ORA ET LABORA
The Rule of St Benedict
Precepts, commandments, instruction.
Balance, moderation, reasonableness.
Benedict's concerns were the needs of monks in a communal environment:
to establish order,
to foster an understanding of the relational nature of human beings,
to provide a spiritual father to support and strengthen the individual's ascetic effort and spiritual growth.
The main principal of human vocation being the renunciation of one's own will, and arming oneself with strong and noble weapons of obedience.
The importance of daily manual labour appropriate to the ability of the monk. The hours vary with the season, but are never less than five hours a day.
The monastic day is split into regular periods of communal and private prayer, sleep, spiritual reading and manual labour, that in all things God may be glorified.
MONASTIC LABOUR AND PILGRIMAGE
When considering a religious site, the sacred is not entirely immaterial, and there is a geography of spiritual power.
A delicate line between the spiritual and the material:
the search is for spirituality, yet it is pursued in the most material of details (the physical location of a religious site)
OR reconciling the spiritual and material, as to go on pilgrimage (or to labour in a monastic institution) is to make the body and its actions express the desires and beliefs of the soul.
Monastic life, or pilgrimage, imply that one has left behind the complications of one's place in the world and become something anonymous and separate. A leaving-behind of ordinary identities, (and the goods and social circumstances that bolster these identities), to achieve a state of anonymous simplicity and clear purpose.
Pilgrimages make it possible to move physically, through the exertions of one's body, step by step towards those intangible spiritual goals that are so difficult to grasp.
Is this the same with a secular journey? The kind where it is anticipated that through travel, knowledge will be gained? The physical journey, the movement and exertion of the body, the exploration of the new and unknown - these will teach us something about ourselves and the world? Something about our place in the world and the way we want to live in it - the 'goals that are difficult to grasp' in a secular sense.
There are various reasons to walk and live - what portions of an act can be measured and compared? There are pilgrims for whom arrival at a destination is a spiritual consummation, but others wander without cease and destination. How can we measure public glory vs private pleasure or spiritual satisfaction?
JOHN CASSIAN, THE DESERT FATHERS, AND THE POTENTIAL FOR SECULAR ASCETISM
Ascetism (Greek áskēsis, training or exercise)
Ascetic religious groups manifested not as a rejection of the enjoyment of life, or because the practices themselves are virtuous, but as an aid in the pursuit of physical and metaphysical health. They eschewed worldly pleasures and led an abstemious lifestyle.
Gavin Flood, The Ascetic Self
Asceticism, he tells us, cannot exist "where religion is de-cosmologized and where the idea of deferring the gratification of desire for some other good is accepted only with hesitation." Flood maintains that "no ideology of repeated abstinence [exists] in secular life." He acknowledges that there may be biological, neurological, and mechanical bases for the "universal human predisposition to asceticism" but that "without the accompaniment of tradition and an articulated idea of transcendence" there is no true asceticism.
"The ascetic sees life as a flow of the body towards death, and attempts to reverse this flow of body and time, not to deny it but to, in effect, buy time to understand it, discipline it, and transform and transcend the meaning of this flow. The ascetic follows a "range of habits or bodily regimes designed to restrict or reverse the instinctual impulses of the body" with the idea that this pursuit will bring about a greater good or happiness."
The practices or austerities recommended by Patanjali are intended to achieve a concentration of mind that stills fluctuations resulting from externals. This stilling of the mind creates a mindfulness equivalent to memory, that is, memory of the transcendent and the One. Ritual helps confirm the practices and virtues that accompany mindfulness and reverse the flow of time.
The first insight is the recognition of suffering and the need to eradicate suffering by destroying ignorance and desire, not through rituals or extreme practices but through virtue, meditation, and insight leading to wisdom. This, after all, is the core of asceticism, and the foundation for building an ascetic self.
Flood has already suggested that asceticism will find no hospitable grounds in modernity, chiefly because the modern era (in the West) is almost entirely concerned with political power, while asceticism is the opposite, the renunciation of power.
Flood concludes that the legitimacy of the ascetic self is based on scriptural tradition distinct from the claim to truth of the respective scripture or religion. The ascetic self is based on a form of life, not a form of belief. Ultimately, it is
voluntarily self-oppressive in the desire to internalize the transcendent goals of tradition, but this internalization (and performance) contains the potential for the political resistance to injustice and contains the metaphysical resources for opening out a world previously closed.Flood has presented a fascinating exploration of a complex topic, and identifies methods for exploring the ascetic self that will prove invaluable. The groundwork is now available for a pursuit of several questions. Is the ascetic self possible in post-modernity outside of conventional definitions of tradition? What is the relationship between eremitism and the ascetic self today? Is a text-based asceticism the only possibility, given that no pure text-based tradition exists without the appropriate material and cultural conditions? What are the possibilities of a post-modern eremitism constructed eclectically from the text-traditions of the world? Is a secular ascetic self possible? What is the role of psychology and spirituality today?