites and the eremites or hermits. The cenobites live in community whereas the hermits go off on their own. Eremos in Greek means desert, and there are many different motives for moving into the desert either literally or figuratively. There are those whose serious psychological conditions make it impossible for them to function in modern society. Chris Knight is such a one, who, when asked about Thoreau, replied in one word, "dilettante." That's saying something inasmuch as Henry David was one monkish and solitary dude even when he wasn't hanging out at Walden Pond. Somewhere in his fascinating journal he writes, "I have no walks to throw away on company."
Others of a monkish bent are wholly sane, unlike Knight, so sane in fact that they perceive and reject the less-than-sane hustle of Big City life. Some are motivated religiously, some philosophically, and some share both motivations. I have always held that a sane religiosity has to be deeply philosophical and vice versa. I think most of the Desert Fathers would agree. Athens and Jerusalem need each other for complementation and mutual correction. Some of the monkish are members of monastic religious orders, some attach themselves as oblates to such orders, and some go it alone. Call the latter the Maverick Variation.
And of course there are degrees of withdrawal from society and its illusions. I have been called a recluse, but on most days I engage in a bit of socializing usually early in the morning in the weight room or at the pool or spa where a certain amount of banter & bullshit is de rigueur. I thereby satisfy my exiguous social needs for the rest of the day. Other mornings, sick of such idle talk and the corrrosive effect it can have on one's seriousness and spiritual focus, I head for the hills to traipse alone with my thoughts as company. But I am not as severe as old Henry David: I will share my walk with you and show you some trails if you are serious, fit, and don't talk too much.
I am a Myers-Briggs INTP introvert. Must one be an introvert to be a hermit? No. The most interesting hermit I know is an extrovert who in his younger days was a BMOC, excellent at sports, successful at 'the chase,' who ended up on Wall Street, became very wealthy, indulged his every appetite, but then had a series of profound religious experiences that inspired him to sell all he owned and follow Christ, first into a cenobium, then into a hermitage.
A tip of the hat and a Merry Christmas to Karl White of London for sending me to this Guardian piece which profiles some contemporary monkish specimens.
In April of 2011, 60 Minutes had a segment on the monks of Mt. Athos. It was surprisingly sympathetic for such a left-leaning program. What one expects and usually gets from liberals and leftists and the lamestream media is religion-bashing -- unless of course the religion is Islam, the religion of peace -- but the segment in question was refreshingly objective. It was actually too sympathetic for my taste and not critical enough. It didn't raise the underlying questions. Which is why you need my blog.
We know that this world is no dream and is to that extent real. For all we know it may be as real as it gets, though philosophers and sages over the centuries, East and West, have assembled plenty of considerations that speak against its plenary reality. We don't know that there is any world other than this one. We also don't know that there isn't. Now here is an existential question for you: Will you sacrifice life in this world, with its manifold pleasures and satisfactions, for the chance of transcendent happiness in a merely believed-in hinter world? The Here is clear; the Hereafter is not. It is not clear that is is, or that it isn't, or what it is if it is. When I say that the world beyond is merely believed-in, I mean that it is merely believed-in from the point of view of the here and now where knowledge is impossible; I am not saying that there is no world beyond.
Let us be clear what the existential option is. It is not between being a dissolute hedonist or an ascetic, a Bukowski or a Simon of Sylites. It is between being one who lives in an upright and productive way but in such a way as to assign plenary reality and importance to this world, this life, VERSUS one who sees this world as a vanishing quantity that cannot be taken with full seriousness but who takes it as preparatory for what comes after death. (Of course, most adherents of a religion live like ordinary worldlings for the most part but hedge their bets by tacking on some religious observances on the weekend. I am not concerned with these wishy-washy types here.)
The monks of Mount Athos spend their lives preparing for death, writing their ticket to the Beyond, engaging in unseen warfare against Satan and his legions. They pray the Jesus Prayer ceaselessly; they do not surf the Web or engage in competitive eating contests or consort with females -- there are no distaff elements on the Holy Mountain.
Is theirs the highest life possible for a human being? Or is the quest to determine what is the highest life the highest life? The monks think they have the truth, the final truth, the essential and saving truth. Thinking they possess it, their task is not to seek it but to implement it in their lives, to 'existentially appropriate it' as Kierkegaard might say, to knit it into the fabric of their Existenz. There is a definite logic to their position. If you have the truth, then there is no point in wasting time seeking it, or talking about it, or debating scoffers and doubters. The point is to do what is necessary to achieve the transcendent Good the existence of which one does not question.
