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Between the Monastic and the Transformative

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Here are excerpts from a reflection I  recently gave to a strategic planning meeting of a Christian microfinance organization where I sit as a member of the Board of Trustees:

benedict-sanctusIn a world of brokenness brought about by sin, the task of Christians who desire to serve the King in the various fields in which He had place them, is to embrace a certain realism about what they can do to transform or redeem broken structures and relationships in society.

From a biblical mandate, this means proceeding with the work from the fusion of two traditions that the Neo-Thomist philosopher Alisdaire McIyntre on the one hand, and the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff on the other, represent; that is, the monastic and the reformative or transformative.

Indeed, we must learn to draw from the wisdom of a wide variety of Christian resources, to see how faith communities of the past grappled with their own issues and what we can learn from them, as the Catholic theologian Werner Jeanrond would put it. The vision of the monastic is that of the Kingdom of God lived in the midst of a turbulent world: a new community of the redeemed, the preaching of judgment, service to the poor, and liturgy.

This was the otherworldly world of the monasteries, which saw tremendous growth at the turn of the first millennia, just as the Roman Empire was breaking up for good. For a long time, beginning with the reign of the Emperor Constantine, the Christians had identified Christianity with the Roman Empire. Civilization and hope and faith were in the hands of the empire. But soon, the empire was no more.

The coming of the monastic otherworldliness had a tremendous impact on society, for “it established a spiritual order of values and beliefs without which any change in the social order of the kind [the reformative impulse intended] is inconceivable.”

The monastic broke ties with the as the center of life; in the onslaught of darkness, the empire no longer stood as the symbol of what life should be, or of the ideal community where human existence can be lived meaningfully. Yet while monasticism had its strengths, it also had its weakness, especially its unhealthy stress on the afterlife and its neglect of what can be done in the present, and its emphasis on penitence and good works, which ultimately led to the rejection of the grace God made available to us in Christ.

The Protestant Reformation brought in a necessary corrective and transformative element. The Reformative vision is aided by its reflection on what creation was at the beginning, as it works towards a new creation; here it recognizes order as God-given and related to meaning, an order that humans experience at a personal level. The Reformative vision is also transformative in its recognition that “God’s order is not complete unless it is recognized…God’s meaningful order is not complete unless man rules in a way that reflects the character of God as expressed in his commandments.”

The subversive element in the work of the church is precisely that – as a sort of an advance party establishing the presence of the Kingdom in the enemy’s territory.

Some Christian thinkers argue that today, here a common ground for morality and ethics has become impossibility, what is needed is the construction of new forms of community — local forms — within which the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages, which are already upon us. But what should these forms of community bring with it? We must learn from each other’s spiritual traditions in building these new forms of community where the monastic element combines with the transformative.

These combined elements – the monastic and the transformative – ought to direct the work of Christian expectation with the understanding that while the subversive work of the church aims for change in society, it is not for a total one but for a radical one. We are to consider the reality of evil manifested in brokenness and to relate it to creational intents; we are also to find out how such intents may help the Christian bring redemption, no matter how limited, to the present.

Thus, the Christian should not only see the present world in the light of what is to come, but should also see the perspective of what it was meant to be from the beginning. Evil is never total; creational norms are never totally extinguished.

The Christian has no illusions about what he can do. He knows that he cannot bring the full realization of the Kingdom of God down to earth with the work of his hands. His is but an anticipation of the world to come; he recognizes the double aspect of the Christian anticipation, that is, of eternity breaking into the present yet awaiting full consummation in the future: the “already but not yet” motif of the Kingdom of God.

In that anticipation, his work must show the fine details that befit the service due a Heavenly King to whom he is personally related. Yet Kingdom work, as we all know, is not at all glamorous. In fact, most of the time, it is work full of drudgery.

Most of the time, we will labor under abject conditions, away from the glare of media; more often than not, our task will be a thank-less one, a mere echo lost in the dark corners of forgotten deeds; and sometimes, we will feel that our life is bone-dry, empty of the excitement that always seems to grip the very depths of the lives of others. We will begin to ask ourselves why is it that it is always the others who seem to bask in the rapture of high spiritual experience. We will long for the ecstasy of God’s presence but fail to find it.

Even poets suffer this impatient intransigence for the sublime, for that “weight of glory,” as C.S. Lewis put it in a famous sermon of his. “One can even imagine a poet who experiences the sublime and demand a high style to express it,” writes the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski in Another Beauty, “but precisely because this is a rare event that requires patient waiting, in daily life he becomes one of poetry’s ironic prosecutors.”

