Vital Signs

Local IANDS Group Dialogues With Trappist Monks

by Marco Pardi, MA, DPS

 In a tract of woods near the small town of Conyers, Georgia, stands an unassuming set of buildings known as the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. The long, tree-lined drive, the idyllic lake, and the eventual sight of the church obscure the background evidence that this is a real, self-supporting community of 50 or more monks. Many are retired priests, and many others have come straight into the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (also known as the Trappists).

 

 
 church_at_the_trappist
Church at the Trappist monastery near Conyers, Georgia
Photo courtesy of R. Viau
 

While there are other monasteries and quasi-monasteries (non-residential religious communities) in the Atlanta, Georgia area, this monastery is unique in its rural, almost medieval, setting. Their seamless totality of living the physical and the spiritual life attracted us, the Lawrenceville metro-Atlanta Friends-of-IANDS group, to explore with these religious practitioners the implications of non-bodily existence and its related phenomena. Admittedly, a second factor influencing our choice was the absence of any significant ethnic/cultural hurdle which might have arisen had we wanted to converse with, for example, the nearby Loseling Institute, a member of the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa Order

 

On Sunday afternoon, August 31st, eight regular members of our group and one guest met for 90 minutes with three Trappist monks, one acolyte, and two associated laypersons (one of whom was the physician regularly attendant upon monks in the infirmary/ hospice). We met in a conference room in the monastery’s Retreat House.

 retreat_house
Retreat House, mostly hidden behind trees, in which the IANDS members and monks held their discussion. Photo courtesy of R. Viau

Although I’d been in phone and e-mail contact with two of the monks, we decided against tape recording this first-time meeting. We also decided that, unless and until the monks assent to the public use of their names, our descriptions of them would use pseudonyms.

The point of this article is not to capture a short, specific discussion among 15 people that occurred over a 90-minute period on a Sunday afternoon. The point, through portraying the nature and flavor of the event, is to encourage readers to reexamine what might be their presumptions (about the dogmatic stance presumed to characterize identifiable religious communities), and to reassess what might be their own resources for spiritual development. Cloistered communities dedicated to the search for and the experience of the dynamic matrix of spirituality and temporal existence exist throughout the world, in many different forms and, ostensibly, attached to many different core values or beliefs. An engaged discussion in a cloister, regardless of one’s sectarian affiliation or lack thereof, might prove pivotal to personal ‘breakthroughs’ many of us seek, even in ways which leave us personally unable to communicate our new insights to others.

Once we were assembled and introduced, I explained the reason for our group’s visit, emphasizing that our group had progressed beyond the telling and re-telling of interesting stories and was now seeking the meanings and implications, in a non-sectarian and even secular way, of phenomena we felt to be undeniably real.

Brother Adrian, the 55-year-old administrator of the monastery’s infirmary/hospice, responded enthusiastically that the monks were eager to learn from IANDS: “This is all new to the Catholic Church. The proliferation of undeniable evidence that people have gone into this spiritual realm, even as far as a state we could call death itself, yet have come back to tell of it, is amazing and is totally new to traditional Catholic eschatology.” Brother Adrian went on to cite a variety of books he had read and websites he had visited which, in some cases, were unfamiliar even to the IANDS group. “There’s a new book out by a Catholic author who convincingly tells not only the story of his NDE, but also the story of his awareness of his pre-born state. This is unheard of in Catholic tradition. It’s not that we actively discourage such rhetoric; it’s just that it never even occurs in the first place. And while the book seems to be enjoying considerable popularity among Catholic readers, no reviewer has even touched that part of his book. It’s as if they simply glossed over an entire section which did not fit into the traditional paradigm.” Brother Basil, a man apparently in his late 70’s, went further, asking which books we had read by a certain well-known NDEr. He expressed amazement at the non-judgmental nature of the acceptance into the light. “However, it does seem that the ‘life review’ comports nicely with our view of Purgatory. There is a realization of omissions and commissions.”

I mentioned that I’d read at least one of that author’s ‘Light’ books, and had received from its publisher an advance copy of a different book which seemed to be a remarkable chronicle of a Fundamentalist- inspired psychotic episode, passed off as an NDE but really furthering the penetration of this field by those with an extremely narrow ‘religious’ agenda, usually couched as an ultimately authoritative cosmic list of “do’s and don’ts”. Brother Vincentius, a 50-ish teacher of Eastern-tradition meditation forms, explained that he specifically avoided the “Eastern” accouterments normally associated with such forms of meditation, so as to prevent the cross-cultural distractions and confusions so often arising from them. “We find, in meditation, an awareness which transcends the anthropomorphic visualizations of God. We find”— paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, with whom he and Brother Adrian had held private audience—“that all paths lead to the same destination. We find a state of Being that is totally accepting, and objectively unconcerned with whether you have masturbated, lied, or harmed another— except that this state-of-Being provides you with an awareness of how your actions have affected others. It allows you to view yourself through the eyes of others.”

One member of our group responded, “In the spectrum of reading I have done, and in the reported experiences to which I have listened, I find that ‘my flags go up’ when I hear or read claims that some ‘spiritually advanced being’ presented a list of earthly chores yet undone; or that having failed to check off all the boxes, you must reincarnate to complete your ‘mission’ or your advancement. It’s as if some giant government form is hanging out there in the cosmos and we’ve got to check off all the boxes and acquire all the authoritative signatures. The Bardo Thodol”—misnamed ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’—“cautions us that, as we progress from one bardo to the next, we might fixate on our visualizations in a particular bardo and find ourselves reincarnating in order to undo that attachment. But how does that fit with the desire to be with pre-deceased loved ones or, for that matter, with a God which one has been taught to externalize? Aren’t these also attachments?”

