Preface to a Study of Secular Monkness

What is it to be a secular monk?

In my practice, such questions are generally followed by a literature review.  But none will be provided here, for as with many of these essays, the function is exploratory.  Perhaps part of the exploration will involve a review of how others have approached the topic, but rather than transmit knowledge, the goal in this case is primarily to be well.  So perhaps I should write in the Bildung blog or journal instead …

I recall that when I was a child I wanted to be a monk, but my grandmother told me that one had to be Catholic to be a Monk and since we were Baptists, I had to go out into the world and let my light shine.  Twenty or so years later, my broad intellectual interests freed me from Baptism.  Monkhood was now calling me again, but I was now becoming an atheist.

I suppose in graduate school – studying philosophy at Georgia State in Atlanta – single, childless, and nearly destitute that I came closest to living something like a monastic life.  I was rather occupied with my studies.  At that point I was still trying on ideas, still confused.  By the time I returned to graduate school I was a divorced, single parent with a newly-found partner.  Although this is not the romantic image of monkness it was perhaps closer to the spirit in that I cared not only for myself.  Due to an improved academic work ethic, I was also more fully consumed by my studies.

The point, I think, is that this is not something new.  The life of the monk has appealed to me for much of my life.  The whys are many, but most enticing is the clear sense of purpose and the focus that accompanies such living.  The problem with popular Christianity is that the world is separated into the sacred and the profane and what we spend most of our time doing loses, as a result, much of its grander meaning.  It becomes poor in spirit.  Christians have of course recognized this and responded in different ways:monkhood in some cases and theocratic tyranny, witch hunts, inquisitions to name a few others.

I have little interest in politics and in trying to force or coerce people to live life as I see fit.  People have different temperaments and interests – and intelligence.  I am responsible for my offspring and for those who pay me to do things for them and am inclined to help others to whom I am directly connected: i.e., family.  Given those presuppositions, how might I live a life whereby everyday acts like sweeping, laundry, cutting grass, and such are meaningful and pleasant?  That is really what is at stake here.  I have a  good life by most any standard.  I am happy, fulfilled, successful in work, and loved by family.  I believe that all of those except perhaps the last are due in large part, however, to an approach to life.  (And of particular relevance to this blog is fulfillment, which can never come, or at least endure, as a result of privilege.  It seems to me at least that fulfillment necessarily involves overcoming obstacles – and the greater the overcoming the greater the fulfillment.)  The approach to life, simply enough, is being rational.  Thinking about what is best and acting on those conclusions.  This approach is in contrast to doing what is expected or moral and to not acting on what is best: lying in bed, for example, when I believe it would be better to get up and write.  This is all too simple, really, but I am amazed by how many people do not due this; that is, by how many people do not think for themselves and/or are lazy.

To return to the study, I have been considering living the life of a secular monk, and I am spending part of this morning examining more systematically why and how I would do this.  I am not seeking radical changes.  Life is good.  But sucking the marrow of life – that dynamic, interconnected matrix of processes and systems – requires growth …  And so to the point, I would like to more efficiently consume life so that I can be greater.Being great for me does not necessarily mean being seen as great or as having political or economic control of others.  I am a thoughtful introvert, not a gregarious extrovert.  I seek to live well – and to do it better than ever before by being clear about what I want and how best to attain that.

Like cells and organisms this might largely be accomplished through the actions of selectively porous boundaries, including boundaries between work and home, for example.  One of the problems of mortality and aging – perhaps the greatest – is that it denies us the opportunity to live different lives. We only get one shot at this, and so we need to make it count.  An approach I have developed is to try to live different lives within one life – and to live them fully.  The enemy of this approach is wasting one’s time.  The danger is that life becomes hectic and stressful.  It is necessary, therefore, to be strategic about one’s extensions and contractions.  To do more here requires doing less there.  Where can time be appropriated?  What should be made larger and smaller?

The most immediate cut is pointless entertainment.  Television has stolen countless lives and is in the aggregate far worse for meaningful living than drugs.Video games are another.

Of course this is complicated by the fact that there is no ultimate meaning to life  – and so in a real and important way, sitting your fat ass on the couch and watching television all day is just as meaningful as finding a cure for cancer or being the best piano player in the world.  It is dangerous, I think, to try to hide that truth from oneself.  Perhaps it is necessary for the weak, but the strong should be able to recognize that yes, sitting on the couch is, universally speaking, as valuable as being great – because it all depends on the measure one uses.  The great create their own measures.  With that said, it is equally clear that people who spend their lives in front of the television are generally boring – as are those who spend it in the coal mine or the field, etc.  So all of that sort of falls away and the question becomes what sort of life do I want to live and how do I best accomplish this?

I have already rambled on way too much and so will put a stop to this and continue elsewhere.


One thought on “Preface to a Study of Secular Monkness

  1. Monkness. If it isn’t a word, maybe it should be. You hit the nail on the head early. Graduate school triggers responses like the desire to be monk-like in most of us. The isolation from the more normal ebb and flows of life, along with the combative struggle with ones’ “mentor”, induces the state of detachment necessary to cope with the whole thing. Keep in mind, if all of us became monks, there would be no point in being a monk. All that said, Grad school is good. It enables us to sling around words and phrases like “interconnected matrix of processes”, presuppositions and interconnected, usually with a straight face. It also tends to make all of us seriously question the true goals of college career counselors.


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