Of Smelly Monks and Annoying Neighbours
A new book reminds us of the crowded, communal roots of the spiritual disciplines.
As a high school student, I went through a brief and rather misguided period of fascination with the spiritual disciplines. In practice, my discipline of choice was most often that of silence. Being naturally a quiet sort of student, holding my tongue was no great burden to me, and as I fancied myself following in the footsteps of ancient Christians, my shyness and tendency to retreat inside myself seemed to take on a weighty and pleasing spiritual significance.
Thinking back on this high school practice while reading Kyle Bennett's Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, I realized with an embarrassed sort of horror that throughout all those stretches of pious silence I had never really paid any special attention to listening. If anything, the weightiness of my own discipline cultivated a disdain for the shallow conversation around me, and I'm sure I barely paid attention to the day's petty lessons on differential equations and the Meech Lake Accord that had, no doubt, been carefully prepared. In this way, I think it is safe to say that I was doing the spiritual disciplines wrong.
A recent NPR article, "The Millennial Obsession With Self-Care," noted that society as a whole, and especially millennials, are thinking about and spending more on self-care than ever before. As a society we are increasingly aware of and interested in the daily habits that facilitate health and well-being. Juice cleanses and Whole30 diets promise renewed relationships with food. Bestselling books on minimalism and the art of living simply promise healthier dynamics of owning and consuming. Therapy sessions and mindfulness seminars teach us the habits of healthy thinking and healthy self-talk. We're learning how to rest with designer candles, essential oils, and mental health days.
In such an environment, the traditional spiritual disciplines are, perhaps in some ways, an easier sell than ever before. It is not so hard to think of fasting as a sort of ancient religious juice cleanse and Sabbath rest as a positive mental health practice. In this way, the spiritual disciplines run the risk of becoming Christian self-care. That is, becoming something primarily intended to facilitate our own wellness, a quick fix for religious ruts, a strange and intensive week or two that will make God feel close and our souls content.
Of course, there is value in self-care, and practicing spiritual disciplines can strengthen our personal relationships with God. However, Bennett argues in Practices of Love that this narrow way of understanding the spiritual disciplines completely overlooks the much grander purpose of these practices.
The spiritual disciplines as we know them today—silence, solitude, fasting and feasting, Sabbath keeping, meditation, and simplicity— originated in early monastic communities. The regimented practices were designed to fend off vice in those places vice flourishes— the crevices of life, its daily habits and routines—in order to "correct the harmful ways we do these mundane activities." There is a common misconception of the monastic life, that it was an escape from human society, a retreat into a solitary life and the personal cultivation of one's relationship with God. The monk, we tend to think, was turned inward and upward, a strange and almost mystical figure—barely of this world.
The reality of the monastic life, however, was often quite different. Indeed, far from being plagued by an excess of solitude, the aspect of medieval monasticism that would most likely horrify modern sensibilities is the oppressive lack of privacy many cloisters afforded. Monks slept together in one open dormitory. They worshiped together, ate together, and worked together. The monk or nun who committed their life to God was rarely afforded the luxury of being alone with God.
As Bennett notes, "Monks and nuns make vows not to a cloister but to a community. And they do so not to escape the world but to enact a different one." The monastery was not a rejection of community. Rather, it represented a commitment to enacting a new sort of community, one in which all members strove, with the help of the spiritual disciplines, to not only love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and minds but also to truly love their neighbours as themselves in all the patterns of their working and resting, their sleeping and rising, their meals, chores, and worship. It is to this end that the spiritual disciplines were employed.
In the face of the temptation to view the spiritual disciplines as being primarily a matter of one's own personal wellness or one's own personal relationship with God, Bennett, in a sense, reminds us of the surely terrible smell and surely terrible sound of a dozen unwashed monks sharing a dormitory in the heat of the summer. There is more going on here—something larger and stranger and much more uncomfortable. There is a vital horizontal dimension to spiritual discipline that we tend to forget or conveniently overlook.
For Bennett, the spiritual disciplines are fundamentally about submitting all of our lives to the rule of Christ, reshaping our malformed ways of everyday living and forming us in the habits of selfless and sacrificial love. In this way, the spiritual disciplines are about wellness; however, the vision of wellness and renewal for which they strive is the gospel's vision—for all nations, for the least of these, for your neighbour, to the ends of the earth. The spiritual disciplines are not just about a healthy and flourishing relationship with God but a healthy and flourishing relationship with others. They are practices for a healthy community that we too might employ as we strive to enact that vision of all things restored.
As Bennett writes, the spiritual disciplines "were not really practiced for us at all. Rather, they were practiced for others. . . . They were seen as acts of love toward one's neighbor that bring life and health and vitality to the world. They were seen as practices that discipline us to positively impact our neighbor's livelihood and concretely change the conduct of the communities of which we are a part. They were seen as good things to do in shared spaces with others."
Though at times Bennett may overstate the novelty of his claim, his reminder is an important one. When understood as practices for the life of the world, the spiritual disciplines take on a whole new and challenging dimension. Our fasting leaves food enough for others and our feasting is an opportunity to pull them into our joy and celebration. Our meditation is a calling not just to contemplate God but also to draw our neighbours daily into our attention and concern. Our silence is a chance to truly listen to what our co-workers are saying. Our solitude refreshes us for community, and our Sabbath rest is an invitation to fellowship.
A 2014 Pew research study noted that highly religious people were more likely to report that they were "very happy" in their life. No doubt this fact speaks to the great comfort of faith and the hope and meaning it provides, but I think many Christians would be the first to admit that it may also speak to the rituals of afterchurch coffee, to singing with others, to knowing that there is someone you can call who will listen, and someone who is thinking about you who will most likely sign up to bring you a meal. What Bennett makes clear is that it is this good news of the gospel—its lived habits, small gestures, and daily routines—and not just the grand ideas or inspired opinions that we are called to share with our neighbour and pour out into our families and communities.
Indeed, Bennett does not spend much time on grand ideas or theological arguments. Practices of Love reads—in some ways much like the original recommendations of Cassian himself—as a practical manual on the spiritual disciplines in modern life, full of concrete habits to incline every waking hour toward love of one's neighbour. His suggestions are often unexciting, sometimes downright intrusive, and, in their own way, radical. He recommends inviting neighbours to join in our precious Sabbath rest even when all we want is a long nap and a movie. He recommends setting aside time to think positively about that co-worker we really can't stand, and using our own silence as an opportunity to listen very carefully to even shallow conversation.
In this way, Bennett's take on the spiritual disciplines offers us none of the seductive charm of a minimalist wardrobe. Rather, in true monastic spirit, there is only the strange and uncomfortable, day in and day out enactment of a new sort of community, one in which love for one's neighbour is not just a beautiful idea or even a political position, but something sunk deep into muscle memory, something that fills even the in-between moments of ordinary days.