The holiness of the ordinary in the present darkness.
“I almost think that hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism. Where hope is lacking the soul dries up and withers...”
― Gabriel Marcel
“Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness.”
― Meister Eckhart
The more uprooted we are, the more we tend to traffic in abstractions. This is a good test of our disconnection. If so, I am suffering from an acute case, but hopefully not a fatal one. Is there a cure?
It is easy to “love humanity” but people are much more difficult. It is easy to be passionate about “saving the environment” but loving and caring for your own tangled patch of land, intimately known, but perhaps of no striking beauty, is quite another.
The antidote to the trauma of abstraction is particularity. Hic et Nunc. Of course, what I just wrote is also an abstraction. Particularity is not, or cannot remain simply an idea. It can’t be turned into a mere political agenda. If it remains or becomes only an idea, what we assent to is just another system of such ideas, i.e., an ideology. We live in an age of warring ideologies. It is hard for us to see it for that what it is, let alone find a way out.
It is worth quoting Gabriel Marcel again:
The dynamic element in my philosophy, taken as a whole, can be seen as an obstinate and untiring battle against the spirit of abstraction.1
I, too, take up this battle against abstraction. But I always tend to fight abstraction with abstraction. Which has become futile, because even if my preferred abstract system defeats another, abstractions prevail. Nothing changes.
What, in particular, am I trying to defend? Where do I find refuge from the abstractions I have tangled myself up in? That had me snared before I could know fully what was happening2. What do I do to cultivate my little patch of ground, knowing I am a kind of spiritual vagabond without even a patch of ground to defend? All I have on most nights is a set of abstractions. No wonder I can’t find rest.
When I was twelve years old I visited my grandparents in Florida. This would have been around 1980. For some reason, I can’t remember now, we went to a large Kmart one evening. It was probably a weeknight because the store was all but empty of customers. These “super” stores hadn’t made their way yet, surprisingly enough, to the New York City suburbs where I grew up. My small hometown didn’t allow chain stores, other than supermarkets and gas stations. An admirable position, in retrospect. This Kmart in Florida, however, was a look into the future.
I was already very interested in music so I made a straight line to the stereo section of the large, brightly lit store. The Logical Song by Supertramp came on. If I had heard the song before it hadn’t ever registered like this. I stood there alone in the Kmart audio department and just listened. Transfixed.
I thought to myself:
Yes, this is what happened. This is what they did.
To my 12-year-old mind, it made complete sense. Decades later I see the song as a fairly simple rendition of the Romantic Myth. Probably too simple. Regardless, time hasn’t diminished its power over me. I have spent my life trying to fathom what this loss has meant. The loss of the Original Harmony. Not only for myself but for all of us.
Modern philosophy begins in the mother of all abstractions: I think therefore I am. This is an expression not of wisdom, but of trauma. By Descartes's time, we were already broken. Every subsequent iteration of modernity just broke us in new ways Modernity is the triumph of abstraction3. Is this why we are lost?
As Walker Percy had it, we are Lost in the Cosmos. What would it mean, concretely, to be found?
As I wrote about in my previous post I went up to a small, and quite a remote monastery last week. It was a profound experience. For some reason, I am reluctant to say this. Profound in what way? In what depths did I find myself? Are we still allowed to have profound experiences? Aren’t they long passé and an indication of naivete and lack of ironic sophistication? Isn’t everything now reduced to mere surface? To an endless play of signifiers, signifying nothing? And rightly so.
What is this intuition of depth? If there are depths—the mystery of being— then the whole modern world is wrong. The modern world is wrong. We do experience layers of depth in ourselves and the world around us. This should not come as a surprise.
In looking into the meaning of Benedictine monasticism, this stood out:
To the Benedictine, then, stability must mean…an irrevocable life in community, and in the community of his profession. This is what it meant for St. Benedict. And this primitive local conception of stability, ‘stabilitas in loco’…stands out strongly.4
I find this the most distressing aspect of becoming a Benedictine monk. How very modern of me. The idea of staying in a small, remote monastery for the rest of my life. I would really have to face myself and my disordered attachments and passions.
