Secular Monasteries and Intentional Communities
I was reading a book review this morning in The Guardian about a book written by Tobias Jones entitled A Place of Refuge. Jones is also the author of a book entitled Utopian Dreams, described as a book “about communal living”. A Place of Refuge apparently documents his and his family’s efforts to found such an “intentional community” in England as “an antidote to the sadnesses and sorrows of modern life”. And I was reminded of this same question and issue put to The Chrysalis’s readership by Don Salmon in the comments section to my post on “The American Civil War”.
Reading the review, and recalling Don’s question about forming “intentional communities”, brought back to mind earlier times when I had given fairly extensive thought to this matter, for it is really a question about how we form a successful “we” and why this is difficult for us to accomplish, especially in the West.
The original impetus for my musing about such “intentional communities” came from my supervisor at university. He was quite convinced that our civilisation was headed for another Dark Age and believed that something like “secular monasteries” would be necessary to serve as santuaries and to carry the fire — ie as refuges and conservators of the best values of civilisation as the religious monasteries had done during the stormy and dissolute centuries of the Great European Dark Age. In my reply to Don’s comment, I likened the old monasteries to ships on a stormy sea, and noted how they have had a significant influence even on the development of modern society.
My university professor wasn’t the only one to think so, either. The belief that our present civilisation is headed for a fall and another Dark Age has been pretty wide-spread, and that something like “secular monasteries” would be needed as an antidote to its decadence. Biologist David Ehrenfeld’s essay from Tikkun Magazine entitled “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology” (unfortunately, no longer available online) was echoed in Jane Jacob’s Dark Age Ahead, and by others such as historians William Irwin Thompson, Morris Berman, and Tom Franks to name just a few, including Nietzsche’s anticipation of “two centuries of nihilism”. It was also the theme of noted historian Jacques Barzun’s chronicle of the Modern Age he entitled From Dawn to Decadence.
It was in the context of this pessimism about the near future human prospect that my university supervisor contemplated the survival value of secular monasteries or such “intentional communities” as communal forms created under the pressure of an emergency. The religious monasteries were an antidote to the collapse and dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent anarchy, chaos, and brigandage of the Dark Ages until a new “we” was formed, ie “Christendom” or “Holy Roman Empire”, and that was pretty much the work of the monks, the nuns, and the monasteries. And every monastery had its “Rule” and its “Work”. Oro et laboro.
The monasteries were the salvages, and when Luther dissolved the monasteries and sent his nuns and monks into the secular world to make their way during the Reformation or “German Revolution”, it was because the monasteries had by then become an anachronism. They had served their purpose, and very successfully too. I liken that dissolution of the monasteries to botanical “dehiscence” — a flower, when it dies and disintegrates, broadcasts its seeds far and wide. Thus when the tens of thousands of monks and nuns left their monasteries, they also served as “leavening” to the secular order into which they entered, carrying with them into the workaday world The Rule and The Word and The Work. This was pretty much the beginning of the “secularisation of the Word”. We don’t acknowledge or recognise that very profound influence upon the formation of “modernity” because we have very, very bad historical memory.
The German novelist Herman Hesse provided a model of such a secular monastery in his Magister Ludi (also called The Glass Bead Game). And during the very troubled sixties and seventies, many similar but abortive efforts were initiated to establish “intentional communities” — communes, ashrams, cults, etc. — and which largely failed or became perverse and aberrant because our social “conditioning”, as it were, makes it difficult for us to know how to form a proper “we” out of a bunch of the hyper-individualised. We don’t know the secret of how to form a successful “we” — and that’s reflected in the breakdown of communities and in the rampant divorce rates, too. “Love thy neighbour as thyself”, but nobody knows who this “neighbour” actually is. It’s quite true. I’ve read the works of people struggling to understand who the “neighbour” actually is. It attests to our incapacity to form a “we” because of our excessive egoistic individualism.
Egoistic individualism and the “pursuit of rational self-interest” has presented us with all sort of obstacles and difficulties and confusions in that respect. It’s not just that we can’t form such “intentianal communities” or “secular monasteries” in those terms. We can’t even successfully form a coherent “society”. And if today, we are concerned to evolve “the integral consciousness” it’s largely as an antidote to this emergent anarchy of egoistic individualism. Socialism, of course, appeals to the isolated and lonely and vulnerable individual trying to find his way back into a community of common interest, but very frequently — in fact, all too frequently — socialism, too, does not understand the secret of forming a successful “we” any more than capitalism (or egoistic individualism). The result is, as Gebser pointed out, both collectivism and individualism have been utter failures — and have become “deficient” in his terms — because they have both lost the link to the vital centre.
The Rule and the Work is the secret to forming a successful “we”. “Back to Nature” just isn’t sufficient as a Rule. The monastic orders were formed around The Rule and the Work (the observance of the Rule). Every monastic order had its Rule, and it was clear and unambiguous, and represented the common and shared consciousness and purpose of its adherents. “Back to Nature” can’t do that because “Back to Nature” is highly ambiguous. A “We” is a group which is devoted to a common task in full and clear consciousness of why it does so, where each individual effort contributes to the realisation of The Rule.
It was monasticism that provided the template for science, in fact. The Rule is represented in Descartes “cogito, ergo sum” or Bacon’s “scientia potens est“. The imperative contained, but hidden, in the Rule is, of course “Think!”. Thou shalt think! because by thinking and reasoning, we shall overcome — by thinking, we will become “masters and possessors of Nature”. That is The Work. Science has been very successful, in that respect. But it has forgotten and even disavowed its own roots in the monastic model.
That Rule and the Work has served its purpose and science well, but must now undergo a “dehiscence” of its own. The Rule, as represented in Descartes’ and Bacon’s formula, has become inadequate and insufficient. By Luther’s time, the monasteries had become a drag and drain on communal life, rather than as before, the redemption and salvation of communal life during the Dark Ages.
Today, we have swung too far in the other direction and the pursuit of self-interest and egoistic individualism having become “the culture of narcissism”. It has become aberrant, so we need once again to discover the secret of the monastic life — not a matter of religious “revivalism”, but of how to successfully form a “we”.