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Posts Tagged ‘Camaldolese Monasticism’

Paula Huston has been an Oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage since 1999, after encountering the monastery during a period of acute spiritual crisis and having her life’s direction turned in an entirely new direction. She is the author of The Holy Way: Practices for a Simple Life, By Way of Grace: Moving From Faithfulness to Holiness, Forgiveness: Following Jesus into Radical Loving, and Simplifying the Soul: Lenten Practices to Renew Your Spirit, as well as works of fiction. Her spiritual writing regularly appears in such journals as The Christian Century, America, Image, and Geez, in addition to websites like www.explorefaith.comwww.catholicexchange.com, and www.godspy.com.  She has four grown children plus small grandchildren, and lives with her husband in rural Arroyo Grande, California (full bio here).

This conversation is largely a response to my previous interview with Bruno Barnhart. Taking a decidedly different tack than Bruno’s vision of a new role for monasteries and the emergence of small, local experiments budding into new forms of monastic or quasi-monastic communities, Paula strongly defends the enduring validity and necessity of preserving ancient forms. In contrast to Bruno’s optimistic assessment of human creativity as a kind of revolutionary force unleashed by the Christ event, Paula sees, particularly in the Romantic Movement and the social upheavals of the mid-to-late 20th century, an unrestrained, destabilizing approach to both art and life that tends toward dissipation and broken relationships. Whereas Bruno suggests that the containment of the monastery often best serves as a period of training for a more creative kind of life, Paula sees the limitations imposed by a highly structured, disciplined life as the context wherein true creativity flowers. Not surprisingly, where Bruno sees the 1960s, and Vatican II in particular, as a time of grace, Paula paints a picture of the social fabric coming undone due to an exaggerated ideal of the good life as one without constraint or limitation. Paula also discusses her experience of the Oblate community of which she is a part, of how they’re held together in a bond akin to family with the monastery firmly at the center, and the liberating effects of learning to align their lives with the monastic values instilled by their relationship with the monastery. As regards the vocational crisis facing so many religious communities in the Christian West, Paula shares her belief that this is primarily a clash of cultures between modern and ancient prerogatives, a historical lull that actually gives monasteries greater opportunity to witness to something truly countercultural.

While these contrasting views might be caricatured as “liberal” and “conservative” (which I believe is an unfair simplification), I also see something else at play. The context for both interviews revolves around Bruno’s and Paula’s responses to the state of monastic institutions in the West, and New Camaldoli Hermitage in particular. As such, they appear to inhabit virtually opposite poles. I believe this kind of stalemate permeates much of the discourse around how to address what many see as a vocational crisis among monasteries today. Are changing cultural circumstances calling forth new forms of religious life? Do monastic institutions need to hold their ground as a countercultural witness and weather the crisis? Obviously, these are complex questions with no easy answers. What I find intriguing, however, is how different the context is among new evangelical communities that I’ve encountered. Because these communities have as yet no formal institutions of religious life of their own, there’s a spirit of freedom and spontaneity relatively unhindered by the kind of polarities one finds in Catholic circles. In other words, they’re able to draw from scripture, tradition, and human experience without bumping into overarching, longstanding structures, and hence do not suffer the kind of inertia that results from polarized reactions toward such structures. In fact, I would say that because of this freedom, the kind of small, local experiments Bruno foresees are actually happening now, though more often than not outside Catholicism.

My growing hope? That evangelical “new monastics” and Catholic monasteries forge stronger bonds, which would allow “new monastics” to establish deeper roots in history and tradition, and the “old monastics” to benefit from an infusion of youthful openness, enthusiasm, and spontaneity—the “many possibilities” of the beginner’s mind. This development leans more toward the less contentious idea put forward by Mary Forman, that we are entering a period of expanding diversity not unlike that which emerged in similar periods of cultural upheaval, a diversity fostered today by ecumenical dialogue and new relationships between monastics and laity.

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Bruno Barnhart is a Camaldolese-Benedictine monk of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, and was one of my primary teachers during my own monastic formation. He is the author of The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center, Second Simplicity: The Inner Shape of Christianity, The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity, and co-editor of Purity of Heart and Contemplation: A Monastic Dialogue Between Christian and Asian Traditions.

What might happen if a monastery, whose Oblates (nonresident lay associate members) outnumber the monks within by a 50 to 1 ratio, embarked upon an experiment in renewal that altered the very form and function of what conventionally comprises a monastic community?

