Friday, January 25, 2008

The Dream of Perfection 3

Almost all the great world religions have within their embrace religious orders, that is, communities of monks and nuns who live a common life under the rule of a particular founder. These religious orders set themselves apart from society as we know it and seek to live in accordance with their specific religious devotion that is usually characterized by the principles of their founder's religious practice. I have argued in a previous post that the monastic ideal is essentially romantic in the broadest sense of that term, that it shares in a certain Utopian spirit, that it seeks in a sense (to use essentially a Biblical metaphor) to bring about the Kingdom of God in miniature as it were. I realise that I am forcing language a bit here, but bear with me.

For example, the majority of the religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church observe the Rule of St Benedict that is a collection of precepts for the so-called contemplative religious life, others follow the Rule of St Augustine that stresses moderation and care for those in need, whereas the Rule of St Basil, one of the earliest rules for Christian religious living, tends to be followed by religious orders of the Orthodox Church. In addition, the individual Orders have their own regulations for the practical living out of their chosen Rule so as to be able to serve their own Order's charism more fully. I belonged to the Order of St Augustine for three years of my life, 1983-1986. This rule stressed the fact that the indidividual member or brother travelled to God in unity with his brothers. Saint Augustine believed that his brethren travelled together and gained further knowledge and closeness to God in community with one another. Indeed, our novice master and student master constantly adverted to what they termed “the Augustinian family.” I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I gained many practical personal skills from living in community – ability to listen to others as if they were your own brothers; to share my possessions with others in the community; to work together is a co-operative and friendly manner; to help another when he needed it; to visit and care for a sick member of the community; to prepare meals for that same community when my turn on the roster came up; to experience the joys of working together and to share another’s grief when a member of the community died. These are just some of the qualities and gifts one learns to appreciate in a community. Outside that, one learns great tolerance of others also – to accept their weaknesses as well as one’s own. In this manner I found that I grew greatly in self-knowledge. I remember also that St Augustine said that as one grows in the knowledge of God one also grows in self-knowledge.

Religious orders, as I have pointed out above, do not belong to the Catholic tradition only, but also can be found in the Anglican Communion and also in Buddhist societies such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea and Tibet. There is a number of monastic orders of monks and nuns, many of which follow a different school of teaching, such as Zen. A well-known Chinese Buddhist order is the ancient Shaolin order in Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism. I am rather inclined to read and meditate much along the lines of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition – the Dalai Lama and Sogyal Rinpoche who profess a distinctive form of Vajrayana Buddhism which is also related to the Shingon Buddhist tradition in Japan. Tibetan Buddhism is practised not only in Tibet but also in Mongolia.

It is beyond the scope of this present post to say much more by way of explanation of these monastic traditions whether in the East or West. Suffice it to say that they each in its own way gives witness to the desire for perfection and to the human desire for Utopia. In a certain sense one can say also that communism shares in this same desire for both ideals.

Above I have placed a picture I took at evening time of the Pope's Cross, Phoenix Park Dublin in 2002.

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