Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Shift Happens 2014

An old friend from the Franciscan Third Order sent me a link to this amazing video. It is well worth the five minutes it will take to watch it and, hopefully, the time it will prompt you to reflect on the points it raises:

Entitled Shift Happens, 2014, the film well documents, “[w]e are living in exponential times,” the pace of change in our lives is accelerating at an exponential rate. The video is breathtaking, overwhelming and well worth further consideration. I was struck by several points.

Why Should Everyone Go To College?

“Researchers predict that 65% of today’s school kids will hold jobs that don’t yet exist. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet….The US Department of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38.”
The current conventional “wisdom” regarding higher education in America would assert that everyone needs to go to college in order to get a decent job. Despite the fact this “wisdom” is being propagated by everyone from the President to the local media’s talking heads, this myth is pernicious and needs to be laid to rest as quickly as possible.

To begin with, not every teenager completing high school is actually capable of attaining a higher education. Sadly, it is not true that if they simply try their best they will succeed. The road to college graduation is littered with the carnage of those who simply couldn’t get there. This does not make them any less human or valuable to our world. It simply means their life callings will be to endeavors which capitalize on the skills they do have, not on those others think they should have.

Moreover, not every teenager capable of higher education wants to attend college. Some are simply not ready for the demands of higher education right out of high school. The myth we have told ourselves that college freshmen arrive as adults with fully developed rational capacities and the maturity to use them is simply not true in many, perhaps most, cases. At best, they are proto-adults capable of maturing into adulthood assuming they are willing to grow and that vital mentorship is available for that process.

There are also those who simply do not want to undergo the process of higher education with its many hoops to jump through and yearn to seek their fortunes outside its parameters. No one should attend college because they were manipulated into doing so. There is no small amount of sadism in forcing young people who are not capable of completing college or who simply don’t want to be there to endure four years of frustration and a long subsequent history of paying off student loans to pay for that torture. There is also no small amount of social irresponsibility in failing to insure that the equally valuable avenues for vocational success for those not called to higher education are available to them.

It’s a College, not a Factory

But the more pernicious aspect of this “wisdom” is the reduction of higher education to a vocational process designed to insure jobs almost exclusively in the technical arenas. In the first place, this thinking confuses training with education. The former is focused on attaining skills, the latter is focused on the development of the holder of such skills.

Education requires the development of the capacity to think critically and solve problems creatively. It requires developing the potential to express oneself clearly through verbal, written, image-driven and technical means. A true educational process will take students out of their comfort zones (and no, they don’t have the right to never be troubled), expand their awareness of their own lives and the world around them. An education worth its salt will prepare the student to be a life-long learner.

That last skill will prove indispensable if the creators of the video are correct that the shelf life of any skills learned in the first years of college will be of limited use by the time of graduation. Many potential students today are buying into sales pitches by undergraduate programs across the country desperately seeking new customers and their tuition dollars. They are being sold a bill of goods that college is a four year party – the best four years of your life! – during which they will somehow learn all they need to know to go make lots of money largely by osmosis. I know. I’ve taken the tours.

But this is a pernicious and potentially destructive lie. If a student is lucky, they will find a college that prompts them to ask questions of themselves, their classmates and their professors. The student will figure out very quickly that despite the sales job they got in their pre-college visit, seeing an undergraduate educational process as “the best four years of your life” is acceding to an incredibly low standard for a mediocre at best life. Indeed, they will recognize that a college education in its best and highest use is actually the springboard to the best years of their lives – the many years they have after graduation to use what they have learned.

They will also figure out that the campus cultures which suggest that shooting for the bottom line while demanding undeserved high grades is an exercise in self-deception. They will also quickly realize that the widespread and widely accepted practice of cheating on online assignments and plagiarizing the work of others for writing assignments is ultimately acceding to becoming a less-than-respectable human being.

The conventional “wisdom” by which corporate imperatives to insure a supply of minimally trained workers would reduce institutions of higher education to mere factories for minimal vocational skills may be about a lot of things but education is not among them. And the student who buys into that “wisdom,” the sales pitches of the money-hungry university and the cynical campus culture of bottom line performance has already conceded his or her opportunity to become an educated human being.

Worshipping the Work of Our Own Imaginations

Another section of the video focuses on technological development.  

“There are 5.9 billion searches on Google every day. This is 100 times more than in 2000. To whom were the searches addressed B.G. (Before Google)?”

It’s hard for post-Google people to imagine how the world survived without the instant gratification of its search engines. As an admittedly voracious user of Google, the presumption that everything I need to know is almost instantly available to me assuming I have a wifi connection is greatly comforting. But there is no small amount of vanity in such a belief.

The B.G. question reveals some of the self-blinded tendencies that informs the Technopoly that Neil Postman so well documented in his book by the same name. To begin with, much of the world’s information, perhaps the majority of it, is not yet digitalized. Google can only find that which has been made available to online searches. The presumption that anything worth knowing is already online is no doubt self-satisfying but beyond the smugness of such assertions is the reality that much worth knowing is not yet online and may never be.
This points to a related concern. The major value of internet research is its speed which is often seen as a proxy for efficiency. Sadly, it rarely is, particularly when it comes to learning. The quality of learning generally turns on the amount of undistracted time a student is willing to invest in the process of learning. All of us like to find answers quickly. But the quality of the answers we find depends on a number of things.

