Low Bandwidth Version
Be In the World, Not Of the World
by Wayne Teasdale
doubt, there is great value in spirituality that emphasizes and supports
withdrawal from society. But in our time, with its special needs, we require a
spirituality of intense involvement and radical engagement with the world. It is
in the real world that people live their busy lives, and it is in the real world
that the wisdom of the monks must be made accessible. It is in the real world
that awakening and development need to occur, not off in remote solitude.
The type of engagement I have in mind is direct, not abstract. It is a
twofold engagement: personal encounter with others and a participation in the
experiences, struggles, trials, joys, triumphs, and fears most people in society
experience. The daily tasks of earning a living, paying bills, saving money,
getting along with others, being entertained, enjoying healthy recreation, and
learning how to interact with difficult people are all part of an active life.
So they must also be part of life for a monk in the world, at the crossroads of
contemporary culture and experience.
When I use the term monk in the world I am referring both to my own
situation as a monastic type living in the heart of society and to you, who are
or aspire to be a contemplative resident in the same busy world. The traditional
monastic understanding that one can be in the world, but not of it can be
reformulated as engaged in the world, but free of it, engaged in the world and
with others, but not attached to the world's greed, indifference, insensitivity,
noise, confusion, pettiness, unease, tension, and irreverence.
Declaring oneself a monk, or mystic, in the world is a way to make the
journey easier. By committing to a way of life, or even simply to a name on
which we can hang our attention, we formalize our commitment to treating our
actions in the world as important. Although we may not all want the structure
and tradition of an established path, the formal dedication to becoming a mystic
in the world -- even if we keep the identification to ourselves -- can help us
immeasurably as we battle with the endless distractions the world serves up to
THE MONASTERY WITHIN
Monks and nuns live set apart in a consecrated place. Their monastery exists
for three reasons: to provide a supportive environment to seek God in a spirit
of daily surrender; to provide an ongoing opportunity for genuine Christian --
or Buddhist, Hindu, or Jain -- love in the practice of acceptance of one
another, a place to pursue compassion and selfless love toward each other; and
to provide a refuge for people living active lives, those caught up in the
distractions of this noisy, confusing, and disordered world. In this last sense,
it is a sanctuary for all who arrive at the monastery's gate, a place of peace
and calm, where the ways of the world do not follow.
The visitors who stay for a time in the monastic retreat or guesthouse come
for many reasons. Some are in search of God and of themselves in God. Perhaps
they want the simplicity and focus of the monastery, the sane and balanced
rhythm of prayer, work, and study. Perhaps they desire the integrated life of a
single place rather than the fragmented existence of contemporary life. It may
be the sacred values and practices of monasticism or the emphasis on the
sacredness of life, nature, cosmos, and one another that draws them. Often it is
the deep seriousness and commitment to faith and to transcendent reality that
calls them for a brief time to come apart and be renewed in spirit by drinking
from the living waters of divine wisdom. Sometimes it is to experience a sacred,
timeless culture, one that is less mired in the compulsiveness and insensitivity
of modern society. Whatever the reason, for the vast majority who come to these
peaceful oases, it is for a very brief time -- a weekend, a few days, or a week.
For these seekers, the question becomes how to integrate their glimpse of
monastic peace into their everyday lives in the world, how to cultivate
contemplation within an active life. To achieve this integration requires the
realization that the real monastery exists within them as a dimension of their
own consciousness. The important work for all of us in the world is the inner
struggle and refinement that goes on in the midst of our daily activities. How
do we succeed in dwelling in the cave of our own hearts, in that monastery
within? How do we nurture and nourish, inspire and inform, the inner monk that
all of us have, and are, as an expression of the mystic in us?
THE OUTER AND INNER MONK
It is the longing of the monk within that calls so many to leave the world
for brief retreats. The same call works within both the outer and the inner
monk. The outer monk joins the monastery to release the inner monk's mystical
life. A monastic is ideally someone who takes the inner monk seriously, and this
inner monk is simply the mystic in all of us. Eventually the outer and inner
monk become one through prayer, spiritual practice, meditation, or mystical
contemplation. All these practices are related to the birth of awareness and to
inner attention to the sacred.
The monk in all of us, as cross-cultural thinker Raimon Panikkar observes,
"aspires to reach the ultimate goal of life with all his [or her] being by
renouncing all that is not necessary to it, i.e., by concentrating on this one
single and unique goal." Panikkar speaks of the inner monk as essential to
the human, as part of each person. Having an inner monk doesn't require an
overtly religious context. It is an innate expression of the mystical quest that
everyone can reach by virtue of our common humanity. "The monastic vocation
as such precedes the fact of being Christian, or Buddhist, or secular, or Hindu,
or even atheist," writes Panikkar.
WHY BE A MONK IN THE WORLD?
