Been thinking about nuns today. For various reasons. Happen to know a few. Always have. They’ve played important roles in my life at times throughout the years. Beginning right at the beginning: Nuns assisted at my birth (in a Catholic hospital, founded & run by nuns, though my family was not Christian).
I’ve known lots of Christian nuns – Catholic, Anglican, & Orthodox nuns, – but many more Hindu and Buddhist nuns, and two or three Daoist nuns. Some others that don’t really “belong” to any one particular tradition. Whatcha might call “indie” nuns.
I’ve always loved nuns. Some of my dearest friends have been nuns. Some of my dearest teachers have been nuns. Some of my flatmates in grad school were nuns. Two or three of my least realistic secret crushes have been nuns, and even one or two of my fondest former girlfriends previously had been, or subsequently became, nuns (don’t draw any undue conclusions!).
My wonderful late wife had wanted as a child and young teen to become a nun, but later fulfilled that desire through engaging in extensive contemplative spiritual practice and teaching, becoming an Ayurvedic natural health care provider, undertaking long meditation retreats, and through our years of partnered living together as yogis of an occasional temporary semi-hermit lifestyle.
Love is a crazy thing.
Curiously (to me!), many of my family’s women ancestors were Christian nuns — most of these of course were indirect, or co-lateral, ancestors, ie ancestral aunties. Celibate, maiden, virgin aunties for the most part. But also several of my direct ancestral grandmothers were nuns also — before &/or after spending some time as married family women, of course. Past generational moms, grannies, without whom I would not have this present body through which to live, would not be the same stardust-embodied earthy Earthly critter I am today.
Human life is strange.
It was fairly common in old European Christendom (before, during, & somewhat after the Middle Ages), for many widowed moms and grandmas to “take the veil” as nuns & retire to life in a convent, anchoress cell, or hermit’s cave. Even married couples fairly often would decide at some point to separate & mutually become monastics, or simply remain in their ordinary householder station, but take vows of celibacy together. This was more often in their mature years, after their children were born & grown, but sometimes also quite early in life, perhaps instead of having children.
Aspects of this tradition closely parallel the ancient Vedic-Hindu ideal (perhaps infrequently achieved) of the four stages (ashramas) of life: celibate semi-monastic student bachelor life in disciplic household service to a spiritual teacher & his family til about age 20 or 25; professional & married partnered & parenting householder life til about age 40 or 50 (“or when the first grey hairs start to appear”); retired semi-monastic life in the forest as a reclusive contemplative (and possibly teaching) couple, or (more rarely) single practitioner, til the age of about 60 or 75; and finally, fully renunciate life as an itinerant sannyasi(ni) swami(ni) either alone, or (more rarely) together as a celibate couple.
Religious history is full of all sorts of curious details.
This practice of “celibate marriage,” &/or retirement to monastic life by both married partners or by widowed singles is still sometimes found in traditional old-fashioned Catholic families, though only very, very rarely nowadays. (Somewhat less rare among traditional Hindus, Daoists, & Buddhists).
In fact, there are relatively very, very few Catholic nuns or monks left anywhere these days in the U.S. There are still young single Catholic women newly becoming nuns in parts of Asia, Africa, & Latin America, but extremely few in the U.S. A few of the now mature, older, seasoned American nuns from the 1960s & before are still with us, some still kickin up a lot of needed fuss and dust about peace & social justice issues in America and the world (eg “Nuns on the Bus”! – go check those sisters out!). In my childhood & youth there were plenty of young, middle aged, and elderly Catholic nuns in the U.S. (And in those days several orders accepted provisional postulants or novices from the age of 16 or even 14, so-called “hot-house nuns” – raised under the protective convent roof).