Alas, there is the “painful world” they have to deal with, where the craft of that finely-tuned phrase is a daily and frustrating struggle. It doesn’t help that they must live through the commonplace, all the while longing for the dry bones to quicken and then to die, and then to live again, with a sensitivity to the tiniest ripple of emotions in the space of the personal: “To wake and fall asleep, drowse off and waken, to pass through seasons of doubt, melancholy dark as lead, indifference, boredom, and then the spells of vitality, clarity, hard and happy work, contentment, gaiety, to remember and forget and recollect again, that an eternal fire burns beside us, a God with an unknown name, whom we will never reach.”

It is the painful world we will have to deal with, where sometimes, even the God we serve will seem all too unknown to us.

After all, we’ve been cast out of Eden – what did we expect? Indeed, how do we deal with it? Lest we forget our vocation is a ministry of the greatest “glad tidings”; As people of faith, we must learn “to make sense of what takes place” from that proclamation of the Good News that Jesus is Lord, and that He is Lord of “what takes place” in the present time, as well as of the future.

In his exegesis of Chapter 13 of the Book of Romans, the German New Testament scholar Ernest Kasseman talks of the hidden-ness of Christ. He disputes with Karl Barth’s interpretation of the same text, which proceeds from the view of Christ as Lord of all life. He does not think that a Christological view is appropriate to explain the engagement of the church with the world. In that he is very Lutheran and I do not share Kasseman’s view.Calvin

He is really being inconsistent because what he says in his works, he contradicts with his own practice. We know how he himself was put to prison by the Nazis for calling Hitler an anti-Christ and for working for the mine workers in his parish. But I appropriate his term the hidden-ness of Christ. There is something hidden in the Kingdom of God and in the work of Christ. Think of his birth – in the book of Luke, chapter 2, we read that Joseph and Mary were called back by a census made under the auspices of Augustus Caesar to Bethlehem.

The gospel writer’s reference to Roman authorities places this event in a real place and a real time. But It also reminds us that the great world empire was able to pull people around as it wanted. It was the great power. And yet, behind the scenes, it was only doing what God wanted in the first place.

The census called by a pagan emperor brought the First Family to Bethlehem, in fulfillment of a prophecy made a long, long time ago! Then, at Palm Sunday, we see Jesus riding a donkey; for the world that does not know him, this is an absurdity. Someone who claims to be a King, a messiah, and he can’t even get for himself a proper war-horse? For the Jews of Jesus day, Jesus could have been the Messiah but he didn’t turn out the way they expected. The truth is, the Kingdom of God advances without the world noticing it.

The triumphal entry was a triumph because it marked the fulfillment of the prophecy about Jesus, though the people did not see it that way, and yes, even if his very own disciples did not fully realize what it the fuss in Jerusalem that day was all about. This should be great comfort for us who labor in situations that for most people, are hopeless.

We participate in the “creative process” that is the transformation of people’s lives, and of people’s communities, with the life-giving power of the Spirit. It is a work in the present, with eternal consequences. But what takes place is an offering to Him by whom our very own lives have a purpose greater than ourselves.

His story becomes our story; this literature of faith is woven into the narrative of our individual lives so that ours becomes a demonstration of the transforming power of the greatest story ever told – our greatest impulse for truth-telling. In all this, we must learn the value of sacrifice as its own blessing and reward; ours becomes a sacrificial witness to the truth of the Gospel, because we know that everything else is rubbish compared to glory he has chosen to reveal to us whom he calls by name;

When we gather as a community to enact our baptism in Christ through faith, we confront the world with a different set of values; this set of values was “foolishness” to the Greeks of Paul’s day –indeed, for the intellectuals of his day, a crucified God who now calls his followers to bear their own crosses was incomprehensible; it is the same today.

Ours is a world that mocks the path of holiness; it prefers the pursuit of pleasure with wild abandon; in other words, the glorification of the self and all its excesses, rather than a life lived in service, self-discipline and humility. It prefers self-interest rather than the interest of others. It is a world dazzled by fame, success, comfort, wealth.

The path of Christ, meanwhile, calls us to a discipleship of restraint, simplicity, humility and poverty of spirit. For we are called, to borrow from that nihilist in Nietzsche, to a long obedience in the same direction. It is an impossible message, but only if we depend on our own wisdom and strength. We must take to heart the promise that to ours belong not the spirit of timidity but of power when we proclaim the Gospel of Christ.

Karl Barth once said that it is not enough to be orthodox in our doctrine; he meant to say that we can have all the correct doctrines there is about God, but if we do not witness to the truth of these doctrines through the way we live as members of the body of Christ – indeed, as a church – our doctrines are of no moment.

