Sunday, March 10, 2013

Die Grosse Stille

Into Great Silence -- a near-three-hour film on life inside a Carthusian monastery -- has lay dormant on my hard drive for the last year, waiting patiently to be watched. It is not often that one is in the mood to spend over 160 minutes gazing at, as one reviewer puts it, "the supposedly pure existence of a bunch of men playing house on a hill, oblivious (and useless) to the world of need and suffering beneath them." Today caught me in one of those moods, however, and so I sat wrapped in a blanket on our couch and watched the whole film from start to finish.

It would take far too long to fully address the question of whether deeply ascetic monks are oblivious and useless to the world of need. It would, however, take very little time to address the question of whether most citizens of the West are not only useless to the world of need but also its progenitors.

What I want to focus on is two quotes (one scriptural, the other liturgical) that appeared throughout the film:

Anyone who does not give up all he has cannot be my disciple.

O Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced.

The first quote, spoken by Jesus,  brings our attention to the fact that asceticism is not the special prerogative of the few Christians; it is, rather, the special prerogative of all under the name of "Christianity" - a religion likely to have few adherents as a result (which is why Yoder calls the minority status of Christians a theological fact before it is a statistical fact). Entire renunciation is the call of every person who would be disciples of Jesus. This is why Bonhoeffer calls it costly grace.

But as Bonhoeffer also reminds us, it is grace because of who is calling us. The ascetic life, as the monks live it, is profoundly erotic. At the heart of it is a seduction, a whispered invitation to come closer and closer to God, which, as one of the monks says, "is the end of our lives."

Before feeding "the world of need" with some miraculous bread, Jesus spent forty days in the desert with no food. By the end, he needed bread. He refused to satisfy his need, however, remembering that human beings do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God. God, not bread, is our end. God, not bread, is the one we have been created to desire.

Perhaps the greatest service that Christians with an abundance of possessions could do for the world of need is to give them up as the monks did and pursue our true telos. We have tried fixing with our left hands what we are destroying with our right. It is time to let go of our tools of mass growth and mass destruction and to heed the call that ends mass, "Ite, missa est", responding "Deo gratias". The monks may well be playing house on a hill as their response to that dismissal, but that is precisely what the church is called to do. We are to be, Jesus' words, "a city on a hill".

Far from being an irrelevant and impotent anachronism, these Carthusian monks may the be the vanguards of a new order, for as Alisdair MacIntyre said, the only hope for our world is the emergence of a new St Benedict.

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