But the changes in the 1960s ended much of that. The number of nuns in the US dropped off steeply, in spite of (or perhaps in part because of) superficial public interest in nun-related things, like the international chart-topping “one hit wonder” French language pop song “Dominique” written and recorded by “The Singing Nun” (at the time an actual Dominican nun from Belgium – she later came to a tragic end), and the popular ridiculously silly but fun U.S. TV sit-com “The Flying Nun.” And also in spite of the frequent visible TV news presence of nuns courageously taking part in the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War protest & peace movement & the United Farm Workers grape boycott protest movement, etc. The Vatican Two reforms of the 1960s, while modernizing much of Catholic life, left mandatory celibacy in place for (most) Catholic priests, and in that same decade probably over half the U.S. priests (at least) gave up their active vocations & most who did leave eventually married. Many nuns also left their orders and most of those married soon as well, often to former priests or former monks.
Modern church history is full of all sorts of curious details.
Back to my family tree: Counting both my mom’s & my dad’s ancestral lines, there are over a hundred recorded historical grandparents of mine who are canonized Christian saints (going right back to the first Christian century), and an additional 900+ co-lateral ancestors (aunts & uncles or cousins) who are also canonized Christian saints. In some married cases, both spouses were canonized, sometimes only one. Many of the women in each of these groups (ie sainted ancestral grannies of mine, & sainted ancestral aunties of mine) were nuns, at least for some portion of their lives. I never bothered to count how many. I should. I’d guess about half the Christian saints in my tree are women (~500+), and perhaps two-thirds of those were nuns. So the total number of women saints in my ancestral tree who were nuns during at least part of their lives is probably around 340. Something like that.
Family trees are full of all sorts of curious unexpected historical details.
I mention all of these ancestral details not to be bragging – for quite obviously I certainly had nothing to do with any of it (ha!), but rather out of real gratitude and some amazement. While I’m convinced that I continue to receive daily blessings from the well-earned spiritual karmic/dharmic merit & holiness of my saintly ancestors, the beneficent legacy & shining example of their attainments has certainly not made me an enlightened saint! Nowhere close, as yet, anyway.
I believe holiness (permanently actualized integrated natural wholeness, integrity), enlightenment, is something one attains from within oneself—the fully awakening unfoldment of the Self to the Self by the Self. That is, Self-liberation, Self-realization, Self-actualization, in its deepest, highest sense.
But of course this is attained also with the blessings & support of countless other beings, including those who do us the smallest kindness or provide us with the most basic mundane services. But especially including also the already enlightened, holy beings. Especially living saints, & most especially enlightened personal teachers, with whom one may have actual significant & sustained personal contact. But also even past historical (“ascended”) saints with whom one may have an inner personal affinity and attunement. We are all “surrounded by a cloud” of known and unknown, visible and “invisible” helpers, to be sure. But a saint’s own holiness is not passed on, or at least I would think not much is, simply through family blood heredity! If only it was that simple!
No one else’s direct experience of fully actualizing and naturally living his or her own Self-nature can possibly substitute for one’s own direct experience of living one’s own fully natural, permanently stabilized optimal Self-nature, one’s own fully unfolded, spontaneously self-perpetual wholeness of consciousness.
“Each person has to rise to this level by oneself. No one can possibly raise the level of another person’s consciousness. Help by way of information and guidance can be offered by those who know the way, but the responsibility for raising the level of one’s consciousness lies with oneself. Each individual has to choose his or her own path and uplift herself by her own endeavour. Others can at best reveal to one the wisdom of individual and cosmic life and inspire one to establish coordination between oneself and the universal state of Being.”
— His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (c1917-2008), 1963
Still, it can’t hurt any to have a few, and more than a few, saints in one’s family tree, and I’m still hoping & trusting it also can’t but help, at least a little. It’s never too late to be inspired. As I’ve said earlier here, the personal lived examples of my family’s own historical saintly ancestors have always given us a sort of encouragement and incentive to just go for it! Since they did it, perhaps we shall, too! – We be working on it!
