“Ample food and sleep” : A thought on retrospective diagnosis, visions and full bellies

From Geoffrey Moorhouse’s fine bookSun Dancing

A clinical diagnosis of Aedh’s erotic and other visions would doubtless have concluded that , whatever shaped them in his psyche, they were triggered by his reckless fasting. Hallucination as a result of extreme exhaustion, including that which has resulted from semi-starvation, is a well-established condition, though many more centuries would pass after Aedh’s time before this was recognised. But visionaries of every father at all stages of history have tended to be people whose lives are marked by exceptional austerity, and it is difficult to think of a single instance in which a holy man or woman has reported tempting, fearsome or inspiring manifestations, on a regime of ample food and sleep.

On one level there is nothing objectionable about the above. Moorhouse, whose book I greatly admire, is careful not the ascribed the visions to starvation per se, but as a triggering factor. I I am suspicious of retrospective diagnosis and also of transporting the clinical worldview outside its natural habitat But reading this passage, a brief thought occurs. For the vast majority of the time homo sapiens has been in existence “ample food and sleep” have not been the common condition of humanity. Indeed, a regime of ample food and sleep could be said to be as anomalous as complex societies themselves- as Tainter points out


Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism

Adam deVille on the romanticisation of monasticism


From a lengthy review of Rod Dreher’s new book “The Benedict Option.” I used to occasionally read Dreher’s blog, and tried his “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”, but drifted away for reasons I probably could not articulate nearly as well as deVille. In particular the sweeping, dogmatic, pseudo-eagles-eye-of-the-history-of-Christianity is offputting. I found “The Little Way” a strange book, a exercise in trying too hard at transcendence. More positive takes on “The Benedict Option” are out there. For me, it is one of those books that if I had world enough and time I would read but to be honest an awful lot of books (by Alasdair McIntyre, for one, and other authors Adam de Ville cites) stand ahead of it.


Dreher is not content to stand still and see the salvation of God. His busybody guruism seeking to safeguard “orthodox Christianity” is, as MacIntyre suggested decades ago, a typical reaction of the leisure class that often has the greatest tendency to fixate (as Kate Daloz has recently shown in fascinating detail) on simplicity, intentional community, and various forms of voluntary self-denial–whether in monasteries or pseudo-monastic communities. It is the leisure class especially among converts to Orthodoxy (in what Amy Slagle has aptly called the The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity) who most often seem to fetishize monasteries, who have the time and money to obsess over “monasticism” and “tradition” in psychologically suspect ways, running after their “spiritual fathers” for permission to pee or clip their toenails on Fridays in Lent.

Dreher, of course, is not made of such stern fanaticism, and, curiously but revealingly, his gaze falls primarily upon Catholic and Protestant communities in preference to, e.g., Mt. Athos (which is to his credit given some of the hysterical nonsense that sometimes issues from the so-called holy mountain). Nevertheless, one must challenge this desire to play at being a monk or a quasi-monastic, and one must regard any and all calls for “new forms of community” with a great deal of skepticism until and unless they engage in–as MacIntyre says–“rethinking even further some well-established notions of freedom of expression and of toleration. But about how to do this constructively in defence of the rational politics of local community no one has yet known what to say. Nor do I.”

Absent such serious rational thought, and attendant safeguards, one can only be cautious and reluctant to pursue such a life, much as would-be monks rightly were before their tonsure. I am told by a liturgist of impeccable scholarship that some recensions of the Byzantine rite of monastic tonsure saw the hegumen or abbot toss the scissors away three times when presented with them by the would-be monk, who would then have to scramble across the floor to retrieve them repeatedly, each time being reminded of the seriousness of the state of life he was about to enter and the real risks he would run thereby.


Because of those risks, it is imperative, then, that one must repeatedly and ruthlessly interrogate any romanticism about monastic or community life in any form, for they are fraught with conflicts and problems, not the least of which is a tendency toward escapism and subtle forms of self-promotion–and not-so-subtle forms of control and manipulation or outright sexual abuse. Returning once again to Dreher’s fellow Orthodox Alexander Schmemann (the relative neglect of serious engagement with Orthodox sources in this book must be read as a marketing strategy to appeal to the vastly more numerous Catholics and Protestants in this country), we see that Schmemann has already offered us severe warnings about these temptations in a bracing and acid passage from January 1981:

More and more often it seems to me that revising the monasticism that everybody so ecstatically talks about–or at least trying to revive it–can be done only by liquidating first of all the monastic institution itself, i.e. the whole vaudeville of klobuks, cowls, stylization, etc. If I were a staretz–an elder–I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:

–get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);

–while working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.). Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you; pray for them;

–after paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;

–always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov)….