The correctness of our doctrines we affirm by our practices as a community of faith. Indeed, with St. Francis of Assisi, we can only intone: “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” In the end, the only diminution we cling on to is the diminution of the self, so that He who is the “Stronger One” becomes preeminent in our lives, and in our communal life.

Written by Romel

October 19, 2015 at 3:16 am

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Another Beauty

I am trying to reconstruct the pieces from my old blog and here’s one that I particularly liked, an appreciation for a fine book I found in a booksale shop at SM Manila:

In Praise of a Poet of Tortured Beauty

The magazine Books and Culture tells us that the New Yorker’s special issue on 9/11 carried on the back page his poem, Try to Praise Our Mutilated World, and many people clipped the poem and posted it on refrigerator doors, sent it to grieving friends, read it in public gatherings, even quoted it in sermons. In the interview with B &C (August/September 2002 issue), the Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, explains that he wrote the poem long before the ghastly events at the World Trade Center took place; yet for many, it spoke of a way to cope with tragedy, of a world, which, though hideously imperfect, still offers us visions of hope:

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(Translated by Renata Gorczynski)

The poet, who grew up in the ruins of postwar Poland, says the poem embodies “the experience of someone who tries to live and write,” one that “is very rich and encompasses the register of ecstasy, of joy,” indeed, of one, who, because he has accepted that the world we live in is wounded, finds reasons in the mundane details of the everyday to rejoice amidst its pains and sorrows. I find more of the musicality of this optimism in his book Another Beauty, which is a memoir that details his growth in his persona as a poet as well as a citizen. The title is taken from a poem from his first ever collection of poetry published in English, Tremor, and in this work, I readily see the dedicated predilection to acknowledge that beauty, yes, salvation, even if temporal, is found in recognition that relationships, and yes, community, matter:

We find comfort only in
another beauty, in others’
music, in the poetry of others.
Salvation lies with others,
though solitude may taste like
opium. Other people aren’t hell
if you glimpse them at dawn, when
their brows are clean, rinsed by dreams.
This is why I pause: which word
to use, you or he. Each he
betrays some you, but
calm conversations bides its time
in others’ poems.

(translated by Clare Cavanagh)


To me, this is, really, a hyperbole for community – where one comes face to face with the realization that the self, by itself, does not really amount to much outside his or her recognition of the beauty that the Other radiates. It is as well a call to the discipline of humility, for when we acknowledge that we are, by ourselves, inherently incomplete, we see the intrinsic worth of the lives of the Other; this insight, to me, is a theological wonder.

This appreciation for the Other is glimpsed in his recollection of a fellow dissident who fought against the communist dictatorship with him in Poland, Adam Michnik (an interesting study of character, as you can read here, and the founding editor of Poland’s largest daily newspaper, the Gazeta Wyborcza):

I first met (him) in Warsaw in 1973. I had already gotten to know many intellectuals in the opposition. Almost all of them spoke sotto voce, not exactly in a whisper, but in carefully modulated tones. Their caution was rational and justified; we all lived beneath the enormous roof of the secret police, our conscience had been rationalized, microphones might be hidden in the lamps, in the flowerpots that held seemingly innocent plants, in the walls themselves. We’d all head of stories about bugs concealed in chandeliers, in the tables and sofas. I knew people who kept their hands over their lips even at home, and who transmitted important information only on scraps of paper, which were then destroyed. Intellectuals fell into two camps, the conformists and the resisters, but even these resisted cautiously. Adam didn’t belong to this category. He couldn’t be placed in any standard, psychological or sociological bracket. He didn’t keep his voice down, he was loud and witty, he radiated courage and joie de vivre. He wasn’t a poet, he didn’t write poems. But he recited them: he knew scores of poems by heart, Milosz, Herbert, Slonimski. This wasn’t the main thing, though; all it takes is a good memory to quote poems. Something else was important. Adam was then, I think, one of the few happy people in Poland (and perhaps, in all of Eastern Europe).

I don’t mean the kind of private happiness that consists of finding a nice, pretty wife and an interesting, well-paid job, the happiness that comes from the consciousness that you are a healthy, decent, and useful individual. I have in mind the much rarer form of happiness that arises when you locate your true vocation with pinpoint precision, when you find the perfect outlet for your talents, not in the private, domestic sphere, but in the larger human polis.