This logic is of course common to other 'true believers.' Karl Marx in the 11th of his Theses on Feuerbach wrote that "The philosophers have variously interpreted the world, but the point is to change it." Marx and the commies he spawned thought they had the truth, and so the only thing left was to implement it at whatever cost, the glorious end justifying the bloody means. Millions of eggs were broken, though, and no omelet materialized.
Buddha, too, was famously opposed to speculation. If you have been shot with a poisoned arrow, there is no point in speculating as to the trajectory of the arrow, the social class of the archer, or the chemical composition of the poison; the one thing necessary is to extract the arrow. The logic is the same, though the point is different. The point for Buddha was not theosis (deification) as in Eastern Orthodoxy, or the classless society as in Marxism, but Nirvana, the extinguishing of the ego-illusion and final release from the wheel of Samsara.
If you have the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters, then by all means live in accordance with it. Put it into practice. But do you in fact have the truth? For the philosopher this is the question that comes first and cannot be evaded. If the monks of Mt. Athos are right about God and the soul and that the ultimate human goal is theosis, then they are absolutely right to renounce this world of shadows and seemings and ignorance and evil for the sake of true reality and true happiness.
But do they have the truth or does one throw one's life away when one flees to a monastery? Does one toss aside the only reality there is for a bunch of illusions? There is of course a secular analog. I would say that all the earnest and idealistic and highly talented individuals who served the cause of Communism in the 20th century sacrificed their lives on the altar of illusions. They threw their lives away pursuing the impossible. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, for example, who went to the electric chair as atomic spies. Such true believers wasted their lives and ended up enablers of great evil. In the end they were played for fools by an evil ideology.
So isn't the philosopher's life the highest possible life for a human being? For only the philosopher pursues the ultimate questions without dogmatism, without blind belief, in freedom, critically, autonomously. I am not saying that the ultimate good for a human being is endless inquiry. The highest goal cannot be endless inquiry into truth, but a resting in it. But that can't come this side of the Great Divide. Here and now is not the place or time to dogmatize. We can rest in dogma on the far side, although there we won't need it, seeing having replaced believing.
My Athenian thesis -- that the life of the philosopher is the highest life possible for a human being -- won't play very well in Jerusalem. And I myself have serious doubts about it. But all such doubts are themselves part and parcel of the philosophical enterprise. For if nothing is immune from being hauled before the bench of Reason, there to be rudely interrogated, then fair Philosophia herself must also answer to that tribunal.
Philosophy is reason's search for the ultimate truth about the ultimate matters. But reason is not reason unless it strives mightily beyond itself to sources of truth that transcend it. So the true philosopher must be open to divine revelation. If it is the truth the philosopher seeks, then he cannot confine himself to the truth accessible to discursive reason.
Try to guess when the following was written, and by whom. Answer below the fold:
Ever increasing frenzy, tension, explosiveness of this country. You feel it in the monastery with people like Raymond. In the priesthood with so many upset, one way or another, and so many leaving. So many just cracking up, falling apart. People in Detroit buying guns. Groups of vigilantes being formed to shoot Negroes. Louisville is a violent place, too. Letters in U. S. Catholic about the war article. -- some of the shrillest came from Louisville. This is a really mad country, and an explosion of the madness is inevitable. The only question -- can it somehow be less bad than one anticipates? Total chaos is quite possible, though I don't anticipate that. But the fears, frustrations, hatreds, irrationalities, hysterias, are all there and all powerful enough to blow everything wide open. One feels that they want violence. It is preferable to the uncertainty of 'waiting.'
Apropos of my last entry, a warning to those may be thinking of heading for the desert. The following observation from a November 2009 post, "Demons of the Desert."
The desert fathers of old believed in demons because of their experiences in quest of the "narrow gate" that only few find. They sought to perfect themselves and so became involved as combatants in unseen warfare. They felt as if thwarted in their practices by opponents both malevolent and invisible. The moderns do not try to perfect themselves and so the demons leave them alone.
Distracted from your distractions, you may get more than you bargained for, phenomenologically, if not really.
A reader sent the following about half-way through my digital fast and blogging hiatus.
