Not Survival, but Prophecy… Is This a Monastic Moment?
By Dion Forster
In some parts of the world daily life is starting to return to “normal,” whatever that may mean. Of course, this is not the case for everybody. Poorer persons in poorer regions of the world continue to face the onslaught of Covid-19. If truth be told, life has not been “normal” for many of those communities for generations. But, in some parts of the world people are returning to their offices, going back to school, sporting events are seeing record crowds in attendance, and people are once again complaining about traffic jams and irritating co-workers.
In recent conversations, colleagues, family, and friends have discussed some of the unanticipated “blessings” of the lockdowns. Some have mentioned a greater sense of control over their lives—waking a little later, taking regular breaks between Zoom meetings, getting into exercise routines, and of course, spending more time with relatives and watching lots of TV!
Sadly, none of this slowdown is considered “normal.” As people begin to describe their return to normality, they speak of a return to anxiety, pressure, and unrelenting demands. This is what the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa described as “social acceleration” in his books, High Speed Society, and Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity.
Contemporary life is, by some measures, much better than life was decades or centuries ago. This is largely true in relation to “life expectancy” and “material well-being.” Yet paradoxically, many persons are reporting greater unhappiness (termed negative “life satisfaction”) in countries that show significant increases in life expectancy and material well-being. These include the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Greece. Rosa attributes this to “social acceleration”: “modern capitalist society, in order to culturally and structurally reproduce itself, to maintain its formative status quo, must forever be expanding, growing, and innovating, increasing production and consumption as well as options and opportunities for connection—in short: it must always be accelerating.” He finds that social acceleration has led to the “three great crises of the present day: the environmental crisis, the crisis of democracy and the psychological crisis (as manifest, for example, in ever growing rates of burnout).”
So, as we return to normal, it is worth asking ourselves, is this normal? Or, could we have a “better” normal? At the heart of these questions is a tension between feeling overwhelmed by the world and the demands of life on one hand, and on the other, feeling alone, isolated, not needed or recognized.
In the early part of the pandemic, just as many of us were entering our first lockdowns, Michael A. Vargas wrote a beautiful article on monasticism, in which he argued for the importance of establishing spiritual practices as a strategy for coping with the tensions of social isolation, fear, and anxiety. These practices were not only important during the aloneness of the lockdowns but also anticipated a time when we would return to the demands of life before the “global pause.” His advice, based on the Rule of St. Benedict, was to engage in “ora et labora” (Latin for “pray and work”), which would allow one to listen to “the ear of the heart.” He ends the article with some advice that he applies to both isolation and busyness. “When every day conspires against inner peace, moments of solitude are all the more worthwhile.”
Spiritual practices such as silence, meditation, prayer, service, and even rest, are important for the restoration of human beings. They should be part of “normal life” and are important for the re-creation of just and humane society.
In addition to Vargas’ essay, another example of the struggle to find a balance between the demands of contemporary life and a more meaningful existence is found in the life and work of the Canadian artist and musician, Leonard Cohen. Marcia Pally’s new book, From this Broken Hill I Sing to You, traces Cohen’s lifelong struggle with “God, sex, and politics” within the “covenantal theology” that shaped his view of himself and the world. Pally shows how Cohen’s work and life are a testament to his core belief that human beings were created to be in a covenantal relationship with God and the rest of human and non-human creation. However, because of our nature, desires, and failings, we find it difficult to keep covenant.
What contemporary society regards as normal, is not so normal after all. Pally suggests that Cohen believed that we have the capacity for a better “normal,” but we don’t effect it. And that, sadly, maddeningly, is the (fallen) human “normal.” As a result, like Cohen, many of us are left unfulfilled and dissatisfied with what society deems as “normal.”
In part, this is because our socially accelerating world places pressure on us to live in systems in which meaning, value, and identity come from outside of ourselves. The dominant “cultural imagination” of capitalism and western individualism presents an attractive narrative of happiness that can be found in economic independence, personal wealth, beauty, and self-sufficiency. Yet, as Rosa shows, living in these ways creates a sense of “muteness” with the world. There is no true “resonance” with the world or ourselves. In an interview with Bjørn Schiermer, Rosa says, “there is the danger of the world going mute, deaf and silent for us subjects. When we look at cultural history, it has always been modernity’s great fear that the world we live in somehow dies for us; that it starts to seem disenchanted, cold, indifferent, maybe hostile […] that we are deeply alienated from it.”
So, how might we address Rosa’s “three great crises of the present day” as we begin to return to “normal”? Like Vargas, the South African theologian John de Gruchy speaks of this as a “monastic moment.” In his book, This Monastic Moment: The War of the Spirit and the Rule of Love, de Gruchy suggests that we are facing a kairos moment. This unique time in history invites us to “see the grace,” not only of traditional monasticism but of the spiritual practices that contemporary spiritual communities offer us “in this time and place.” He writes that the Covid-19 pandemic has,
undoubtedly evoked acts of great courage, dedication and service of others, scientific advances, and a creativity that has led to remarkable innovations for coping with adversity and keeping hope alive. It has also taught us much about ourselves and the societies in which we live, the importance of healthy communities and serving the common good, and the danger of selfish individualism, whether driven by religion or secularism.
In short, Covid helped us to see that our “normal” was not so normal after all. It was abnormally fraught. As we return to a form of normality, I am challenged by the words of Thomas Merton, a monk, who said: “The vocation of the monk in the modern world […] is not survival but prophecy.” Monks, and monastic practices, prophesize that materialism, individualism, and other expressions of social acceleration, are doomed to fail. They are not sustainable in the long run.
Instead, let’s listen to the “ear of the heart,” deepen our covenant with God, with our fellow humanity, and with non-human creation. In this monastic moment, let’s slow down enough to embrace the grace of living less “accelerated” lives. Perhaps this could become a “new normal”?
Dion A. Forster is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Public Theology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is the author of numerous books and articles in theology and ethics. His research focusses on social ethics, economic ethics, and political ethics. Dion is the director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology. See: http://www.twitter.com/digitaldion.
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