The mystery of Adam’s calling lay in its paradoxical nature. Adam drew upon his own anarchic needs and dreams whenever he confronted – so boldly, with panache and glee – the secret police, the Party, corrupt and well-fed prosecutors, dim-witted ministers. He was a joyous anarchist, tossing down his challenge to the vast apparatus of power. He wasn’t your typical anarchist, though; he stood for good and honorable things, he sided with right and justice (as they ought to be, not as they were).

A person like Adam who’d happened to live on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in an orderly bourgeois society, would no doubt have turned to dark and evil gods. He would have read and recognized De Sade and the other spiteful, downcast, bitter masters who’ve turned against the world. He would have praised doubtful powers, made his pact with Satan. In this world, though, Adam realized that he’d been given an extraordinary opportunity. He could be both good and furious at once, both negative and decent, critical and honest, maniacal and just. He could be a subversive, an anarchist, a revolutionary, and at the same time, a conservative defending basic human decency and order; the order in which we lived had squelched the ordinary, imperfect human world.

I came to know other dissidents later, but only a few shared Adam’s peculiarity, the mad joy he experienced being an upright anarchist, a reasonable revolutionary who had reconciled fire and water, the passion for destruction and the desire to build. What luck, to find in this world a calling both contradictory and genuine, impossible and actual, that fits one’s life like a suit cut by the finest tailor!


(Incidentally, there’s an interview with Michnik in the Spring 2004 issue of Dissent Magazine, where we read that the man has now become an ardent supporter of the US-led war in Iraq).

I like Zagajewksi’s definition of happiness, which you find “when you locate your true vocation with pinpoint precision, when you find the perfect outlet for your talents, not in the private, domestic sphere, but in the larger human polis.” Much of the paralysis affecting many of us today precisely arises from this failure to locate with “pinpoint precision” what we are in this world for, though it can well be said that the deepest discontentment happens when we know what we are here for, but are unable to do anything about it.

Zagajewski, like his compatriot and literary model Czeslaw Milosz, belongs to a generation of Eastern European writers who clung on perilously to faith in the Transcendent in the face of a Marxist Police State. Perhaps, it’s the fact that Zagajewski comes from a country devoutly Catholic, where, as in East Germany, the church offered space for voices of dissent that drew strength from the deep mysteries of faith. In his book Another Beauty, I read of the city of his obsession, where he studied philosophy as a young man, Krakow, a city he knows by heart despite all these years, “a city cluttered with the massive clod of churches and convents, broad and heavy like aging peasant women gathering on a rainy autumn day.”

Here he writes of his agnostic uncle, who many years ago, regularly entertained in his home a young priest by the name of Karol Wojtyla to debate with him on the intricacies of belief, or the lack of it, in God. Here, he writes of his dislike for the nihilists, for Nietzsche, most of all, whom he calls “that splendid saboteur”:

As I read the bitter, ironic, modern writers, I ask myself: Why do we keep turning back to Nietzsche? There’s not doubt that they are Nietzsche’s offspring; they’re entranced by that great stylist, that splendid saboteur. And I ask myself: Apart from anxiety, apart from ironic, inspired sorrow, what have they got on their side? Since only a child would argue that on the one hand we have profound, witty, mocking geniuses, and on the other, relentless routine, mediocrity, the quotidian with its gray suits and dull poets, the dreariness of the orthodoxy and parliaments, the monotony of academic painters, clergymen with professionally pitched voices, churches, offices, banks, the international corporations that fund obedient professors who sing the praises of virtue, the family, and the balanced check-book. No, the situation is far more complex. On this side, too, you find despair in search of fire, clarity, affirmation, despair seeking expression and finding it, if at all, only at great cost. But after all, this isn’t a speech-and-debate competition!

Zagajewski’s uncle in old age, would return to the folds of faith. He wryly remarks of this as a victory for the young priest, who would later become Pope John Paul II, the first Pole, and the first non-Italian in a long, long time, to ascend to the throne of the Roman Pontiff – a fact that his countrymen relished no end, and celebrated with much fanfare.

Here, the poet writes of his love for music, which, he says, shares this common ground with poetry: poetry itself. Music, for him, is a poetic language that excites the emotion as well as the imagination: “Music out forth form and rhythm, it builds its airy structures on a substance as delicate as breath, as time.” Which is why as a student in Krakow, he was an ardent habitué of the concerts conducted by the city’s many music schools. (As a collector of vinyl records myself , I can identify with his pleasure at finding phonograph records being sold for a song in bargain music shops!).

Here, in Another Beauty, Zagajewski too, writes of his countless ruminations into the world of learning, yes of books, as a wide-eyed student enamored with a city with a long history, his favorite refuge being Krakow’s Jagiellonian Library where he spent countless hours reading two sets of books: the first, of those meant to please his professors, the second, of those meant for him. The first type consisted of textbooks, the second, of poems, stories, essays.

