I knew Thomas More as the principled protagonist in A Man for All Seasons. The 16th century Chancellor of England always sought the monastic spirit, so writes Thomas Moore, author of Meditations: On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life. Moore is a one-time monk who believes that men and women have much to gain in their ordinary engaged lives from the traditional monastic practices of contemplation and solitude, as well as monastic ritual and community.
In a time of multi-tasking and maximized productivity, monks are experts at doing nothing. A little down-time should be part of everyone’s day for sanity. Instead of seeking novelty and entertainment, monks practice repetitious chant or silence, not kidding themselves that life is ever silent, but attending to things usually unheard. In a time when consumerism is the ascendant religion, monks take a vow of poverty, not to glorify pennilessness but to tone down acquisitiveness and desire for possessions. A vow of chastity is not the same thing as celibacy, but then celibacy is not a denial of sex, only redirection of sensuality and pleasure. Personally, at mid-life, having fulfilled my biological destiny, or at least having passed any likelihood of further reproduction, I delight in this expanded sense of physical pleasure.
What I envision is a rebuilding of monasticism without the need for monasteries, a recovery of sacred language without a church in which to use it, an education in the soul that takes place outside of the school, the creation of an artful world accomplished by persons who are not artists, the emergence of a psychological sensibility once the discipline of psychology has been forgotten, a life of intense community with no organization to belong to, and achieving a life of the soul without having made any progress toward it.
The soul. Do I still think such a thing as a soul exists? I am persuaded by the Buddhist writings that specifically discuss the suffering caused by believing in an essential self or soul. Reflecting on this at length, I think perhaps there can be a mortal soul, defined not by some divine substance, but by my particularity in time and space. It is co-occuring for every living being, but none can claim the “me-ness” of my life. I do not believe in an after-life or reincarnation of a soul, but the re-birth of subjective me-ness makes perfect sense. There was a time when “me” did not exist, there will come another time when “me” will not exist, and there will come again a time when “me” is felt. The key difference from the usual notion of soul is that I do not claim any connection between lives.
Moore imagines monasticism as a spirit, not of any particular religion, moving some men and women to live that spirit as a way of life. It may be secular but I think not atheistic in the most recent sense, in which religious thinking is explained away as a need for comfort, belonging, or convenience. Religious practice can instead be motivated by a tolerance for incompleteness and uncertainty. Prompted by life experiences that fracture a small world view, some seek a larger view, without fussing much over “progress toward it.” It takes a person out of the usual path. It is inconvenient, incomprehensible, isolating, uncomfortable, and non-conformist. In short, none of the pat answers.
The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe it willingly (quoting Wallace Stevens).