In February 2012, the classroom project of University of Pennsylvania's Justin McDaniel gained North America-wide news coverage. McDaniel, an associate professor of religious studies, organized a class, as one commentator put it, to "experience firsthand" what it is like to be a monk. Of the 100 who applied for the course, only 17 were chosen. As news reports have it, students participating in the class were required to observe disciplines from various monastic traditions, gradually intensified throughout the semester. "At various periods during the semester, students must forego technology, coffee, physical human contact and certain foods. They'll also have to wake up at 5 a.m.—without an alarm clock," according to the Associated Press. "That's just a sample of the restrictions McDaniel imposes in an effort to help students become more observant, aware and disciplined. Each constraint represents an actual taboo observed by a monastic religious order." Though this course is noteworthy for its comprehensive scope, it is not uncommon for public universities to offer courses on monasticism or on parts of it such as contemplation. This example comes out of a major American university. No doubt other universities might have problems getting such a course by an ethics board. However, it serves as a good example for reflection about how the religious life might be studied in a generation that seems uninterested in joining a monastery. Importantly, these courses require no theological prerequisites; rather, they entice students by claiming superior or avantgarde pedagogical or methodological tools.
More, a critic would suggest, it seems particularly interesting for millennials, who would rather have an experience than read about it.
For the sake of discussion, I wish to add a second example: the 2005 reality television experiment The Monastery, at Worth Abbey in West Sussex, United Kingdom, which hosted five "ordinary" Englishmen for a 40-day monastic retreat. The link with the example above is, as the Abbey's former abbot, Christopher Jamison, explained, that the visitors were taken "just as they were." That is, as with the course, there were no prerequisites necessary to join. No doubt the men wanted to be on the show, but they were not prepared for what they were to experience, as became clear. The show became a hit (I recommend it), but it had unintended consequences for the Abbey and the Abbott.
Studying the true, the good and the beautiful from written texts and from observation, are staples of scholarship in the humanities and the social sciences. However, it seems the course and the show contend, especially for those living in monastic communities, that true understanding only comes as a participant. If this is true, how ought it be studied—especially when focused on religious virtuosity? Does one need to don the habit to study the habits of monasticism?
Let's look at two cases of monastic education or, at least, initiation into monastic practice. Though one might contend that the Buddhist traditions of contemplation or monasticism have never needed that kind of theological commitment more akin to Christianity, I am not sure it is entirely unlike the Christian contemplative, monastic traditions.
In the Christian monastic traditions, contemplation is not simply an end in itself but leads to the heart of the thing. In her book on the Cistercian tradition, Esther de Waal notes, "This is the crux of it all: to pray the Psalter with Christ." The emphasis here is not on praying the Psalter but on doing it with Christ. Aquinata Böckmann, another well-known Christian monastic writer, agrees with de Waal's assessment of that tradition. She argues that the whole of the Benedictine tradition (including Cistercians and Trappists) should be read through a key passage in Benedict's Rule (72.11-12). The monk ought to "prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he lead us all together to life everlasting." Again, the point of contemplation or the monastic life is not simply the discipline or some generic mystical experience, but specifically life with Christ.
Böckmann also makes a related point worth underlining: The monastery is not simply a place to become "a better you" but a place of intense spiritual warfare. That is, in the monastery there is the presumption of a metaphysical reality, not all positive. As in other kinds of warfare, the soldier cannot fight alone but needs to fight under the command of a leader. She writes: "The monk does not go there to live in fraternal community, but in order to learn, under the abbot as teacher, the art of spiritual warfare, of fighting self-will and the devil."
Thomas O'Loughlin, professor at the University of Nottingham, makes this point very clear: The basic monastic relationship is master and pupil. It is not by chance that Benedict begins his Rule with: "Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master." The master-pupil relationship gives the written Rule its authority.
Insofar as the essence of monastic life and the wisdom of the elders can be expressed in writing, it can be asserted that the Rule becomes a master, and every monk is its disciple, and thus the imagery of many rules (e.g., "The Rule of the Master"). However, the book never supplants the person: Learning always involves a communication of the life from one person—the master—to another.
Yet, O'Loughlin writes, it is never enough to simply say master and pupil. For, as argued above, that relationship must be understood as belonging to the larger person of Christ.
These brief comments stand for a larger body of literature on the Western Christian monastic and contemplative traditions. As we see the pattern emerge, we can begin to formulate our problem: Can one study contemplative monasticism without first accepting the status of a "son"? Since this kind of relationship seems out of place in the context of the two examples we gave (i.e., there were teachers but not masters), how ought we to evaluate the insider methods of pedagogy of, or introductions to, their respective traditions?
I ask these questions in the context of my research project on the state of religious or monastic life in contemporary Canada, but also from a practical, pedagogical point of view. I don't engage in this simply as a thought experiment without impact.
An example: I have encouraged students to reflect on the practical impact of ideas studied in texts and discussed in courses on Christian spirituality, courses that had significant focus on contemplative and monastic writers. Although some criticize academic Christian spirituality for its distance from systematic or exegetical concerns, it is often overlooked, paradoxically, that the most important distance is that from Christianity in practice—what it really looks, smells, tastes, sounds and feels like. Surely spirituality courses have often paid little attention to systematic concerns in various theological traditions. More, they can have little use for the way spirituality is actually embodied in those traditions.
In my course, I assigned "field reports" that attempted to overcome this divide by facilitating the observation of a significant part of Christian spirituality—regular, communal worship. When visiting places of worship, students observe their various practices in one place, in one "embodiment." Though some ended up being participant-observers (sometimes being singled out as a visitor), the great majority could simply observe what happened around them in the worship space.
I liked the strategy for a few reasons: First, it allowed students to observe Christian spirituality in practice—to see Christian spirituality as it is lived. Second, it gave students tools with which they could analyze their own religious or spiritual practice or non-practice. Finally, it allowed students to analyze a tradition of Christian spirituality without the abstraction that sometimes happens in class or the unhelpful confrontations that are sometimes spawned by these abstractions. Yet I ask the question in this context: Was it enough? Was my approach too timid or uninformative?
I could look to educational theorists or philosophers of religion, but I note instead the thought of Harold Roth, professor in the Contemplative Studies initiative at Brown University. His thought focuses on one key aspect of monastic life, that of contemplation. He would contend that my methods were not necessarily as thorough as possible. In a recent speech at McGill University, Roth argued that the university should be home to a more robust program of contemplative studies. Like the programs listed above, his program is open to all students and purports to be based on current scientific research. For many years, Roth has given courses on contemplation, usually consisting of a weekly reading seminar, plus a meditation lab. The meditation features introductory yogic practice, specific contemplative technique, question period and journaling. Based on his own research and that of scholars such as B. Alan Wallace (The Tabooof Subjectivity), Roth argues that third-person (objective observer) and even second-person (engagement with intersubjective communication) study are not sufficient for the study of contemplation, which he defines as the focusing of attention in a sustained fashion, leading to deepened states of concentration, broadening of awareness and self-contextualizing experiences. Rather, Roth pushed for first-person study, that which is based on subjective experience. For the sake of study, this experience can be divided into immediate experience or non-self-referential experi-ence and the objectification of that experience into specific perceptions, feelings and ideas.
Does this answer my questions? Does the fact that we might be open to first person study of contemplation open the door to the kinds of courses or experiences on monasticism noted at the outset.