First of all, it depends upon our ability to frame queries. This, in turn, depends upon the capacities of our vocabularies and our abilities to think creatively and expansively. The larger the in-borne thesaurus an individual searcher holds, the more likely s/he will find ways to rephrase search terms to locate additional, often vital data. Sadly, some of the most recent results of student learning suggests that vocabularies are declining and that it is precisely the use of internet technologies and their deleterious impact on substantive reading that are feeding this decline.

“Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.” - Maria Konnikova, “Being a Better Online Reader,” The New Yorker (July 16, 2014)

Second, the tendencies of those of us who access online sources is to speedily read what we find there, an extension of the faulty speed = efficiency premise. The result is a tendency to scan, sometimes even using word search, but rarely to actually read and consider the contents resulting in a corresponding decrease in comprehension of that which has been hastily read.

As heavy an internet user as I am I would be hard pressed to sing the praises of life Before Google. The World Book was a joy to read and I spent many happy hours as a child immersed in it. But it was slow, heavily edited and often incomplete and out of date. Google is a decided improvement.

Yet the joys of instant searching, of having “the world at your fingertips” as internet technologies often brag about themselves, have come at a cost to all of us who use them. It is important to recognize that as we rely ever more heavily on online sites to provide us with the intellectual equivalent of the sound bites we can readily procure through scanning that we are already shutting out all the information not online and only selectively accessing that which is present there. It is, ultimately, a major sacrifice indeed that we make to the technological idol we worship.

Billions and Billions of Data Bits

Finally, there are these comments that require careful consideration:

“The first commercial text message was sent in December 1992. Today the number of text messages sent every day is double the population of the planet. It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th CE. 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the past two years. The amount of new technical information is doubling every 2 years…For students starting a four year technical degree this means that half of what they learn their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.“

“In 1900 human knowledge doubled every 100 years. In 1945 human knowledge doubled every 25 years. In 2014 human knowledge doubled every 14 months. By 2020 human knowledge will double every 12 hours.”

We need to be very careful not to confuse information,  much less data, with knowledge. On the knowledge hierarchy that most scholars of human learning have long recognized, the data which are ultimately the basis for the operation of computers is the lowest level of knowledge. It requires grouping data by content to change data into information. It requires the verification of information, checking of sources for authoritativeness, comparing various takes on that information in context to become knowledge.

But it requires critical assessment for that knowledge to become reliable. Even beyond that, wisdom requires testing over time to generate insights into the big picture and provide vision for our future as human beings.

An obsession with quantity often masks an impoverished value for quality. It is quite possible to know more but understand less. Indeed, one of the most frightening prospects of an information rich, technologically powerful society arising in a hyper-individualistic, atomized culture is the potential that this information and power can be used to pursue individual and tribal interests in ways that ultimately proves inimical to each other, our world and the living beings who inhabit it.

Despite what our consumerist culture tells us, more is not necessarily better. It is simply more.

The Billion Dollar Question

This provocative film ends with this question: So what does it all mean? Interestingly, of all the points made in the film, this is without a doubt the most critical.

We are a people still learning how to use our technological tools in a healthy manner. We are having to learn that our connections to the internet can both provide us helpful information and services as well as expose us to theft and defamation. We are having to learn that despite what the consumer advertising tells us, we cannot “talk all the time” and lead healthy lives. People who “talk all the time” quickly run out of things to say worth hearing and in the process spend no time listening. An obsessive use of technology to distract ourselves from our very lives ought to make us wonder about the quality of those lives in the first place.

We are having to relearn how to read and study, coming to grips with the reality that despite the hype and promises of its innumerable hucksters who see technological disruption as a consummate value, the computer simply cannot do the hard work for us. We are having to learn that the agreement to use internet technologies means to enter into vulnerability, a fragile electronic world subject to slowdowns, failures, potentially costly identity theft and debilitating viruses.

Finally, we are having to learn once again how to interact socially with others in healthy ways. We are having to learn that failure to be fully present with others because we are immersed in our personal technologies is not only rude, it is dangerous. We are having to learn the appropriate times, places and manners in which to use our technologies and how to evidence appropriate concern for others in that usage. Most of all, we have to learn the critical lesson of when we simply need to turn our technologies off.

It is a steep learning curve. But in answering the question “What does it all mean?” we are ultimately answering the deeper question of “What does it mean to be human?” And while we have the ability to avoid that question, as billions choose to do each day through the use of their techno toys to remain constantly distracted, the challenge of an ancient philosopher who lived long Before Google still thunders across the ages requiring a response from each of us: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  How do our own lives measure up in light of that consideration?