This interview is actually the tail end of a much longer conversation, wherein we had discussed such topics as wisdom, evolution, poetry, and especially the exhilarating, irrepressible, revolutionary impulse at the heart of Christianity. Our primary guides were the restless, Christ-possessed, future-oriented Apostle Paul, and the 20th century Jesuit scientist, theologian, and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, especially in their understanding of the Cosmic Christ. Also relevant to the interview, we spoke of literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and his distinction between the Party of Memory and the Party of Hope (applied by Emerson particularly to political parties but ultimately seen as forces in tension underlying all human affairs) and Owen Barfield’s notion that the Christ event fundamentally shifted the trajectory of human history from a position of receptivity and learning to one of creativity or co-creativity with God. What emerges is a hope-filled vision of a divinely-charged human creativity flowing from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, with a preference for the innovative and experimental.

At the point at which this interview actually begins, I bring the conversation down to earth by asking, in essence: what does this have to do with monasticism? That is, how would this dynamic, creative, future-oriented perspective change a monastic culture that tends to focus its energies on conserving and recapitulating the past? From there, we begin to sketch what such a new monasticism might look like in the present day; the role existing monasteries would play in this transformation; and how this might actually take shape in a monastery like Bruno’s own. Since New Camaldoli Hermitage’s situation—of a flourishing life outside the cloister, yet seeming diminishing life within—is by no means unique, the ideas expressed here have a potentially broad applicability for a new monasticism and new monasteries.

(For a critical response to this interview, see Paula Huston)

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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Cyprian Consiglio is a Camaldolese monk, musician, and teacher, as well as a personal friend and confrere. After ten years at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, CA, he has lived for nine years near Santa Cruz, CA, where he divides his time between solitude and extensive travel, performing and teaching around the world. He has been deeply involved in inter-religious dialogue for many years and is the author of Prayer in the Cave of the Heart: The Universal Call to Contemplation.

In our conversation, Cyprian distinguishes between what he sees as two forms of monasticism in the West: the familiar, institutionalized model and one arising from a more spontaneous, flexible contemplative impulse, manifesting across religious traditions in a variety of emergent forms. In this light, Cyprian discusses the sources that have inspired him in his own journey, from living as a monk in community to the less predetermined path of “hermit, preacher, and wanderer,” or Christian sannyasi, in the spirit of inter-religious pioneers Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux, OSB) and Bede Griffiths, OSB Cam.

In a significant contrast to Mary Ewing Stamps, who in an earlier interview identified the non-negotiables of monasticism as a leader, a rule, and a stable place (which is about as succinct a definition of the first form of [Benedictine] monasticism as you’ll likely find), Cyprian goes to the heart of the matter in identifying the primacy of the interior life and contemplative practice as the fundamental, nonnegotiable elements of monasticism, which in turn imbue the whole of a monk’s life and activity. With this more flexible definition in mind, Cyprian and I explore various forms of monastic community and itinerancy East and West, how to maintain a disciplined contemplative life on the move and without direct community support, and the critical necessity of daily practice, rootedness in tradition, and spiritual direction for the monk in the world.

While the distinction shouldn’t be drawn too starkly, I find Cyprian’s understanding of two forms of monasticism helpful and refreshing. Having myself been trained in the Camaldolese tradition, I tend to identify with a middle-ground, wherein the monastic institution meets, and ideally fosters, the kind of adaptability, spontaneity, and freedom of the second form. Hence, like Cyprian, I’ve also taken inspiration from the more flexible ascetical traditions of the Far East and the kinds of monastic or “lay monastic” communities they’ve established in the West (Cyprian speaks particularly of Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery (see interview here) and Mount Madonna Yoga Center, of which I have visited only the former). As Cyprian affirms, this is not to say that one form is better than the other, but it does help to clarify important differences in, say, vocational dispositions.

Incidentally, this is the same Cyprian who performs the music I use in the podcast…

Into/Outro music “He Prabhu” by Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., and John Pennington, from Compassionate and Wise.

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On the Way, North of Big Sur

Funny thing. Two weekends in a row, in two towns, upon my arrival I’ve found myself invited to attend retreats I hadn’t previously known were happening. In Eureka, through a chain of logic that still eludes me, a friend of a friend of a friend thought I’d like to participate in a retreat given by a Catholic priest on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as part of my tour. In fact, I was grateful to participate, but perhaps for different reasons than this person anticipated.

“When two or three are together in my name, there am I in your midst” (Matthew 18:20)

A common theme running through the presenter’s exploration of the 12 steps was how recovering addicts and codependents in 12 step groups “come to believe that a Power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity” (Step 2), and acquire the courage to “turn their wills and their lives over to God as they understood God” (Step 3) not so much through explicit religious belief (although this can help) but through coming to know something of God communicated implicitly through interactions and relationships formed with other members. The sense of dignity, understanding, respect, and compassion a new member receives, from those further along in recovery who have undergone a spiritual liberation they could not have imagined or willed on their own, can often communicate the God who saves more surely than a catechism class or a Sunday sermon. This theme struck all the more deeply when we broke into sharing groups.