Is it possible for the masses of humanity, who do not live in monastic
seclusion, to activate the monk within? Are we capable of realizing the mystical
life here in the world, in the midst of so much frantic activity? Why be a monk
in the world and not in a comfortable monastery? For many years I assumed I
would find God sequestered away, and surely one can, but I learned a valuable
lesson from my time in India. India taught me the primacy of the mystical quest,
the search for the Divine Presence by the wandering ascetic renunciate. India
incorporated this vital dimension of spiritual life early on in its history. It
required that the contemplative life, the monk within, be appointed to the last
stage in life -- but for everyone, not just for a select few. This was, and
remains, the ideal. Although monasteries and other such institutions are useful,
they are not necessary for one to make his or her way into this mystery. Once
the inner monk awakens, once the mystic begins to see, an interior freedom is
ignited, and the external structures become less important. We will always need
them, but they are not where humanity lives. They are places of retreat,
renewal, and rest. And most important, they are a countercultural symbol of the
spiritual journey we must all make in our own way and at our own pace.
Why do I choose to be a monk in the world and not locked away in a remote
hermitage? Because I want to identify with and be identified with all those who
suffer alone in the world, who are abandoned, homeless, unwanted, unknown, and
unloved. I want to know the insecurity and vulnerability they experience, to
forge a solidarity with them. The homeless are often open to the divine mystery
through their very vulnerability and anxiety. It is also my desire to be close
to you, dear reader, especially if you are struggling. At the same time, while
embracing this larger world, I identify with all my brothers and sisters in
monasteries, hermitages, and retreat centers everywhere and in every tradition.
The Spirit has called me into the world to live a spirituality of engagement
with those who suffer, and that's all of us. This call includes kinship with
other species and with nature as a whole within this vast cosmos, which is our
real community and certainly the context of our life on this fragile planet. I
want to be in the bosom of God in the heart of the world. St. Francis of Assisi
taught me when I was a child the importance of simplicity of life, what the
Catholic tradition calls poverty. The economic pressures of modern life have
caused most religious orders to lose sight of the true meaning of simplicity.
With the exception of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity and the Little
Brothers of Jesus, few orders are able to maintain this ideal. Living as a
hermit monk in the world, as a contemplative mystic working for a living, like
most people, living simply and consciously, I can do the most good for others.
Furthermore, I choose to be a monk living in the midst of the real world,
among my brothers and sisters, because I am first of all a contemplative mystic.
That is, I am anchored in a deep and growing inner awareness of God's presence,
of the Divine's incomparable love for each one of us. Often I feel the Divine
One giving itself to me directly, in my relationships with others and in the
natural world; it is always a source of inspiration, delight, and even bliss. I
experience and so am aware of this Presence in some way, all the time. Often I
am overwhelmed by God's love and I feel it inviting me to profound and subtler
degrees of surrender, that is, of greater generosity in assenting to God's
invitation. My mystical experience is emphatically and inevitably God centered.
The primary element in my understanding and practice of spiritual life is the
inner reality of the Gospel: love itself. The Gospel calls us to intimacy with
the Divine and availability to others; these are really two dimensions of the
same reality. For me, in my experience of being a Christian in these difficult,
uncertain, and confusing times, the Gospel has become self-evident in its
eternal truth as an ethics of love. I cannot doubt its reality and truth. As an
ethics of love, the Gospel contains, I believe, the principle of life itself.
This love, which is Divine Love, incarnated in Christ and in us, is referred to
as agape, selfless or sacrificial love, pointing to and emphasizing its
essential characteristic of unconditional giving. To me, this represents the
message of Jesus -- an intensely powerful insight on and invitation to being in
the world. I am convinced that the Gospel represents a high point in humankind's
spiritual, moral, and psychological evolution. The example of Jesus repeatedly
comes to me in the course of each day. His message to love selflessly is the
substance of my world, the radiating light and truth of how I attempt to dwell
in this society on this tiny planet we call our home. I am painfully aware,
though, of how often I fail.
My desire to be a monk in the world, rather than in a monastery, has much to
do with this compelling and challenging teaching of the Gospel. I wish to be
near the least, the forgotten and ignored, so I can be a sign of hope and love
for them and for all others who need me in some way. It's here I find my anchor
in God's love.
… when I was hungry, you gave me something to eat; when I was thirsty,
you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.
Naked, and you clothed me; sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and
you came to me……as often as you did it to the least of my brethren, you
did it to me.
These words from the Gospel of Matthew form the hub of my life as a
contemplative monk in the world. The world is the rim, while all that I do in
relation to my spiritual life and the various activities I pursue, the
experiences I share with all those who also live in this same world, constitute
the spokes of the wheel of well-being. I now live and work in Chicago. I find
the thriving city an exciting place to meet God and to be a monk in the world.
One can be a mystic or monk in the world without departing it.
article is excerpted from A Monk in the World, ©2002, by Wayne Teasdale.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New World Library, Novato,
About the Author
Wayne Teasdale is a lay monk who combines the traditions of Christianity and
Hinduism in the way of Christian sannyasa. An activist and teacher in building
common ground between religions, Teasdale serves on the board of trustees of the
Parliament of the World's Religions. As a member of the Monastic Interreligious
Dialogue, he helped draft their Universal Declaration on Nonviolence. He is an
adjunct professor at DePaul University, Columbia College, and the Catholic
Theological Union, and coordinator of the Bede Griffiths International Trust. He
is the author of The
Mystic Heart, and A
Monk in the World. He holds an M.A. in philosophy
from St. Joseph College and a Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University. He
lives at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and speaks throughout the
Printer Friendly Page