. . . I was hoping that when you emerge from it you might have some practical wisdom on how you went about it. What has your daily schedule been like? Have you struggled with the nagging urge to check everything all the time? I have been thinking a lot about the issues you raised both in The Big Unplug post and in your post on Mass Media and Spiritual Deterioration . . . . Thanks for reading this and for the writing you have contributed over the years - it has truly been signal amidst a great deal of noise.
How did I go about it? I got as far away as practicable from the hype and hustle and hyperkineticism of the modern world.
From July 26th to August 30th I lived in a hermitage on the grounds of the most remote monastery in the Western hemisphere in a place of great natural beauty. I have decided not to post any photographs or reveal the identities of any interlocutors in keeping with the monastic spirit of silence, solitude and seclusion.
An average day went something like this. Up at my usual time of 2:00 AM. (The monks arise at 3:30.) Instant coffee. I drank no good coffee for five weeks as part of the self-imposed discipline. Spiritual-philosophical reading until 3:00: Bible, Garrigou-Lagrange, Edith Stein, Theresa of Avila, et al. Formal, seated meditation until 3:30 in the hermitage. Then a 10-15 minute hike through a dark and spooky canyon to the oratory for Vigils at 4:00. This is the first hour of the liturgia horarum, the liturgy of the hours. It lasts one hour weekdays, one hour, twenty minutes on Sundays. Some of the 'little hours' are as short as ten minutes. The liturgy, chanted by the monks, is essentially psalmody with Christian elements interspersed. After Vigils, a light breakfast outside the monks' refectory. Then back to the hermitage for study and writing. I usually attended three of the seven hours per day and meditated on a 'regulation' Zen cushion and mat three times per day. I gave myself the rule, "No pray, no eat." So I attended Vigils before breakfast, Sext before the main meal, taken with the monks in the refectory, in silence of course, with one of the monk doing a reading, and Vespers before supper.
Did I struggle with the urge to check my 'devices' all the time? Not at all. I brought only a laptop computer for writing, but there was no wi-fi at the hermitage. For that I had to hike to the monastery proper where I could tap into a weak wi-fi signal. I did that a grand total of four times in five weeks, and only to check e-mail. The only other device I had with me was a primitive cell phone which was useless to me in the remote location.
From my journal:
Here in the hermitage I stand naked before my own conscience. Its penetrating power is enhanced by the exterior and interior silence.
No Escape. And now it is night. Alone in the hermitage which is itself alone and off by itself under stars undiminished by light pollution. Dead silence. No distractions of the usual sort: other people, pets, television, radio, Internet. Just me, my books, and my past -- and the spiritual dimension that the silence and solitude allow to approach. The hour glass of my existence is running out, which is why I am here to repent of my sins and prepare for death. The hour of death is the hour of truth when the masks fall, and evasions evaporate.
Modern man, distracted and diverted by endless self-referential yammering, firmly entrapped within the human horizon, is so deluded and lost as to be incapable of even raising the question, seriously, of whether anything lies beyond that stifling horizon.
An outstanding essay by Robert Royal on the many Mertons and their uneasy unity in one fleshly vehicle. There is of course Merton the Contemplative, the convert to Catholicism who, with the typical zeal of the convert, took it all the way to the austerities of Trappist monasticism, and that at a time (1941) when it was a more demanding and rigorous affair than today. In serious tension with the Contemplative, the Scribbler:
It did not help that Merton the Contemplative confronted Merton the Writer. Even for a man not vowed to silence, Merton's several dozen books would have been an extraordinary output. But adding the journals -- four volumes have now appeared and the whole will run to seven volumes totaling about 3,500 large pages -- we begin to glimpse a serious conflict. Can a man committed to the wordless apophatic way and a forgetting of self be preoccupied with recording-and publishing-every thought and act?
I live that tension myself very morning. For me it takes the form of a conflict between Athens and Benares, as I like to call it. Denk, denk, denk, scribble scribble, scribble from 2 AM on. But then at 4 AM, no later! I must tear myself away from the discursive desk and mount the black mat of meditation, going into reverse, as it were, moving from disciplined thinking to disciplined non-thinking.