Or more drastically:
By the vow of stability, the monk attaches himself to the monastery of his profession, he associates himself to the monastic family there existing, and promises he will never withdraw his neck from the yoke of regular observance according to the Rule of St. Benedict.5
The “yoke of regular observance”. Yikes. Why is it that at one moment I decry liquid modernity as the source of our misery, and then hyperventilate at the notion of truly rooting myself in an actual place? This is worth looking into further.
This particular monastery is located at the end of about 15 miles of dirt road, off a two-lane mountain highway above a forgotten, small city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It is situated in a narrow canyon of sorts, a hollow. It is a tiny world.
Is this a place I could commit the rest of my life?
I am pushing 54 years old. I am a bachelor. I have no children. I left my hometown 30 years ago and have only returned once or twice since. My nearest close relative lives a 12-hour drive from where I am now writing this. Some family members are clear across the continent, others across the Atlantic ocean. I don’t even know where my cousins are, none of whom I have seen in decades. I am no longer young. I haven’t been for a while.
At some point, not too long from now, I am going to run out of road. What am I holding out for? Why am I hesitating?
I took the scenic route back from the monastery. The high plains were spectacular. The vastness was almost overwhelming. No, not almost, it was overwhelming. Why does the life of passing scenery, and being nowhere in particular, so appealing to me?
I had a similar sense of expansion in West Texas some 25 years ago. The clearest, most unobstructed night sky I have ever seen. I felt fully alive and free. As far from civilization as I have probably ever been.
I also felt this one night in Ireland not too long after that. Walking back from a country pub to the bed and breakfast where I was staying. Me and two Irish lasses, who were singing Irish songs, and we were a bit tipsy. The northern stars burning bright above us. Oh, God…Life is beautiful.
Is this how I think I can outrun death?
One of my favorite poems, when I was a younger man, was “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go. We think by feeling. What is there to know? I hear my being dance from ear to ear. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. Of those so close beside me, which are you? God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there, And learn by going where I have to go. Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how? The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair; I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. Great Nature has another thing to do To you and me; so take the lively air, And, lovely, learn by going where to go. This shaking keeps me steady. I should know. What falls away is always. And is near. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I learn by going where I have to go.
Little did I know at the time what the cost of living like this was. Have I learned where to go, simply be going? No, not really. Nonetheless, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
But the costs, in fact, are greater than I could have known as a young man. I know that now having paid many of those costs. For one, it’s easy to get lost in all that expanse. It’s easy to find decades have gone by and you feel you haven’t even gotten started. And you never get that time back. Just like it is easy to be lost and stuck in a dead-end job, in a dump of an apartment for, say, 22 years. I have been lost in all these ways. Many of us have.
Freedom is found, not in being nowhere, but in a more primal connection to God, nature, and each other, again, hic et nunc. In the ordinary beauty of the present moment and this particular place. The new world upon us is trying to liberate us from all that, and it is liberating us to death.
I spent Holy Week at the Monastery. It is a Western-Rite Orthodox Benedictine Monastery. The only one in the United States. It is a curious niche in the religious landscape. No need to go into that right now. Maybe we can delve into it more in the future.
Other than the occasional jet passing over, or the slight light pollution in the east from the city below, little reminded me that the technological machine still churned away in my absence. For a week I was free from the dictatorship of noise.6
I slept better in all that silence than I have in years. I dreamt. Long, vivid dreams with a large cast of characters, known and unknown, real and imagined. One night the wind cut through the canyon and it sounded like waves crashing on the shore of an unfathomable sea, down to the naked shingles of the world7. It was a beautiful sound. A heard glimpse of a vast unseen ocean, and me there, half-sleeping, under that sea of stars8.
Alas, I haven’t slept well since I returned. The dreams that suddenly reappeared have stopped. I don’t think I am sleeping deeply enough to dream. This is normal for me. I haven’t remembered many of my dreams in a long time. Because I am anxious about many things.
Which wakes me up. The 3 am doubts are the hardest for me to shake off. No conclusions to the incessant questions. I find it hard to get back to sleep. I have natural supplements I can take. They work most of the time. I tried pharmaceuticals for a while, they worked great until they didn’t. Never again.
Is the world worth all the anxiety it brings? Is peace worth giving up all the world offers?
Tenebrae is Latin for darkness. It is a service during Holy Week that begins the lead-up to Pascha. It makes use of a Tenebrae Hearse (sic) that holds fifteen candles. Also included were six candles along the back wall of the church. The psalms and readings were chanted recto tono—in a monotone.