If you’ve ever been welcomed into a circle of women and men who’ve suffered similarly as you, who can listen to you with deep empathy and respect (without needing to give advice, sell you on their religious views, or shift the focus onto themselves) and are willing to reciprocate by sharing from the same level of vulnerability, then you are likely familiar with that peculiar quality such a group can evoke: the visceral knot of habitual guardedness uncoils, and a pain you may not have known you’ve been carrying wells up in your solar plexus, your chest, your throat, wells out as tears long overdue. From a Christian perspective, and without negating God’s transcendence or the necessity for the addict of receiving help beyond the merely human, I believe we can say that such moments of compassionate presence to one another reveal the Triune God in our midst; the God who is loving relationship, who is less an object of belief than a constant discovery, leading us through our pain and fear and the pain and fear of our world, to be surprised again and again by new life awaiting us on the other side.

Liz Song and I Working Our MSR Stoves, Portola Redwoods State Park

Next, in Palo Alto I met up with new friend Liz Song (aka the Dancing Panda of the SFO baggage claim area) on the eve of her departure on bike with a few friends into the Santa Cruz Mountains, to attend a camping retreat with members of their church, the Highway Community. In spite of being the oldest attendee at this “post-college” retreat, I felt right at home and grateful to meet so many passionate, engaged, thoughtful young Christians. How surprising and inspiring it is to hear them talk about such topics as monasticism, ecology, intentional community, and Christian anarchism, nearly all in the same breath. In fact, a handful of them have already formed an intentional community. This is definitely a clear, hope-filled trend I’m seeing: young evangelicals eager to learn from the whole of the Christian tradition, open to a variety of radical perspectives, creatively engaged in applying what they learn into shared ways of living—something is definitely afoot! I look forward to re-connecting with this particular group in the near future.

Stealth Camping, Carmel Beach

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness, and there speak tenderly to her heart” (Hosea 2:14)

It’s always a fine line between reading the hand of God at work in the events of your life and mere narcissistic magical thinking, but I’m going to take the risk and trust that these turn of events were no accident. The tenderness that these retreats, these people, touched in me, each in their own way, has been vying for my attention for a while now. And if they’ve helped to lower me closer to the bottom of the well, they’ve also spoken of where I need to go to plumb the depths. And the word they’ve spoken is:

Get thee to a monastery!

Altar, New Camaldoli Hermitage

If you’ve been following thus far, then you may already be aware that at the beginning of this tour I had the unique experience of being struck on the Achilles Heel both literally and metaphorically: while the physical injury grounded me for a month’s time, a particularly painful event in my personal life instigated a period of deep reflection. And the truth is, as a consequence of the latter, my attention has been drawn inward, my enthusiasm for the tour flagging, and the passionate questions and aspirations that underlie the inspiration for this journey have lost their sharp edge. Where my intention has been to attend closely to and learn from the lives, perspectives, and concerns of those with whom I visit and interview, I simply haven’t had the energy or focus available for that level of presence.

Now, please do not worry! This is still very good news, both personally and for this endeavor I’ve set out upon. It simply means that I need to take a brief sabbatical from the actual tour of communities in order to give the rumblings of my heart the attention they deserve; to re-charge, re-evaluate, and re-connect with my monastic roots so as to be able to give myself fully to the work before me.

“O God, you search me and you know me; you know my resting and my rising…all my ways lie open to you”  (Psalm 139:1-3)

For the time being, then, I’ve returned to my “home group”—my once physical, enduring spiritual home, New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. This is where I come to attend to “deep calling on deep in the roar of waters” (Psalm 42:7). As I see it, intertwined with this tour of communities is the opportunity to dig more deeply into the aspirations God has gifted me with to shape a life with meaning, a life that bears fruit, and to let go of those habit-patterns that have recurringly led me down paths of futility and disappointment along the way. This inner work is the personal analog of what I see new forms of community engaged in on social, cultural, economic, political, ecological, and ecclesial levels: how do we take the life conditions we’ve been given and forge a Spirit-infused, liberating path together?  And this is by no means a dreary process but one that’s already filling me with a renewed sense of vitality and clarity of direction, qualities I am eager to take back onto the road again (picking up where I left off in the San Francisco Bay Area, possibly as early as mid-September). Hence, in no way do I see this as a set-back but rather a leap forward in what I’m actually seeking interiorly from this venture—transformation—which can only have a positive influence on the outer rind of the journey; that is, visiting communities, blogging, reflection, interviews, etc. In any case, while I am here, I hope to corner a hermit-monk or two for an interview (no promises!) so that I might keep the podcast rolling. We’ll see…

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