Also in tension with the Contemplative, the Bohemian:
There were also other Mertons, among the more troublesome: the Bohemian. This Merton felt a constant need to be an outsider. When Merton lived in the world, it took the usual forms. He had aspirations to being an experimental writer and poet (his Collected Poems, which show real innovation but great unevenness, run to almost 1,000 pages). He listened to jazz, dabbled in leftist politics, hit the bottle pretty hard, smoked heavily, had his share of girlfriends, and did a bit of drawing. All relatively harmless, but some incongruous holdover bedeviled Merton the monk. Should a Trappist be interested in Henry Miller? Or follow Joan Baez? Or Bob Dylan? As late as 1959 (after eighteen years in the abbey), Merton was reading books like James Thurber's The Years with Ross, an account of life under Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker. The New Yorker of the fifties was more staid than its current incarnation, and Merton often claimed the chic ads reminded him of everything in the world he had fled. But there was something odd in a monk even being interested in a magazine like the New Yorker.
Also battling with the Contemplative and Quietist (in a broad sense of this term), a fourth Merton, the Social Activist who aligned easily with the Writer and the Bohemian:
In the 1960s that world [the world outside the monastic enclosure, the 'real' world in the parlance of the worldly] came to the fore in his work. The Contemplative who fled the world, however, was not always a good advisor for the Activist. The Contemplative had not fared well in European or American society, and had taken this as proof that those societies were not doing well either. This led him to a number of mistaken or exaggerated judgments. During the fifties he accepted a theory of the moral equivalence of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Vietnam War abroad and the civil rights struggle at home, he came to believe, revealed a totalitarian impulse in America and he wrote of the possible emergence of a Nazi-like racial regime in the United States. (Emphasis added)
Royal has it exactly right.
The frequent tendency of Merton the Activist to overstatement is telling. Merton was by background mostly a European. And lacking any experience of the moral realism and decency of most Americans, he tended to judge all of American society through the lens of heated political controversies and the usual intellectual complaints about the bourgeoisie. His essays on civil rights, for example, are heartfelt and penetrating, but are not even a very good description of the predicament of the American liberal. The kind of moderation Merton showed in spiritual and moral questions rarely appears in his social commentary. He was angry about political issues in the early 1960s. (Emphasis added)
Spot on, once again. Merton was in many ways a typical leftist intellectual alienated from and unappreciative of the country that allowed him to live his kind of life in his kind of way, as opposed to, say, being forced into a concentration camp and then put to death. The Commies were not all that kind to religion and religionists. You may recall that Edith Stein, another Catholic convert, became a Carmelite nun, but was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz. She was, by the way, a much better thinker than Merton.
Merton the Man is the uneasy unity of these four personae. His edifice is four-storied rather than seven, and I suppose 'story' could also be read as 'narrative' or 'script,' the Contemplative, the Writer, the Bohemian, and the Activist being as much multiply exemplifiable life-scripts as the competing personae of one particular man.
Intimately interwoven with these four Mertons is someone we are forced to call Merton the Man. This Fifth Business never entirely settled down. The Contemplative, as may be seen in painful detail in the journals, is constantly vacillating, though in his public work Merton displays spiritual mastery. The Writer is gifted, but so much so that he has a tendency toward glibness. The Bohemian Merton got the others into any number of scrapes, and the Activist Merton often got carried away by currents in the sixties that-in retrospect-were not entirely fair to American society. Yet when all is said and done, Merton remains one of the great contemplative spirits of the century.
Merton died young in Bangkok in 1968, at the age of 53. He was there for a conference. Those of us who have attended and contributed to academic conferences know how dubious they are, and how destabilizing to a centered life. I tend to think that it was the Writer, The Bohemian, and the Activist who, in the synergy of an unholy trinity, swamped the Contemplative and caused him to be lured away from his circumscribed but true monastic orbit.
If he had lived on into the '70s would Merton have remained a monk? Who knows? So many men and women of the cloth abandoned their vocations and vows at that time.* In his Asian journal he writes that he intended to return to Gethsemani. It is nevertheless reasonable to speculate that he would not have lasted as a monk much longer. The Zeitgeist would have got to him, and the synergy of the unholy trinity just mentioned. Not to mention the transports of earthly love:
The mid-1960s brought him to the brink of disaster. Merton had a back problem requiring an operation at a Catholic hospital in Louisville. When he recovered from the anesthesia, he was anxious that he had missed daily communion. He began making notes on Meister Eckhart. His long- desired hermitage awaited him back at Gethsemani. To the eye, it was business as usual.
