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Archive for June 11th, 2018

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Looking Beyond the Artificial

On Saturday the lights went out in the monastery.  Actually, everything went off, thanks to a planned power outage that takes place every year at about this time.  I’m not exactly sure what the power people have in mind when they do this to us, and perhaps they haven’t a clue either.  But whether they know it or not, they turn our world upside-down.

We had no electricity for seven hours, and a lot of inconvenience happened in our little world of the monastery.  For one thing, the kitchen staff had to consolidate the cold food into storage that would stay sealed for the entire day.  As for lunch and dinner, we had the indoor equivalent of picnics, complete with paper plates and plasticware.  As expected, the lights were out, making things pretty dim in all the places we need to be — like the refectory, the church, the halls, the stairs, and our rooms.  The elevator to the health center was also out of action, leaving the retired monks stranded on the second floor.  Fans and the air-conditioning took the day off too, leaving most public rooms stuffy and close.

CB4C0FEA-424D-4A1A-B9C8-848368D1FD97This year’s shut-down was distinctive for one new element, however.  A few months ago we installed a key-card lock system in the monastery, and without power it was dormant.  The practical result was that monks could leave the monastery but couldn’t get back in.  Thankfully the prior had the foresight to prop open two doors, and woe to the monk who absentmindedly closed them on the way out.

Other than a cold shower and the inability to read in my darkened room, this business didn’t really inconvenience me.  I’m not saying that it wasn’t frustrating, sitting there trying to think of what I could do in the semi-darkness.  But it was an interesting test in patience as I sat there and waited for life as we know it to resume.

That evening I opened an email from a friend who had sent some photos he had taken that day.  They showed the ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Fountains in Yorkshire, a monastery I’ve long wanted to visit.  It was fortuitous, because the photos were enough to suggest to me both continuity and discontinuity within the monastic tradition.  850 years after the monks built Fountains, we still follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the architectural elements of monasteries have remained pretty much the same.  But some differences are startling, largely because of electricity.

35C9C63C-75CB-477F-AB1E-AC6A691354AAToday we have things that medieval monks could scarcely imagine.  We have artificial light that’s lengthened the work day beyond imagination.  We have heat and air-conditioning, elevators, sound-systems and media equipment and noisy compressors everywhere.  White noise is an integral part of life, and silence such as the monks of Fountains knew is unknown to us.

In short, we monks — and most everyone else — live in a world in which artificial sound and light and air have isolated us from the things of the earth.  Meanwhile, the lights of civilization long ago screened from our gaze the dazzling display of stars that the monks of Fountains marveled at every evening.

I’m no Luddite, and I would be loathe to dispense with the things that make our lives both comfortable and productive.  All the same, however, I wonder whether there is a price we’ve had to pay as we’ve created an artificial world that shelters us from the reality of creation and the cycles of the seasons.  Has our world become unreal?

I wonder too whether our isolation from nature has engendered a corresponding isolation from one another and from God.  A recent study points out the prevalence of loneliness in our society, but the data provided one big surprise.  Researchers had expected to find loneliness among the elderly, but the discovery of a pervasive loneliness among the young was shocking.  No one had expected that.

6DA8C891-C0A0-422C-8321-CC785B4B21E6If we’ve insulated ourselves from close human companionship, have we done so with God as well?  It seems entirely plausible to me that if we can fashion our own little artificial world — entirely the result of the machines we have created — then we can just as easily close our eyes to the presence of God.

For better and for worse, something like a power outage reminds us of two things.  First, we aren’t omnipotent, despite what we may think.  In fact, we would be helpless without the power grid, until we learned to get along without it once again.  And second, we would eventually recall that there is something to life besides cell phones and the machines that now shape our artificial world.

Perhaps, then, it’s good to turn off the power every now and again, just to remind us that life is possible without it.  For one, we’d discover that life still has meaning.  For another, we’d discover that we still have each other.  In the faces of one another we behold the spark of the divine presence that never seems to grow dark or weaken.  Oddly enough, it’s the one spark of energy that the power company can’t seem to turn off.

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+On June 5th I returned from giving conferences at a retreat for members of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Lourdes of the Order of Malta.  The retreat took place at Malvern Retreat House, located in the Philadelphia suburbs.

+On June 9th we monks of Saint John’s survived a planned power outage at Saint John’s.  Not willing to miss the opportunity to comment on that experience, I made it the subject of today’s post.

+Lacking photos of the medieval abbey of Fountains, I have done the next best thing by resorting to photos I took of the nearby abbey of Rievaulx.  Located outside of York, it is a stunning ruin, and it’s a miracle that builders and looters did not cart off all of its stones. Given that there were no glazed windows in the cloister to shield the monks from the elements, they managed to survive the winter by taking refuge in the calefactory — the one heated room in the entire complex.  That fireplace served some 600 monks and laybrothers at one point, and I can only imagine how they crowded around it in the dead of winter.  The photo of the fireplace is at bottom.

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