The Tyranny of Things
In 1961 Dom Jean Leclercq penned what has since become a foundational text on monastic culture. A monk of the Benedictine abbey of Clervaux in Luxembourg, his Love of Learning and the Desire for God delivered exactly what the title promised, and it did so in beautiful prose. So loving was his study, that it crossed the threshold from scholarship, to become spiritual reading. It has since become far more than just another book about the learned monk and nun of history.
Books have been essential to monastic life, and there’s no denying that monks and nuns have had a great fondness for them through the centuries. In the popular imagination they sat at their desks, first copying and then reading the books they’d crafted. In the course of centuries they amassed the greatest libraries of their time, and small wonder that we gaze in awe at their work. Manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels still stir the imagination. Likely, they always will.
The stereotype of the scholar-monk is useful, as far as it goes. However, not everybody in a monastery was a scholar, and not a few of the non-scholars resented those who carved out time for books. But before we canonize the academics as martyrs, it’s good to remind ourselves of the special challenges that they faced. Chief among them, perhaps, was the temptation to private ownership.
Saint John Cassian wrote about “thoughts of things” — or better still, the “thoughts about the acquisition of things” — as one of the great distractions for everyone. After food and sex, it ranked third on his ascending scale of “most frequent of daydreams.” It should surprise no one that people in monasteries share the same sorts of thoughts as everyone else. After all, despite what some may think, monks and nuns are people too.
And that brings me to the issue of books. Given Saint Benedict’s caution about private ownership, you’d naturally assume that the library would eliminate the need for private books. You’d be wrong. For all sorts of very good reasons, monks have owned books, and they still do. And I’m one of them. But like anything else, too much of a good thing can come back to haunt you. Just ask the monks who have lived in cells where the books became the monsters that took over their lives.
I speak from personal experience when it comes to owning too many books. Through years of schooling and teaching, I amassed a respectable collection; but the books finally began to assert themselves as master. Then one day I awoke to the need to fight back. I had lugged some of those books around for years, from one office and room to the next. A few I had not touched since college. Some were still boxed up from graduate school. And each and every one of them had a countrpart in the library, three hundred yards away. In a moment of insight, I realized I had no choice but to choose. It was them or me, and one of us would have to cave in. It was no longer a case of “love of learning.” It had become a tyranny of things over my life.
I was reminded that others might share similar issues when I visited Malta recently, with a group of members of the Order of Malta. The harbor at Valletta is a crossroads of the Mediterranean, and parked in one bay was the largest and grandest yacht any of us had ever seen. Our guide pointed to it, and noted that the owner had two more, exact copies, parked elsewhere in the world. Personally I would have opted for some variety if I had three yachts. I would have made one a foot shorter, or color-coded them so I’d know where in the world I might be. But maybe this guy had a thing about uniformity. Regardless, I wondered whether it was the guy who owned the yachts, or whether the yachts had begun to own him.
Most of us won’t ever have the problem that comes from owning too many yachts, all of which are identical. But we all have “thoughts of things” that run through our minds. Some things are fun and frivilous; some are concessions to our place in a consumer society; and some are anxieties about our material future. All are worth thinking about, but none are so important that we should allow them to take over our lives.
The tyranny of “things over people” has always been with us, but the struggle is especially intense for members of a consumer society. When we define ourselves as economic units of consumption, then the amount we own is the measure of our greatness. I gladly join with those who note we must consume things in order to live and thrive. But when we value human beings in terms of what they own, or how much they buy, then we have gone into alien territory. I would argue that you and I are far more important than the stuff we have stashed away in cupboards and garages and banks. All those things have some value, but if they are what make us important, then life is not worth living.
From a Christian point of view, God did not give us life for the sole purpose of piling up more stuff. Nor did God create us to think about acquisitions all day long. Nor did God create us to be the servant of things. Nor did God intend that we be consumed by anxieties about our material future. All of that is easier said than done. But God does not abandon us to wage our battle of interior wits alone.
As for me and my books, my battle is likely never to be finished. It continues to be a work in progress, but in the last two years I’ve given an awful lot of them away. And I’ve reclaimed for myself a major portion of my room. But there have been surprises. For one, I get to the library far more often than I used to. I’ve since discovered that it has all sorts of wonderful books I’ve not met before. And in a great irony, I’ve actually found more time for reading. That suggests that I am actually using books as they should be, rather than they using me.
As for The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, that’s one book I intend to keep. It’s a reminder of what life in the monastery can be like. I need to let that thought run through my mind a little more often than it has in the past.
+On May 18th I gave a retreat day to members of the Order of Malta, who gathered in Pasadena, CA, for the occasion.
+Following our pilgrimage to Lourdes, I and nine other members of the Order of Malta spent five days on the Island of Malta. Located fifty miles south of Sicily and a hundred miles from Libya, it served as the home of the Order of Malta from 1530 to 1798, when Napoleon conquered the island.
It was the Emperor Charles V who gave Malta to the Knights, in return for an annual rent of one Maltese falcon. In the course of time the Knights developed Malta into a giant fortress that protected its magnificant harbor. So important was the British naval base there, that the Germans made it the target of their most intensive bombing campaign of World War II.
The first thing to catch the eye are the massive fortifications and walls. You’re tempted to think that there must be more stone blocks in Malta than any place on earth. One of our party marvelled that there was any island left after they quarried all that stone. The second thing one notes are the magnificent buildings that the knights left behind. Included among them are what was the largest hospital in Europe in its day, the Grand Master’s Palace, and a great many buildings that serve as offices for the government of Malta today.
The pictures in today’s post come from the co-cathedral of Saint John, which was the main church of the knights. It is now a World Heritage site, and a glance at the floor tells why. Nearly every square inch is covered with the inlaid marble tombs of members of the Order of Malta. It’s just breathtaking.