Inside that library, he says, he would meet the modern masters, people who not only did not believe in God, but had forsaken everything “noble and lofty;” yet he also discovered in the books of the old library people “who managed to combine in some astonishing fashion deep, unostentatious faith with a powerful sense of humor and an unacknowledged love of good that was active and practical.” He found in them the powerful truth that he himself “wasn’t alone in those old churches; and not all the other visitors belonged to the ranks of careless tourists using their cameras instead of their heads.” It was certainly a consolation for him to have found intellectual giants with whom he can discuss the “mysteries, the things that can’t be talked about.”

Yet being young, and consumed with the passion of youth, he somehow set these things aside for an urgent activism. But in the end, the confession comes that as an adult, he would rediscover what he said was his “earlier responsiveness to religion.” In that same library he found the works of Milosz, most of which had been banned by the State.

Milosz, too, would write of his slow but sure recovery of faith; though he might not be classed by the devout among the Poles as a practicing Roman Catholic, he had come, after an intense personal struggle with the collapse of the ideologies of his youth, to the inescapable conclusion that the only thing that really gave meaning to the human phenomenon is the idea of the Transcendent; in short, God. (When he died last September, Pope John Paul II, who had become close to him in his later years, would write a short note to fellow Poles who had questioned Milosz’s catholicity to assure them that yes, he died in the embrace of the church of his birth). I especially like Milosz’s ruminations on the French philosopher Simone Weil, an enigmatic figure in the annals of 20th century thinkers for her conversion from atheism to unorthodox Roman Catholic mysticism.

It seems to me that in the days of the Cold War, intellectuals in the West, because of the freedom from pain and want they enjoy in their capitalist milieu, and perhaps, because of a profound ennui arising from a pointless material comfort, can afford to live in the theater of the absurd they have constructed for themselves and their followers; their poor cousins in the East, however – in the dark realities of the Marxist Police States that have engulfed their countries – can only find hope and strength to go on with life and struggle in the faith of their forebears. I remember reading an account of how Harvey Cox (yes, the liberal theologian, now with Harvard Divinity School), was serving as a youth minister in Germany at the time when the country was being partitioned between the liberal democratic West and the communist East.

Cox spoke of having repeatedly smuggled volumes of the Protestant theologian Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics into contacts in the East, at a time when the reigning theological rock stars in the so-called “Free World” were the Death of God theologians.

When asked why he chose the hefty but by then anachronistic works of the neo-orthodox theologian over those of the existentialists who proclaimed, after Nietzsche, that God is dead, he replied to the effect that it really was a choice between hope and hopelessness. He wanted to give the Christians in East Germany something solid to stand on; it was simply cruel and pointless to give them something that would only sink them deeper into despair. (The more fundamentalist of the lot, of course, would still fault Cox: why not smuggle the Bible instead?)

Of course, for today’s postmoderns, Cox’s logic makes a lot of sense, even in the absence of belief in the metaphysical worth of the claims of faith (whether or not God exists or that He offers real hope does not matter, as long as people find their lives cloaked with a new sense of purpose and meaning in these very assertions of faith). That, perhaps, is what someone like Rudolf Bultmann would call a Myth that must be De-Mythologized.

But back to Zagajewski, for whom the quest for the Transcendent is much like the sublime pursuit of poetry, which, he says, a poet rarely attains, if at all; “One can even imagine a poet who experiences the sublime and demand a high style to express it,” he writes, “but precisely because this is a rare event that requires patient waiting, in daily life he becomes one of poetry’s ironic prosecutors.

The poet believes it is the possibility of impossibility – the experience of the bliss of the sublime – that brings him back to the experience of the reality of the “painful world;” and where does it leave him, then, once the force of gravity pulls him back?

Here, to an essentially existentialist confession of the continuing yet seemingly unattainable struggle of life: “To wake and fall asleep, drowse off and waken, to pass through seasons of doubt, melancholy dark as lead, indifference, boredom, and then the spells of vitality, clarity, hard and happy work, contentment, gaiety, to remember and forget and recollect again, that an eternal fire burns beside us, a God with an unknown name, whom we will never reach.” Still, he struggles with hope, with the poetry of hope anchored on the tortured beauty around us – his “God of an unknown name” perhaps – though to the orthodox and evangelical, it may sound like an empty one (or to C.S. Lewis, yet another evocation of that “weight of glory” only a better world beyond the present reality could offer).



Written by Romel

June 14, 2008 at 3:55 am

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