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Special Section: Religious Life

Millennial wisdom stirs in the desert

To be at the brink of the 21st century is to be, apparently, at the cutting edge of a brave but bewildering new world. In a culture already fraught with change, we expect even more change to come. It takes no visionary to predict it.

We can see in embryo on the horizon of our lives new electronic miracles, a new conjunction of nations, a new national racial profile, a new universe to explore, a new display of universal angst and gain. We will have kinds of speed and light, power and control, supervision and communication unknown in the history of the world. We will have a global fun house -- full of surprises, full of danger -- and all without benefit of an exit door.

The question is: What will guide us through it? The profit-mongering and power plays that brought us here or something else? What will save us from ourselves as we go further into electronic darkness and lethal power, concentration of resources and planetary poverty, unparalleled development and incommensurable international hunger?

We go through life praying that God will save us from ourselves, but down deep we know that it is the human community that must control what we create. We created nuclear weapons; God didn’t; and we can uncreate them if we will. We develop the policies that make people poor and leave people hungry and we can change them if we want. We engineer the organizations that put power in the hands of few and leave many at the mercy of systems they cannot plumb, and we can restructure them. Those things do not depend on what manner of God our God is. They depend on what kind of human beings we are.

In the face of great millennial newness, monasticism is anything but new and not much trying to be, except perhaps in mostly cosmetic ways. For over 1,500 years, the principles that undergird monasticism have carried it from century to century, from millennium to millennium. Whatever the cultural changes around it, monasticism has, in most part, remained itself. Seeking God is the single basis of the monastic life. Nothing else matters.

The purpose of monasticism is to develop a particular kind of lifestyle in order to form a reflective, contemplative kind of human being. The goal of monasticism is to develop fully human persons whose taste for God is satisfied and whose commitment to life is whole. First and foremost, last and always, is the single-minded search for God.

This continuing search may well be the monastic gift to a world swamped by newness and -- caught in both a church and a society forced to rethink everything previously taken for granted -- awash at its moorings.

The question on the brink of this new millennium is a clear one: What elements of the search are most important now? What qualities of life does monasticism have to give a century so profoundly uprooted?

While refugees pour across borders, while scientists perfect the process of human cloning, while hunger is the world’s single most deadly disease and while new worlds of thought challenge our most basic givens, what, if anything, has the monastic tradition to offer the world?

The answers are old ones that stretch from the Desert Monastics in fourth-century Egypt to our own times. Of the multiple characteristics of the monastic tradition, four, I think, deserve special emphasis. They are awareness, community, justice and metanoia -- the fruits of a contemplative vision of life.


Awareness is the ability to see what is really going on in the world and, as a result, what God requires of us.

“In Scetis, the desert monastics tell us, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. And the old man said: ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ ”

The desert monastics were clear: So often it is what is right in front of us that we see least. As a result, we come out of every situation no more than we were when we went into it. Awareness -- monastic mindfulness -- is the essence of the contemplative life and common to all contemplative traditions.

“Oh, wonder of wonders,” the Sufi master says, “I chop wood. I draw water from the well.” I live in the present, in other words. It is only when we learn to ask what the world is saying to us at this very moment, in this particular situation, that we tend to the seedbed of the soul and become a mature member of the human race.

Awareness puts us into contact with the universe. It mines every relationship, every event, every moment, for the meaning that is beneath the surface. The question is not what is going on now but what is going on in the world, what is happening to me, being asked of me, because of it. What do I see here of God that I could not see otherwise? What is God demanding of my heart?

It takes a lifetime to really understand that God is in what is standing in front of us. Most of our lives are spent straining to see the God in the mist, behind the cloud, beyond the dark. It is when we face God in one another, in creation, in this very moment that the real spiritual journey begins.

It is awareness that the world will need if we are to sort the true from the false in a millennium in which social disorder seems so smilingly ingenuous.

Cassian taught this: “Abba John, abbot of a large monastery, went to Abba Paesius who had been living for 40 years far off in the desert. Abba John said to him, ‘What good have you done by living here in retreat for so long and not being easily disturbed by anyone?’

Paesius replied, ‘Since I lived in solitude, the sun has never seen me eating.’

Abba John said back to him, ‘As for me, since I have been living with others, it has never seen me angry.’ ”

The monastic tradition is unsparing in its realism. Solitude, a sometimes romanticized and often exaggerated element of the monastic tradition, has its own struggles, of course. But, the desert monastics imply, when we choose solitude as the tempering kiln of our souls, the temptation can be to gauge spiritual development by a lesser standard than the gospel describes.

When a person lives alone, the ancients knew, it is beguiling to confuse practice with holiness. If the measuring stick of spirituality is simply rigid physical asceticism and fidelity to the rules, the fasts and the routines, then spiritual ripening is simply a matter of some kind of spiritual arithmetic. We count up what we’ve done, what we’ve “given up,” what we’ve avoided and, given good numbers, count ourselves holy.

The problem, these great masters of the spiritual life knew, is that such a measure is a partial one. To claim full human development, total spiritual maturity outside the realm of the human community is to claim the impossible.

The communal organization of monastic life is based on the premise that we do not have to withdraw from life to find God. The real contemplative hears the voice of God in the voice of the other, sees the face of God in the face of the other, knows the will of God in the person of the other, serves the heart of God by addressing the wounds, by answering the call, of the other.

St. Basil, founder of Eastern monasticism asks pointedly, “Whose feet shall the hermit wash?” The implications are clear. It is human community that tests the spiritual grist of the human being. Community, Abba John teaches, calls us to the kind of relationships that walk us through minefields of personal selfishness.