And then, on the other hand, besides all those saintly grandparents & aunts & uncles, my direct & indirect ancestral tree also includes plenty of evil livers, horrid murderers, and other assorted bad guys and women. No doubt even a rotten nun or monk or two somewhere back there. So if family bloodlines &/or the stability or instability of other persons, such as one’s ancestors, was in anyway determinative for one’s own conscious integration & spiritual evolution, I’d be screwed, or at least stuck in a not so good stagnant middle swampy muddy stage out there somewhere. Where would any of us be?
Family history is full of all sorts of curious good, & bad, lovely, & ugly, details.
“It should not be a function of psychology to remind a person that his or her past was miserable, or that his surroundings and circumstances were unfavourable, or that her associations were depressing and discouraging, or that there was lack of love and harmony with those near to one. To remind anyone of such things will only result in lowering his or her consciousness.
It should be considered criminal to tell anyone that her individual life is based on the inefficient and degenerate influence of her past environment. The psychological influence of such depressing information is demoralizing, and the inner core of the heart becomes twisted by it. On the other hand, to remember the greatness of one’s family traditions and the glory of one’s parents, friends and environment, helps to elevate the consciousness and directly encourages one to rise above weaknesses.”
—His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (c1917-2008), 1963
Of course Catholics are not the only Christians (nor Christianity the only religion) who have monastics (and monastic saints & married saints!). Of course there have always been monks & nuns in the various Oriental Orthodox & Eastern (Byzantine) Orthodox Christian churches. And there are even some Protestant monastics!, for example in the Anglican Communion (the Church of England & its various respective national affiliate Episcopalian/Anglican churches). This is highly ironical for the Church of England, as destroying the monasteries & convents in England was such a big & bloody & treasure-gobbling component of Henry VIII’s Protestant “reform” (& robbery) of the Church in his erstwhile Catholic English kingdom.
Many of the English monks and nuns of that day were killed for resisting their forced secularization & the utter destruction of their communities. Some of those martyred monastics are aunts or uncles in my family tree. While others of my ancestors were among the “reformers” doing the slaughtering and robbing, burning & raping. Some of these aristocratic murderers took over the magnificent ancient abbey buildings – the ones they didn’t burn to the ground – to use as their own new stately residences! (Why did you think they called it “Downton Abbey” for instance?) Can you imagine? Some of those former abbeys still house these barons’ present-day titled descendants.
I realize, of course, that many of the leaders of those huge abbeys had grown fat and alarmingly rich off the labour of their serfs. And they wielded immense self-serving political power, and answered only to the Pope who was also a foreign head of a large & powerful political state with his own standing army and navy, etc. Corruption, greed, laziness & exploitative injustice is not exclusive to secular hierarchies only! But slaughtering monks and nuns, or at best raping & driving them into the roads and fields as indigent and injured homeless refugees and destitute fugitives? Come on, now. Then setting up house in their former convents & monasteries? Not a good way to kick off a religious reform!
And yet with the centuries-later Romanticism Movement’s imaginative valorization of all things mediæval & monastic, and with the interest in historical contemplative spirituality within the Victorian-era Anglo-Catholic Movement, monks and nuns began to have a living presence in the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. And although the numbers of monks & nuns within the Anglican church (& more newly in some other Protestant churches as well) remain quite small, their presence continues today & is currently slowly expanding.
Christian monastic history is full of all sorts of curious twists & turns.
Among other “major” and “minor” religions of the world, several have monastic &/or semi-monastic traditions also, most of which long predate Christianity & Christian monasticism.
The Vedic-Hindu tradition has unbroken monastic lineages as old and continuous as its larger prehistoric origins and ongoing legacy.
The other two major religions of Indian origin, Jainism and Buddhism, both of whom branched from the Vedic-Hindu trunk, have retained their own ancient traditions of monks and nuns.
The ancient indigenous Bon religion of Tibet and surrounding Himalayan regions also has monks & nuns, as does the ancient indigenous Chinese religion of Daoism (Taoism).