Replied Brother Adrian, “Reincarnation, another idea without a home in Catholic tradition, is interesting. And there are certainly compelling literary accounts for it. However, and I’m no expert on physics, it seems to me that the holographic paradigm, as developed by Michael Murphy in his book The Holographic Universe, is really a more exciting and meaningful concept. It means to me that as I go through my day and find myself ‘dreaming’, I sometimes wonder if I am ‘dreaming’ or if I am actually being. Am I bi-locating, or more? I think this is the beauty and the meaning of the ‘life review’: it allows us to be and to feel exactly and truly as the other people with whom you interacted were and felt, when you acted in ways which affected them. The life review clarifies that we are all one, not just in some future sense, but right now, right here, always: it is the heart of the ‘Do unto others…’ message, for you are truly doing unto yourself. Thus, ‘others’ and ‘self ’ are really meaningless distinctions.”

I joined in: “The reincarnation idea is interesting, but it’s strapped with moralistic baggage. As it’s so often depicted, it seems as if there’s a giant Boolean logarithm hanging out there in space: ‘Have you had X experience? If yes, proceed to Question 2. If no, Shazaam! —you’re reincarnated in order to have that experience, like it or not.’ I can’t buy into the existence of some externalized Cosmic Checklist against which I will be measured; the paradigm is subverted by sectarian values.”

Brother Basil then said, “You know, I find all this discussion about being brought back from death interesting, especially in light of our Lord’s raising of Lazarus, a man who had been in the tomb for days and was actually stinking. What must that man have experienced?”

A member of our group offered: “I think recent analysis, especially of the Nazorean portions of the Qumran documents and the Gospel of Thomas (considered by many to reveal the Gnostic roots of what later came to be called Christianity), suggests that we have failed to properly interpret the Hebrew cultural norm of communicating through metaphor. The Nazoreans labeled those who had not yet been ‘born again’ through baptism as ‘dead’; ‘raising from the dead’ was the act of conversion, symbolized through baptism. The apocryphal writings subsumed as gospels under the names of ‘Matthew’, ‘Mark’, and ‘Luke’ do not center on the ‘miracles’ of Jesus, as does the apocryphal material ascribed to ‘John’, which was forced by the continuum from Ireneaus to Athanasius into the ‘four pillars’ of the emerging church – eventually becoming the basis for the Nicene Creed. Therefore, I would feel that chasing after stories like Lazarus would be a fruitless diversion.”

Said Brother Adrian: “Yet this has spawned an industry in ‘faith healing’. Look at the number of people going around making fortunes by slapping people around and shouting incantations. Just go to those folks, get knocked in the head, and you’ll be okay.” “I always liked Ernest Angsley,” I added. “You didn’t have to leave home; just put your forehead against the TV and he would drop-kick you back onto the couch. I assume you’d better have your check in the mail pretty quickly, or the mojo would wear off.” Said Brother Vincentius: “What we’re really talking about here is an ever-present, ever-available, ever-accepting and loving God. Not some anthropomorphized thunderer. It’s our perspective that is off. We talk about spirituality, but we miss it when it’s right in front of us and all around us, now and always.”

A member of our group then asked: “Given that you are, at least as I see you now, living in the physical, how do you fill your day? What is it like to live this way day after day?”

Brother Adrian answered, “I know it must seem repetitive and tedious to outsiders, but the time here just flies by. Our days begin early, and we are each well focused on our duties throughout the day. Of course, we don’t have the distractions that you do, so even a routine physical task is often a vehicle for meditation. And for those of us who have not taken vows of silence, we are able to share those meditations. Some new members of our community are surprised, and sometimes need guidance, over the degree of interaction, in strictly mundane ways, that we have in this community. We can get irritated with someone. We are humans living in close community, a kind of intense microcosm of many aspects of the human condition. Such moments of irritation can be used as mirrors, to reflect back on who we are. They can be portals through which to view ourselves, from a spiritual perspective, as functioning human beings. Rather than brush off an irritating person, severing the relationship at the first opportunity, we plunge into an examination of the nature of our relationship, and we grow spiritually from it.”

Added Brother Vincentius: “We grow into an ever-expanding awareness of our oneness, and of our communion with that ultimate Oneness that seems to be represented by the Light so often cited in the NDE literature.”

Brother Basil concurred: “We feel that God cannot be ‘captured’ or portrayed in some exclusive, measurable sense. So that ‘Light’ which people report seeing is a conceptual guidepost, which we will continue to ‘see’ as distinct from us until we come to realize our true home in God.”

Said one of our group members: “It seems so odd that people go through their lives in thoroughly mundane ways, scratching for what they think is important, and devoting only an hour or so a week–if they do that–to the ‘spiritual’. And then they are surprised and skeptical when someone else reports a spiritual experience.” Responded Brother Adrian: “Oh, yes. A split persona. Physical here; spiritual there. I’m here, so I must be physical. When I’m there, I’ll be spiritual. In our Order, we live our lives in awareness of that duality, recognizing that it is an artifact of focus, not an ultimate truth. Someone once said, ‘I’m a spiritual being having a physical experience’.”

After the discussion, our FOI members met in the parking lot to exchange views. There was unanimous assent that this had been a moving and eye-opening experience. Several persons admitted to having had preconceptions of rigid dogmatism, now thoroughly put to rest. Because I’d had previous, lengthy interactions in monastic settings, my own greatest surprise was at the depth of surprise within the group.

In sum, this event opened up monasteries as an arena hitherto unconsidered by many as a personal resource. We hope that our experience might suggest new opportunities for members of other FOIs. We have been warmly invited to return, and will continue to maintain a thoughtful relationship with this community.


Marco M. Pardi, a psychologist with a federal health agency and an adjunct faculty member in the Georgia University system, is the coordinator of the Lawrenceville, Georgia Friends-of-IANDS.

 

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