Community is where everything we say we believe is tested. The way we react to the other tells us something about our own needs. The attention we give to another stretches us beyond ourselves. The honor with which we regard the other marks our own theology of creation.

Clearly, in the serious contemplation of our place in the human community lies the real quality of the monastic life and its reminder to the world around it that on the welfare of the other rests my own soul.

It is a new sense of human community that the world will need in order to negotiate the borderless world of the new millennium.

Abba James said, “Just as a lamp lights up a dark room, so the fear of God, when it penetrates the heart, illuminates, teaching all the virtues and commandments of God.”


There is a danger in the monastic life that the contemplation to which it calls us is used to justify distance from the great questions of life. Contemplation becomes an excuse to let the world go to rot.

It is a sad use of the contemplative life, and, at base, a bogus one. If contemplation is taking on the heart of God in the heart of the world, then the contemplative, perhaps more than any other, weeps over the obliteration of the will of God in the heart of the universe.

Contemplation, the search for the sacred in the caldron of time, is not for its own sake. To be a serious Christian, a faithful monastic, is not to spend life in a spiritual Jacuzzi designed to save humanity from the down-and-dirty parts of life. It is not spiritual escapism. Contemplation is immersion in the driving force of the universe, the effect of which is to fill us with the same force, the same care, the same mind, the same heart, the same will as that from which we draw.

Scripture is uncompromising: God wills the care of the poor. God desires the dignity and full human development of all human beings. As God takes the side of the poor so must the genuine contemplative. Otherwise the contemplation to which the monastic tradition points is not real, cannot be real, will never be real because to contemplate the God of justice is to be committed to justice.

The true contemplative must do justice, must speak justice, must insist on justice. And they do. Thomas Merton spoke out against the Vietnam war. Catherine of Siena walked the streets of the city feeding the poor. Hildegard preached the word of justice to emperors and to popes.

A spiritual path that does not lead to a living commitment to the coming of the will of God is no path at all. It is pious morass, a dead end. Contemplation brings us to a state of dangerous openness. It is a change in consciousness. We begin to see beyond boundaries, beyond denominations, beyond doctrines, dogmas and institutional self-interest straight into the face of a mothering God from whom all life comes.

To come to the awareness of the oneness of life and not to regard all of it as sacred is a violation of the purpose of contemplation, the deepest identification of life with Life. The true contemplative weeps with those who weep and cries out for those who have no voice.

Transformed from within, the contemplative of every ilk, monastic or lay, becomes a new kind of presence in the world, signaling another way of being, seeing with new eyes and speaking with new words the Word of God. The contemplative can never again be a complacent participant in an oppressive system. From contemplation comes not only the consciousness of universal connectedness of life but the courage to model it, as well, unbounded by parochialisms, chauvinisms, genderisms and class.

To be contemplative it is necessary to reach out every day to the outcast other -- to revere, protect and champion them -- just as does the God we breathe.

It is justice the world will need to balance the control of the rich and powerful against the claims to humanity of the poor and exploited.

Metanoia, conversion

One day Abba Arsenius was asking an old Egyptian man for advice. There was someone who saw this and said to him: “Abba Arsenius, why is a person like you, who has such a great knowledge of Greek and Latin, asking a peasant like this about his thoughts?” And Abba Arsenius replied, “Indeed, I have learned the knowledge of Latin and Greek, yet I have not learned even the alphabet of this peasant.”

Changing the way we go about life is not all that difficult. We all do it all the time. We change jobs, states, houses, relationships, lifestyles over and over again as the years go by. But those are, in the main, very superficial changes. Real change is deeper than that. It is changing the way we look at life that is the stuff of conversion.

Metanoia, conversion, is an ancient concept deeply embedded in monastic history. Seekers went to the desert to escape the spiritual aridity of the cities, to concentrate on the things of God. “Flight from the world” became a mark of the true monastic.

To be a monastic in a world bent on materialism and suffocated with itself, conversion was fundamental. But conversion to what? To deserts? Hardly. Over the years, with the coming of the Rule of Benedict and the formation of monastic communities, the answer became more clear. Conversion was not geographical. We do not need to leave where we are in order to become a contemplative, otherwise the Jesus who walked the dusty roads of Galilee surrounded by lepers and children and sick people and disciples and crowds of the curious and the committed was no contemplative, was not engrafted into the mind of God.

No, contemplation is not a matter of place. We simply have to be where we are with a different state of mind. What Benedict wanted in the monastic life was conversion of heart.

But conversion to what? The answer never changes. To be contemplative we must be in tune with the Sound of the universe. We must become aware of the sacred in every single element of life. We must bring beauty to birth in a poor and plastic world. We must heal the human community. We must grow in concert with the God who is within. We must be healers in a harsh society. We must become all those things that are the ground of contemplation, the fruits of contemplation, the end of contemplation.

The monastic life is about becoming more contemplative all the time. It is about being in the world differently. To become a contemplative, a daily schedule of religious events and practices is not enough. We must begin to do life, to be with people, to accept circumstances, to bring good to evil in ways that speak of the presence of God in every moment. It is conversion the world will need to change the path of humanity from death to life for all of us.

Awareness, community, justice and metanoia are concepts that monasticism has to bring to a new millennium. This is the role monasticism has yet to play, in a world on the brink of more fragility than we have ever known. On these pillars rest not only the nature of monasticism but perhaps the very existence of the world.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999