Although modern Judaism presently has no official monastic dimension, the Jewish Nazirite, Essene, and Therapeutae movements, which flourished before and during the time of Christ, were all monastic or semi-monastic in nature.
Islam is officially opposed to monastic lifestyles within its own orthodox ranks. However, the Prophet Muhammad & his earliest followers had positive friendly contacts with Syrian & other Christian monks. And several of the living Sufi orders within Islam (some of which are said to pre-date Islam), have or have had strongly quasi-monastic features, especially some of those widely or once-widely present in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia & China.
The Baha’i faith (which branched from Persian Islam); the Sikh religion (which emerged from within a community that combined various Indian Islamic and Hindu elements); and the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism (known in India as the Parsi religion, and probably originating as a branch of pre-historic Vedic religion), each have no official monastic dimensions. However, the Sikh religion draws heavily from Indian Islamic Sufism with its semi-monastic aspects, and some Sikh pilgrims spent time pursuing a semi-monastic lifestyle quite similar to that of mendicant Indian Sufis & Hindu monks.
The religions of the world are full of all sorts of interesting and quite often partly overlapping details.
In Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and perhaps some other major religious/spiritual traditions as well, it is sometimes perfectly accepted and respected for some women to “self-ordain” or self-dedicate themselves as nuns, without “benefit” of any outer institutional connection, endorsement, approval, or recognition. And the same is true for men self-ordaining as monks. Sometimes some of these self-ordaining nuns and monks will later seek-out &/or accept outward official institutional ordination/consecration. Sometimes not.
The real (spiritual) status is of course a personal matter, the outer (social) status is purely conventional, institutional. But of course all this often can and does have negative social/cultural and thus personal implications. And these are not just economic!
The practice and acceptance of self-identifying independent nuns (and monks) is not always perceived as respectable. Indeed it is sometimes viewed as a threat to otherwise more thorough-going control by orthodox formalists and conservative traditionalists. In some culturally conservative Buddhist, Hindu, and other societies, the ancient scripturally-approved tradition of women and men independently self-ordaining is opposed by religious and even political authorities and such nuns and monks sometimes must live their independent monasticism incognito.
There is so much unbelievable religious prejudice and bigotry in the world!
Both Vedic-Hindu and Buddhist shastras & sutras (traditional scriptural texts) assure would-be nuns and monks (whether self-professing or institutionally professional), that if they sincerely keep the precepts (internal & external behavourial principles), then their earthly needs will be sufficiently provided for by nature. Just as, it is believed, nature will likewise duly support the needs of any and all individuals, whether householders or monastics, who sincerely uphold the universal dharmic laws of nature (ie sincerely good-willed, pure-hearted, life-supporting ethical/moral spiritual intentions, thinking, and actions toward helping all beings).
Several of my many Hindu and Buddhist monastic friends and acquaintances have spoken often of nearly-miraculous ways & instances in which this promised support of nature has come through for them, keeping them supplied with everything they truly need, despite their utter dis-engagement from anything directly to do with commerce or conventional profit-generating activities. Even though some of them seem to live quite precarious existences physically. But then, so do the vast majority of the householders I know, hard-working folks who live literally paycheck to paycheck, always only one heartbeat away from becoming destitute on the streets of modern America (or elsewhere). Some would probably be more secure & less worried if they were to live as monastics in a convent or ashram!
Support from nature is infinitely fascinating & mysterious.
Of course, householder members of a society who are directly & busily engaged in providing much-needed (&/or entirely superfluous, even perhaps deadly!) earthly goods and services to the community at large in sometimes labour-intensive and even dangerous profit-generating work, are perhaps understandably often more reluctant to support “merely” self-professed, self-consecrated individual monks and nuns living in their midst, compared to possibly lending some charitable financial support to “officially” recognized conventional religious community institutions or to individuals leading religious establishment organizations.