After each psalm was finished, one of the candles was extinguished. There are fourteen psalms and readings. Finally, the Benedictus is chanted, which corresponds to the action of extinguishing the remaining six candles along the back wall. One light for every two stanzas.
The monotone chanting had a relentless quality to it. The psalms were dark, the readings were from Lamentations. There was little relief, even less hope as the service went on. The world was literally endarkening, and everything with it.
Finally after all but one of the candles were extinguished, the last lit candle was taken and hidden behind the altar. All is darkness. Then a booming crash. The small light is brought out again, a fragile illumination nearly swallowed up in the night. We all leave in different directions.
My words are inadequate to convey what it is to experience the lights going out. Of course, many of us feel this way a lot of the time. But Tenebrae was, paradoxically, an illuminating experience. I realized I wasn’t alone in feeling this darkness. I felt connected to all of us—past, present, and future—who have ever experienced the sense of the lights going out.
We did this three nights in a row.
When I first arrived at the monastery I sat down with the Abbot to talk. I was probably a bit wide-eyed with wonder at this point. It must be so great to be out here!
He talked about the routine. About the times of boredom. But he also talked about the Benedictine life as “the holiness of the ordinary”. Work and prayer are in a kind of ongoing, neverending round.
I was able to participate in chanting the Office. Chanting is beautiful. It is medicine. I have heard the Divine Office called the sung Bible. It is an immersion in the Word, even a cosmic S.O.S., and a sacrament in sound. One that has been going on for about fourteen centuries and more9. Has there ever been a day since that someone, somewhere wasn’t chanting the Office? What would happen if it ever stopped?
I found myself reflecting on the Tenebrae services and what they conveyed to me. They certainly struck deep. What is this darkness? The darkness of being human and wondering if there is any light.
There are at least three kinds of darkness.
The Historical Darkness: The long centuries in the darkness waiting for the light. The pre-incarnational darkness.
The Darkness of the Crucifixion: The time after the death of Jesus when his disciples do not know he will be resurrected.
My own Darkness.
The Present Darkness: This may only be the mirror image of the first kind. The light has come and we choose instead darkness. The post-incarnational darkness. A culture of darkness. Not only that but the sense that we are entering into something new, and perhaps terrifying. It will certainly be messy.
I have more meditating to do on this.
One thing is clear to me. I have entered into a new season of my life where little is clear. It is a time of letting go. I find this painful, sometimes inordinately so. A time of being at loose ends. I have little idea about what comes next, even in broad strokes. So much that I took for granted is now up for grabs. I don’t know where I will land in all of this.
For the moment, though, I am inclined to go up to the monastery for a time and see what happens. I could use the time to come back to myself, and to the interior desert, and away from the broken world.
It is time to face the darkness and seek the light.
I learn by going where I have to go.
Out of college, money spent
See no future, pay no rent
All the money's gone, nowhere to go
Any jobber got the sack
Monday, morning turning back
Yellow lorry slow, nowhere to go
But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go. 10
Man Against Mass Society. Gabriel Marcel.
Of course, I still don’t know what is fully happening.
This is why I find Nietzsche such an important figure in the history of modern philosophy. Dostoevsky, also. I only know bits of Kierkegaard. I wish I knew more of him.
Benedictine Monachism. Dom Cuthbert Butler
Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Robert Cardinal Sarah.
On Dover Beach. Matthew Arnold.
I fully admit that I am a trifle obsessed with the experience of a sky full of stars. The loss of which, symbolically at least, exemplifies how our functional world is broken from the mystery of being. Again, I take from Marcel.
But this is true in many other ways. To be under a deep field of stars is to be truly located. Light pollution locks us to the terrestrial. Or worse yet the human-only. To see the stars is to see ourselves in the context of the cosmos. We aren’t reminded of this enough. Not even close. To see this, if only fleetingly, is to be changed.
Henry the VIII shut down the monasteries in England. The French Revolution did the same in France. Did they survive the revolutions of modernity in Italy? Where else? The earliest Benedictine monastery in America was the Saint Vincent Archabbey founded in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on October 24, 1846.
Was there ever a time in that 1400-year history when there wasn’t a Benedictine monastery somewhere?