–do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;

–read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly…;

–be always simple, light, joyous. Do not teach. Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk. 

wp-image-1166588415jpg.jpgReal monastics, whether Benedictine or otherwise, know that the course of wisdom is to be found not in talking “church talk” or promoting “options” but in listening and serving everyone without drawing attention to oneself. Real monastics who have done that include another of Dreher’s fellow Orthodox nowhere in evidence in his book: Mother Maria Skobtsova, who made wartime Paris her “monastery” without walls, serving the suffering she encountered there, including the Jews service to whom and protection of whom cost Maria her life in the gas chamber of Ravensbrück. She would later be canonized by the Orthodox church not just for this sacrifice of her life but also for her monastic service in and for the city of Paris–not atop some mountain somewhere or in an inaccessible cloister.
The description of Dreher’s approach reminds me of Aedh, the Culdee in “Sun Dancing: A Medieval Vision – Seven Centuries on Skellig Michael” by Geoffrey Moorhouse whose need to spiritually outdo the other monks (on what was already surely the most extreme monastic site going) led to a literal and metaphorical downfall.
It is easy, too, to romanticise monasticism, and indeed I have posted fragments here that, in isolation, could be accused of such romanticisation. The risk of a form of spiritual pride and arrogance is apparent, and Adam deVille’s piece is a corrective to this risk.


“Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us” Jeffrey Bilbro on the happy loser

I am not (yet) familiar with the work of Wendell Berry, though I think I am going to make it my business to be. Berry is the inspiration of this wonderful essay by Jeffery Bilbro . As Bilbro tweets:

This is one of those pieces that “read the whole thing” applies to, in spades. While Berry is obviously the inspiration for this piece, and quotes from him serve as the connective tissue of the argument, it is not really a piece “about” Berry:

Both sides claim that we cannot be happy or hopeful unless “we” are winning. And both sides tend to paint grim pictures of “American carnage” to show how much we are suffering and how badly we need to do something so that we can start winning.

But what if we turned our attention away from the latest indications of whether we’re winning or losing and instead focused on practicing good work where we are? It is in this vein that Wendell Berry speaks about the need to resist both optimism and pessimism. While these may seem like opposite postures, both stem from a fixation on metrics and quantities: I’m optimistic if I expect to win and pessimistic if I expect to lose. As Berry puts it, “Optimism and pessimism are based on the idea of how things are [going to] turn out.”

In one of those odd synchronous coincidences, I read Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” just last Friday, and here he pops up in this piece, in a quote from Berry.

Happiness is a great mental faculty. It happens. One of the best things I know about happiness is that some days I’m happy… I don’t have anything in particular to be happy about or happier than I was yesterday, but I’m happy. I read that the French novelist Jean Giono … said in 1954, 1954, “I’ve been happy for the last 30 or 40 years.” Well, you know what happened in the 30 or 40 years before 1954. I just love him for that… . That just turned me upside-down when I read that. Well, what a great thing that is. Suppose you’re supremely happy for just five minutes, that just destroys everybody who’s trying to sell you something to make you happy. How subversive. Let me tell you young people, it’s possible sometimes to go for a whole day and be happy and not buy a thing.

This article is not a call to quietist arms, so to speak:

Subversive happiness is not quietist or passive. Berry has himself participated in sit-ins and protests and has penned his share of manifestos, but he doesn’t rest his hopes on these tactics. Indeed, happiness provides a very different motivation for our work than does optimism or pessimism. Happiness leads us to do good work because it is good; because it brings joy; because it deserves our attention and energy.

Whether our work leads to victory becomes irrelevant to us.

This reminds me of the famous accounts of medieval craftsmen labouring over statuary which would stand hundreds of feet above them, and devoting as much attention to the backs of these statues as the faces. What Bilbro conveys to me – and which, I presume, is a main theme of Berry (though I better read him to be able to pontificate more!) is the sheer subversion – in the true, proper sense – of this stance on life. Reminds me too of a passage from “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria”  by John W Kiser:

I also began to better understand why my exposure to the Trappist culture had a certain resonance for me. Simplicity is one reason. Doing less, not more, and doing those fewer things more intensely, are values in perpetual struggle in a world that is always offering more – more activities, more choices, more means of communication, things that distract and require decisions. Trappists have stripped their lives down to a simple triad of prayer, study and manual labour. They have made only one decision: to love and praise God in the  Trappist way

This monastic mission is a deeply subversive one. And it also reminded me of another recent read, Geoffrey Moorhouse’s , “Sun Dancing” about life on Skellig Michael, especially the story of the Culdee Aedh, whose extremism in the name of asceticism – which has disastrous results – is surely a manifestation of “winning” as a summum bonum  There are many many other examples – and perhaps this is an eternal human temptation rather than a specific feature of modernity – but it is one which the world of Likes and Retweets and Going Viral intensifies greatly.