While at the same time, in the U.S. a large number of hard-working conservative & gullible householders seem eager to give considerable ongoing donations to self-appointed & self-ordained householder “evangelists.” Self-professed religious professionals who easily start their own government-licensed tax-exempt churches and media-based ministries, and then so very often quickly begin to live astonishingly lavish (if insufferably garish self-indulgent superficial) lifestyles with their spouses & children in multiple luxury mansions, yachts, & jets, all paid for with such non-audited tax-free donations of millions and millions of dollars 9in some cases hundreds of millions!), while sincere monastic communities here often struggle to stay afloat, or fold.
Society pays for what it wants to see in its midst.
The Vedic and Buddhist sutras speak of individual support from nature, based on individual karma (action) and dharma (righteousness), not of any guaranteed success for particular communal monastic institutions. Even though the same laws of natural cause & effect apply equally to collective karma and collective dharma (right-intentioned, universally life-supporting behaviour). As the Bhagavad-Gita states, “Individuals have control over their actions alone, not over the results (effects) of their actions… The paths of karma are unfathomable.” Unfathomable, but of course absolutely just, if seen in the long (cosmic) perspective.
Apples can only grow from apple seeds. And vice versa. Like all actions-and-reactions, these are two ends of one same stick. Apple seeds ~/= apples, apples ~/= apple seeds. Seeds are one stage in a process, fruits are another stage in the same cyclical process. Action is one end of a stick (cause), reaction (effect) is the other end of the same one stick. We pick up a stick to perform some action (let’s say, an unkind, harmful action, word, or intention), then we wonder why we often are as if later painfully thumped by a very big stick, little realizing we often are foolishly, inexorably beating ourselves with the other end of the same stick (some unkind intention &/or action) that we first picked up in order to do some thing (some unkind words or actions) with.
If enough monks or nuns in a given monastic community are sincere in observing the universally life-supporting laws of nature, then the community, according to the philosophy of karma, will likely continue to thrive; if not, not. Just as in society in general.
As with individuals, and monastic communities and orders, civilizations that continue to focus on achieving progress continue to both survive and to progress; those civilizations that seek to survive at the expense of progress do not continue even to exist. Human life is supported, maintained, & guided forward by the natural impulse of evolution.
The unfathomable course of karma is infinitely fascinating.
Sometimes luridly so. But, as Dr Martin Luther King famously stated: “The moral arc of the universe is steep, but ultimately bends toward justice.” What goes around comes around. Or as Christ said, “As you sow, so shall ye reap.”
According to the traditional understanding, sincere nuns and monks whether “merely” self-dedicated, and/or perhaps also outwardly consecrated in affiliation with some organization or other, will be supported personally by nature according to their upholding of dharmic (universally life-supporting) principles, but their monasteries or convents may or may not flourish or survive, depending in large part on the collective karma of (all) others making up the community. But of course this support from nature certainly also takes the form of willing donations from well-wishers within the larger society. Support from nature doesn’t (only) mean cash just falls from the trees or the clouds!
I will not say that the horrid destruction & slaughter of monastic communities & individuals in Henry Tudor’s England, or in Bolshevik & Stalinist Soviet Russia, or in Chinese-invaded-&-occupied Tibet from 1950 right through to the present day, can all be explained, much less “excused” by attributing previous accrued bad karma to the otherwise often presumably innocent victim monks & nuns…After all, among other factors, the perpetrators of the violence, murders, rapes, and destruction visited upon the nuns & monks are also generating their own individual and collective karma – life-damaging actions that will in turn have life-damaging results for those carrying out such horrid actions. The laws of nature, the laws of inexorable cause & effect that govern the life and evolution of all beings will respond to such actions.
Naturally, I thoroughly accept the philosophy of karmic cause-&-effect. However, in order to understand the logical premise of this theory of a cosmic system of natural justice & perpetually self-righting balance, one also has to understand the co-relevant philosophy of rebirth as an evolution of consciousness. Karmic fruits don’t always ripen the same day their seeds are sown! “Instant karma” is certainly real, as anyone who inattentively drives a car or rides a bike, or flies a plane or a skateboard, etc, is likely to prove to themselves and others rather swiftly. But most long-term effects from most actions will continue to ripen over many years, quite likely for more years than are in one human lifespan….