But a pretty young student nurse came in. A Catholic, she knew of Merton from a book her father had given her. Something erupted between them- even though she had a fiance in Chicago. On leaving the hospital, he wrote her about needing friendship. She wrote back, instructed by him to mark the envelope "conscience matter" (lest the superiors read the correspondence). Under "conscience matter," Merton sent a declaration of love. Thus began a series of deceptions, and Merton only narrowly avoided the shipwreck of his monastic vows because of the impossibility of the whole situation.
*I think of the Jesuits and others who had jobs in philosophy because they were assigned to teach it at Catholic colleges back in the day when such colleges were more than nominally Catholic, and how they left their religious orders -- but kept their jobs! Nice work if you can get it.
It is delightful to be able to traverse an outdoor or indoor space without feeling obliged to greet or even acknowledge the passersby. This one can do at a monastery without fear of being taken as anti-social or unfriendly. For silence is the 'default setting' at the monastery whereas noise and idle talk are the 'default settings' in society.
The suggestion was made that I give a little talk to the monks of Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery outside of Abiqui, New Mexico. I thought I would offer a few words in defense of the monastic life, not that such an ancient and venerable tradition needs any defense from me, but just to clarify my own thoughts and perhaps help others clarify theirs either by way of agreement or disagreement with mine. I will attempt three things. I will first list some convictions I hold to be of the essence of religion. Then I will suggest that the monastic path is an excellent way to implement these convictions. Finally I will ask myself why I am not a monk.
The Essence of Religion
There is much more to a religion than its beliefs and doctrines; there are also its practices. The practices, however, are informed and guided by certain central convictions whose importance cannot be denied. Religion is not practice alone. Now it is not easy to define religion, and it may be impossible. (Religion may be a family-resemblance concept in Wittgenstein's sense.) In any case I will not attempt to define religion by specifying necessary and sufficient conditions of the concept's application. But as I see it, most of the following are essential (necessary) to anything that deserves to be called a religion, and all of them are essential to Christianity. What I offer is a characterization, not a definition.
1. In first place, and not just in the order of exposition, is the belief that there is what William James calls an "unseen order." (Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 53) This is a realm of absolute reality that lies beyond the perception of the five outer senses and their instrumental extensions. It is also inaccessible to inner sense or introspection. It is also not a realm of mere abstracta or thought-contents. So it lies beyond the discursive intellect, as it does beyond the senses. One can reason about it, and reason to it, but one cannot access it directly via the discursive intellect. It is accessible from our side via mystical and religious experience. An initiative from its side is not to be ruled out in the form of revelation.
Compare the first item in Simone Weil's Profession of Faith: "There is a reality outside the world, that is to say, outside space and time, outside man's mental universe, outside any sphere whatsoever that is accessible to human faculties."
2. The belief that there is a supreme good for humans and that "our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves" to the "unseen order." (Varieties, p. 53) The Unseen Order is thus not merely a realm of absolute reality, but also one of absolute value and an object of our highest and purest desire.
Compare the second item in Weil's profession: "Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world."
3. The conviction that we are morally deficient, and that this deficiency impedes our adjustment to the Unseen Order. Man is in some some sense fallen from the moral height at which he would have ready access to the Order which alone is the source of his ultimate happiness and final good. His moral corruption, however it came about, has noetic consequences. That is, our ability to know the saving truth has been impaired by our moral deficiency.
4. The conviction that our moral deficiency cannot be made sufficiently good by our own efforts to afford us ready, or perhaps any, access to the Unseen Order. Proximately, we need the help of others; ultimately, we need help from the Unseen Order.
5. The conviction that adjustment to the Unseen Order requires moral purification/transformation.
6. The conviction that help from the side of the Unseen Order is available to bring about this purification and adjustment.
7. The conviction that the sensible order, while not unreal, is not plenary in point of reality or value, that it is ontologically and axiologically derivative, and as derivative defective. It is a manifestation or emanation or creation of the Unseen Order.
Each of these seven convictions is an element in my personal credo. Can I prove them? Of course not. But then nothing of a substantive nature in philosophy, theology, or any controversial field, can be proven. But each of the above convictions is rationally defensible. So while not provable, they are not matters of mere faith either. They can be argued for, their negations are rationally rejectable, and there are experiences that vouch for them. (See Religious Belief and What Inclines Me to It.)
