Millennial Wisdom Stirs in the Desert: Amid Mind-Boggling Change, Monasticism's Ancient Truths Remain Vital. (Religious Life: Special Section)

By Chittister, Joan | National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Millennial Wisdom Stirs in the Desert: Amid Mind-Boggling Change, Monasticism's Ancient Truths Remain Vital. (Religious Life: Special Section)


Chittister, Joan, National Catholic Reporter


To be at the brink of the 21st century is to be, apparently, at the cutting edge of a brave but bewildering new world. In a culture already fraught with change, we expect even more change to come. It takes no visionary to predict it.

We can see in embryo on the horizon of our lives new electronic miracles, a new conjunction of nations, a new national racial profile, a new universe to explore, a new display of universal angst and gain. We will have kinds of speed and light, power and control, supervision and communication unknown in the history of the world. We will have a global fun house -- full of surprises, full of danger -- and all without benefit of an exit door.

The question is: What will guide us through it? The profit-mongering and power plays that brought us here or something else? What will save us from ourselves as we go further into electronic darkness and lethal power, concentration of resources and planetary poverty, unparalleled development and incommensurable international hunger?

We go through life praying that God will save us from ourselves, but down deep we know that it is the human community that must control what we create. We created nuclear weapons; God didn't; and we can uncreate them if we will. We develop the policies that make people poor and leave people hungry and we can change them if we want. We engineer the organizations that put power in the hands of few and leave many at the mercy of systems they cannot plumb, and we can restructure them. Those things do not depend on what manner of God our God is. They depend on what kind of human beings we are.

In the face of great millennial newness, monasticism is anything but new and not much trying to be, except perhaps in mostly cosmetic ways. For over 1,500 years, the principles that undergird monasticism have carried it from century to century, from millennium to millennium. Whatever the cultural changes around it, monasticism has, in most part, remained itself. Seeking God is the single basis of the monastic life. Nothing else matters.

The purpose of monasticism is to develop a particular kind of lifestyle in order to form a reflective, contemplative kind of human being. The goal of monasticism is to develop fully human persons whose taste for God is satisfied and whose commitment to life is whole. First and foremost, last and always, is the single-minded search for God.

This continuing search may well be the monastic gift to a world swamped by newness and -- caught in both a church and a society forced to rethink everything previously taken for granted -- awash at its moorings.

The question on the brink of this new millennium is a clear one: What elements of the search are most important now? What qualities of life does monasticism have to give a century so profoundly uprooted?

While refugees pour across borders, while scientists perfect the process of human cloning, while hunger is the world's single most deadly disease and while new worlds of thought challenge our most basic givens, what, if anything, has the monastic tradition to offer the world?

The answers are old ones that stretch from the Desert Monastics in fourth-century Egypt to our own times. Of the multiple characteristics of the monastic tradition, four, I think, deserve special emphasis. They are awareness, community, justice and metanoia -- the fruits of a contemplative vision of life.

Awareness

Awareness is the ability to see what is really going on in the world and, as a result, what God requires of us.

"In Scetis, the desert monastics tell us, a brother went to see Abba Moses and begged him for a word. And the old man said: `Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.'"

The desert monastics were clear: So often it is what is right in front of us that we see least. As a result, we come out of every situation no more than we were when we went into it. …

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