The quality of one’s actions & intentions in the past largely determine the quality & situations of one’s life in the present. And the present will influence the future. The philosophy of karma-&-rebirth may not be a thoroughly self-demonstrative “theodicy” (philosophical explanation of evil & suffering, in this case a non-theo-centric understanding — whether one’s view of suffering & evil posits a theos, or not, is non-central to the concept of a natural law of moral cause-&-effect). Karma-&-rebirth may not easily be proved or disproved, but it makes the most logical “natural justice” sense to me.
“The relative fields of life are so closely interconnected and the influence of each aspect of life on every other aspect of life in the cosmos is so complex and diverse, that it is highly important that by some means every individual in the world should become a righteous individual.
Each individual’s thoughts would then be loving, helpful and compassionate, producing good influences for oneself, on one’s surroundings, and in the whole of creation.
The only way to achieve this is for each individual to transform the nature of his or her mind in such a way that it naturally picks up only right thoughts, and naturally engages itself only in right speech and action….
It should be firmly established in the mind of every individual that she is a part of the whole life of the universe and that her relationship to universal life is that of one cell to the whole body. If every cell is not alert, energetic and healthy, the body as a whole begins to suffer. Therefore, for the sake of the life of the individual, and equally for the life of everything in the entire universe, it is necessary for the individual to be healthy, virtuous and right in every thought, word and deed. That the whole universe reacts to every individual action is rare knowledge, but it is also a scientific fact. For there exists an intimate and inseparable connection between the individual and the universe, neither is independent.
The boundaries of individual life are not restricted to the boundaries of the body, nor even to those of one’s family or home; they extend far beyond those spheres to the limitless horizons of unbounded cosmic life.”
– His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1963
In our modern western corporatist-capitalist U.S. culture and society, still largely dominated by the Protestant “work ethic” and indeed by the fundamentalistic Calvinist Puritan socio-economic worldview (with its theology of “double predestination”, a moral total inversion of the philosophy of karma-&-rebirth), there is little historical recognition of the presence &/or value of monastics, especially those partially or wholly supported economically by the commercial profit-generating community at large.
This has lead to the need for most American monastic communities, of whatever religious tradition, to find some means of being financially self-sufficient. And this has resulted in some American Christian monasteries/convents becoming noted for their commercial production of one or more specialty food or drink item. In the case of my late friend Father Thomas Merton’s Trappist abbey, it was cheese-making, something he lampooned bitterly and hilariously. Others make & market rum-soaked fruit cakes or even alcoholic liqueurs or wines. At least one America Anglican monastery herds and slaughters commercial beef cattle, an enterprise that would cause their community to be mournfully shunned by horrified Hindu and Buddhist potential patrons.
I still hear comments from various American acquaintances frequently expressing an intensely negative bias against monks and nuns (of any religion). And of course, most of these opponents have never known or even met any monks or nuns, or visited or stayed as guests at any monastic community, or participated in any of the social-improvement projects and/or personal-development activities, study, and internal practices monks and nuns engage in.
It’s laughably sad, all this bias.
One American acquaintance of mine recently mentioned, utterly out of the blue, that “…All those crazy monks and nuns in places like the Himalayas” – who sometimes become solitaries for years at a time – “…are obviously insane.” She was serious. And angry about it, for some reason! She couldn’t imagine any other cause or explanation for their lifestyle choice aside from “obvious,” perhaps criminal, insanity. Yet she has enjoyed being on camping trips alone or with only one companion for a few days at a time. So I replied that she might consider thinking of the Himalayan (or other) hermit life as like that of someone who goes solo camping for a few days and enjoys it so much they decide to stay out for an extra week or two, or perhaps later come back for an entire season, maybe even buy or build a vacation or retirement cabin in the woods and live there for the rest of their life….