The Monastic Path
I will now suggest that the monastic life is perhaps the best way to realize existentially the above convictions, but also to have the sorts of experiences that tend to provide evidence for the convictions. One lives the convictions, and by living them is granted experiences and intimations that validate the convictions.
Let us suppose that you accept all or most of the above seven propositions, in their spirit if not in their letter, and that you also share with me the meta-conviction that these first-order convictions are to be lived (existentially realized, realized in one's Existenz) and not merely thought about or talked about or argued over.
Then it makes sense to go into the desert. The negative reason is to escape the manifold distractions of the world which keep one scattered and enslaved to the ephemeral, while the positive reason is to live a life focused on the the absolute and unchanging Source of all reality and value. The entrance into the monastery signals that one is truly convinced of the reality of the unseen (#1), it supreme value for us and our happiness (#2) and the relative unreality and insignificance of this world of time and change and vain ambition (#7).
To live such a focused existence, however, requires discipline. We have a fallen nature in at least two senses. First, we are as if fallen from a higher state. Second, we are ever falling against the objects of our world and losing ourselves in them, becoming absorbed in them. (Compare Heidegger's Verfallenheit, fallingness.) Here we find the ontological root of such sins of the flesh as avarice, gluttony, and lust. Given our fallen and falling nature, a monastic institution can provide the moral discipline and guidance that might be difficult if not impossible to secure on the outside, especially in a secularized and sex-saturated society such as ours has become. The weight of concupiscence is heavy and it drags us down. We are sexual beings naturally, and oversexualized beings socially, and so we are largely unable to control our drives to the extent necessary to develop spiritual sight. The thrust of desire confers final reality upon the sensuous while occluding one's spiritual sight. Sensuous desire, especially inordinate sensuous desire, realizes the things of the senses while de-realizing the things of the spirit.
Here, as I see it, is the main reason for sexual continence. We are not continent because we are undersexed, or prudes, or anti-natalists, or despisers of matter. (Certainly no Christian could despise the material world, and a Christian such as Kierkegaard who at the end of his life waxed anti-natalist veered off into a personal idiosyncrasy.) The continence of the loins subserves the continence of the mind and heart which in turn are probably necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for a Glimpse of spiritual realities. (I say 'probably necessary' because divine grace may grant sight to the committed worldling nolens volens.)
And then there is the great problem of suggestibility. We are highly sensitive and responsive to social suggestions as to what is real and important and what is not. In a society awash with secular suggestions, people find it hard to take religion seriously. Here is another reason why a community of the like-minded may be necessary for most spiritual seekers. They provide reinforcement and the requisite counter-suggestions. (It is worth noting that if cults can 'brainwash' their members, whole societies can go off the rails and brainwash their members.)
Why Am I not a Monk?
"If you think so highly of the monastic life, what are you doing on the outside?"
A fair question deserving a straight answer. I didn't come to religion; I was brought up Roman Catholic by a pious Italian mother and pre-Vatican II nuns and priests. But I had a religious nature, so the training 'took.' But I also had a strong intellectual bent and was inclined philosophically from an early age. So I couldn't avoid asking, and not just intellectually, but existentially as well: how much of this is true and how do I know? The ferment of the 1960s only intensified my cognitive dissonance as the religious upbringing clashed on the one side with my philosophical questioning, and on the other with the secular and counter-cultural suggestions of the 'sixties. I remember in 1965 listening intently to the words of Bob Dylan's Gates of Eden and trying to discern its compatibility, if any, with Catholic teaching. (By the way, attending a Dylan concert in those days was like going to church: the audience remained dead quiet, hanging on every word.)
So philosophy took over the role in the pious youth's life that religion had played. That kept me away from any conventional religious vocation. And so it kept me out of the monastery. For one cannot join a monastery in general; it must be either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Buddhist or whatever, and to do that in good faith and with a clear intellectual conscience one must accept the central doctrinal content of those religions. But that content was exactly what to my mind needed examination. Athens at that point got the upper hand over Jerusalem. So why am I not a monk? Because of Athens.
But now, as I approach the end of the trail, I see ever more clearly the vanity of any philosophy that does not complete itself in something beyond it. But what? The empty discursivity of reason needs to be filled and completed by a direct spiritual seeing. Concepts without intuitions are empty. (Kant) So philosophy needs completion by mystical intuition, but this is rare and sporadic and fragmentary here below, mere Glimpses; to sustain us in the between times we need faith grounded in revelation.