Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The greatest good

After we watched Into Great Silence, one young woman (who had only managed to watch half of the movie before giving up and waiting in the cafe next door) asked us, "How are those monks helping the world?" It's not an uncommon question . . . Augie told of another guest at Mepkin who said something to the effect of: "Those monks are really something . . . but I don't see what they're doing to move the ball down the field." I still find it one of the saddest and most infuriating of questions . . . where do I begin?

I suppose I should begin with the answer the monks themselves gave, in the only interview in the entire movie. "It is such a shame that the world has lost it's sense of God," the monk said. "If you remove the thought of God, then why even be alive on this planet? If you get as close as you can to God, then you are happy." If you truly believe in a transcendant God, whose timeless reality transcends all that will ever happen, what could possibly be more important than getting in touch with that reality? As far as the monks are concerned, we are the ones wasting our lives in futile, self-serving action.

"Well," said the young woman, "What are they doing to help others find God?" To my tremendous relief, three other SKS students had good answers for that question before I even had to open my mouth: they show the way by example. Prosyletizing is aggressive and usually unwelcome; but demonstrating a better way to live, for people to observe and emulate, is the most peaceful, most compelling ministry possible.

Besides . . . how many people do you have to help before you can claim to have "done some good in the world?" Those monks are helping the world -- they help each other. They have utterly dedicated themselves to helping each other lead a life of complete holiness. And they freely share that gift with any who will join them. The fact that few are ready to accept their gift is hardly their fault.

In fact, I would go so far to say that anyone who would accuse the monks of selfishness or self-absorption, does not truly believe in a transcendant God. I think that includes most people, even most Christians. They simply can't conceive of a good that is not manifest in the material world. Christ made it clear that there were two great commandments: "Love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart . . . and love thy neighbor as thyself." The monks are doing that. What more can you ask?

I could even answer the question on the terms in which it was asked. I could talk about how many of these monastics had already spent a full life in dedicated service to others as priests or monks in other orders, before retiring to the contemplative life. Or I could point to the enormous scholarship of the monks, and how they continue to contribute to the world of letters with their enormous understanding. But that would only perpetuate the basic misunderstanding. To a world that has lost its sense of God, the monastic life will not make any sense.


Blogger Kenny Felder said...

So a bunch of Zen monks run to their master, very excited. "Master! Master! We have found an enlightened fish! What shall we do with him?"

"Eat him," replies the master. "What good is an enlightened fish?"

I've never known quite what to do with that parable. It seems to disagree with you, Georg, and even to agree with your cafe lady: finding God isn't enough if you aren't helping to move the ball down the field. It bugs me because my instinct is more like yours.

But in the end I always loop back to one of my earlier comments. If you want to use the metaphor of life as a football game, you should admit that we don't know how far away the goal is, or even in what direction. Who does more good: a monk praying in an isolated cell, a missionary converting pagans, or a social working distributing condoms? There are good, intelligent people who will swear that each of these is the highest good, and other good, intelligent people who will swear that each of these is actually doing no good at all, or even doing harm.

The only honest solution is to admit that you really have no idea. And then, having admitted that, you have to make your best guess, and act on that with all your heart. That's the combination that almost no one can really sustain.

8:52 AM  
Blogger Joanna said...

Perhaps if the fish could speak and reason, he would say "Eat me," and not leave it to the Zen Master to say. The monks certainly seem to be saying that to God and each other: eat me. Since they are all doing that, they are all sustained to continue their attempts to be present to God's transcendence.

I thought the scene where the young man was rubbing cream over the old man's body gave every good answer that could ever be given to "how are they helping?"

9:58 AM  

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