Of course she had no idea my late wife and I had between us thoroughly enjoyed a few years of silent retreat together & alone. If she knew, would she consider us both insane? Perhaps! I didn’t mention our history, nor the fact that every year I try to get away for seasonal solitary retreats of at least a week, preferably a month, at a time.
Life is a strange trip from birth to death.
It may help to think of it as a temporary camping excursion. What do you want out of it? You come to it naked and helpless and you may likely leave it as good as naked again and most certainly helpless again as well. We are all walking or cycling, flying or skating toward that same one-way exit door. How do you most meaningfully and enjoyably fulfill what time you may be given in between entrance & exit? You may count yourself extremely lucky if you have even once or twice a few days to yourself alone or with just your sweetie in the silence of the mountains and woods.
Monastic life, & especially perhaps hermit life, even temporary hermit life, isn’t for everyone, but a few days of rest & relaxation, of quiet meditative solitude in the beauty of nature is something most individuals likely would deeply enjoy & cherish, if they had the chance to experience what it really is like.
Personally, I vastly prefer hermit-like solitude or partnered semi-solitude over most collective communal monastic &/or most conventional secular living-arrangements, but that’s just me. Having to live cheek-by-jowl with lots of other more or less seemingly randomly-selected (actually karmically pre-selected!) close neighbors (monastic or secular) most often makes me feel as if I’m confined to a business office or factory, a military fort or political re-education detention work camp. It can even feel like being forced to re-live spending the afternoon in kindergarten, or what I imagine pre-school must feel like.
Not because I think I’m better (ha!) than my neighbors & fellow-travelers! And not that I would be able to take care of myself for long living alone in the woods without some serious support from other more wilderness tech-adept and savvy folks. But just because I tend to enjoy being by myself much of the time, or much more so alone with just a sweetheart life-partner spiritual companion. But that’s just me. I also regularly like to party, and by party I mean read &/or dine & converse, or walk-&-talk with a few close friends &/or interesting strangers. Especially sometimes if at least one or more of them is perhaps a pure-hearted, deep-minded, interesting nun or monk….
Another American acquaintance also recently expressed negative comments about monastic life (of which he has had absolutely no experience or contact). But then in the next breath he also mentioned that he has heard of a nearby residential spa facility that arranges for guests to undertake a ten day solo silent retreat in the mountains. “Can you imagine the pressure that would result from that, and all the internal garbage that would bring up?” he asked me with some passion, – “if you couldn’t see or talk to anyone, for ten whole days in a row?!” It seemed only just barely within the range of anything he could imagine. The implication for him seemed to be that it might very well drive the retreatant literally insane.
He also had no idea of my own background with leading retreats lasting sometimes for months, and enjoying taking retreats lasting sometimes for years. But coming just a few days on the heels of the other critic’s comments just mentioned above, I burst out laughing (somewhat impolitely) and said, “Well, ten days of course may seem like a lot, but you know, there are actually many folks who have successfully undertaken a few weeks in a row, even several weeks, or months, or even years in a row, of silent solo retreat. …In fact,” I went on after a slight pause, “…in some religious and spiritual traditions, extensive retreat practice of this sort is standard preparation for life as a religious professional or spiritual guide…even just for being regarded as a completely mature or stable individual.”
Once again, though, I didn’t wish to suggest any personal references. So he remained in likely more comfortable amazement over those who would choose to risk trying to make it through ten whole consecutive days devoid of conversational diversion.
Or briefly devoid of our society’s obsessive “preoccupation with gossip,” as one of my beloved nun friends and teachers calls it. She’s one of the sanest folks I know…& she once spent 13 years in solitary reclusion as a mountain hermit. Those years were quite a delightful extended solo camping retreat for her, too.
And that’s all the gossip for now from here…
“The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), A Child’s Garden of Verses