Thursday, May 13, 2010

(62) Being Eccentric

"Paradoxically, though monks are said to be 'formed' into one way
of life, monasteries are full of people who feel free to be themselves,
often to the point of eccentricity..."
[Kathleen Norris, DAKOTA: A SPIRITUAL GEOGRAPHY, Tucker &
Fields, 1993, p. 115.]

Comment: Kathleen Norris is an ecumenical Benedictine Oblate,
who writes about community and monastery in the Great Plains,
where she lives. Her spiritual experience is her own, like those
monks who "feel free to be themselves."

As for eccentric monks, no doubt they are around. I haven't met
any personally, but I have read some of their ideas in books they
have written. There are monks who have expanded their spiritual
horizons to the point of being mind-boggling. Sometimes when I
read their material, I feel like an "old foggy."

I must say that I feel better when I come across the occasional
(published) eccentric monk, mainly because I certainly qualify
towards attaining eccentric status myself. But whatever might
"eccentric" mean within a monastic environment?

In a creedal environment, being eccentric can sometimes be
dangerous. Back in the bad old days, people could be burned
at the stake or condemned. Toeing the line still has its adherents.
But here now, in our own time, it would seem that we are in the
Days of Diversity. Lots of different outlooks, even in the monastic

One shift I began to notice quite awhile ago was what is called
the "Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue." Perhaps it started with
Thomas Merton, the great Trappist, when he was allowed to
study Zen Buddhism and meet with Buddhist contemplatives.
After Merton's death, this dialogue with Benedictines and
Buddhist monks deepened. I remember while attending a
ceremony at a nearby monastery, I suddenly looked up after
hearing the swishing of saffron robes. There they were in
living color, genuine Buddhist monks present in a Benedictine

This monastic dialogue has served to enrich Western monks,
especially bringing depth to their prayer life.

Probably the dialogue with the Buddhists was the beginning
towards probing into other religious outlooks. For example,
there are Benedictines who have examined the shamanic
experience both in Asia and North America. Other monks are
"seeing" how the Spirit might extend into our world in a myriad
of ways and events, far beyond any creedal system.

And, goodness, there's the occasional monk who fiddles in
the realm of Science Theory--toying with how new theoretic
insights might impact on our spiritual life. One spinoff is our
accruing knowledge of Natural Systems, leading to what is
now called "Eco-Spirituality."

But, in the end, I have to wonder whether dealing with the
modern Diversity of ideas is actually "eccentric." Keeping up
with the New Knowledge Base would seem most intelligent
when it comes trying to discern Ultimate Reality or the

On the other hand, the Benedictines are the keeper of a special
Treasure--their Monastic Tradition. Admittedly, this Tradition
rose up and out of Medieval Thought. And some of this ancient
thought is wise and smart. So it would seem the challenge for
our more eccentric monks and lay monastics might be how to
*integrate* their Past Heritage (of thought) with the Modern
Information and Ideas that beckon new ways of thinking--and
even of be-ing.