Of course, we always have the option to live as limited a life as we choose. The question is simply why we’d choose to do so.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Lessons from Gethsemani Abbey – Part II, Rhythm of Life, Matrix of Nature

[Continued from Part I]

4. Finding a Healthy Rhythm – One of the aspects of having an exoskeletal structure in which to live, move and have one’s being is that it doesn’t take a lot of effort to plan one’s life. At the abbey, I found it easy to meet the schedule of the community. While the bells awoke me at 3 AM, I must confess to never having made the 3:30 matins while there. But I was up for the 5:30 lauds each morning and retired to my room following the 7:30 compline and blessing each night. I ate my meals in silence at the designated times and in between services spent my time doing what the retreat guide had suggested: being silent and open to G_d.

A land of cows, soybeans and wooded hills

By the end of the week, I was ready to go home. Our drive home from the monastery began on a mystical note. We drove the backroads of Kentucky on a route Google maps provided us through misty fields of soybeans and corn punctuated by farmhouses and barns with Amish hex signs over the doors. But within a couple of hours, our reverie ended as we rejoined US 27 headed into the dysfunction junction of highways in Chattanooga. And by the time we reached Atlanta, the noisy chaos of “civilized” life was once again upon us.
Now that I am home, I have no monastery bells to awaken me. In my retired life, I have no schedule to follow. If I want to be rooted in community, I must seek it out. If I desire silence and solitude, I must create and protect it.

Next week I begin my two year program with the Living School for Contemplation and Action in New Mexico. One of the initial considerations of this holistic educational experience is the rhythm of one’s life. My time at Gethsemani has prompted me to consider that. And upon return from Albuquerque next week I will need to begin creating a rhythm that can make my time at the school worthwhile.

Finding a Healthy Rhythm

I think a healthy rhythm will include a time to greet the day and thank the Creator for another day in the very good creation. For me this means greeting each of my three cats and two dogs upon rising, putting on my morning coffee and going into my jungled yard barefoot to touch to earth and give thanks for its beauty.

A healthy rhythm will include time to walk. We are fortunate to live near a beautiful city park which includes a 1.75 mile walk around Lake Underhill. Ironically, the bridge over the center of the lake is appended to an eight lane expressway with traffic whizzing by just above one’s head. The juxtaposition of the morning rush hour with the peacefulness of the lake, mist rising from its surface, and smiling people and their dogs walking its shores, is always striking. Intentional engagement of the body while disengaging the mind is essential for a balanced life.

Time for Meditation and Contemplation

A healthy rhythm will include meditation and contemplative prayer. Increasingly I am convinced that these are essentials to even a modicum of mental and spiritual health. And I have long believed that any kind of social justice work must be rooted in a meditative prayer life.

A healthy rhythm also will include being grounded in spiritual community. More than mere support, we need others to provide new ways of seeing the same things we cannot find on our own. We need them to call us on our crap from time to time. And we need their presence to remind us that we are not alone and that the place we most often hear G-d’s voice and observe the image of G_d is in the person of the other we engage in community. I am grateful for the St. Richards community and the fellowship of kindred souls online.

A healthy rhythm will include time to read, reflect and write, just as I am doing right now. And a healthy rhythm will also include time to spend in nature beginning with my own jungled yard and with the wonderful animals, both human and non-human, who share my life and remind me of G-d’s loving presence. And it will include time to prepare healthy food at home, not relying on take out or sit-down meals at restaurants long on convenience but often short on nutrition and the joy of preparation.

Finding a healthy rhythm is central to living a life of integrity and authenticity. This is no easy undertaking. It involves unlearning years of bad habits when I was busy selling my soul to the Factory. I can only do my best. But anything worth attaining is worth working for. As our Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal Covenant puts it, “I will with God’s help.” For all these insights, I am thankful to my time at the Abbey.

The privilege to live among nature

5. The Matrix of Nature – One of the things that is striking about the communities at Iona, Taize and Gethsemani that I have visited in the last three months is their settings within nature. Iona Abbey sits amid a magical setting of sea, rolling pastures complete with black and white sheep amidst and archipelago of islands that lies off the coast of Scotland. Taize is located in an ancient village in the French countryside studded with vistas of rolling hills with silky white cattle, ruins of ancient monasteries and riots of flowers everywhere. Gethsemani sits amidst the farmlands of northern Kentucky punctuated by wooded knobs, fields of soybeans and corn all overlain by crimson sunsets.

In one of his writings Merton comments that he was “privileged to live in nature.” Having grown up in the woods of Central Florida on land that my father, brother and I cleared to build our home, I had always taken nature for granted until I went away to college. Now that I live in the middle of a metropolitan area of over 2 million, I sometimes find myself wishing for those rolling hills dotted with black Angus and gray Brahma cattle and woods where owls can be heard hooting at night and stars long since rendered invisible by city lights can still be seen overhead.

A generative matrix

It is, indeed, a privilege to live in nature. But, more than that, it is, for people like me, a necessary aspect for any kind of generative life. I think it is no accident that those who have lived at Iona, Taize and Gethsemani have been so highly productive in writing, art, music and liturgical innovation. The fertility of the natural setting gives rise to the fertility of the creative spirit and manifests itself in a wide range of expressions.

I think that is the reason that over the years I have created a green oasis on our large corner lot in the midst of this city. The trees and shrubs I have planted along our property’s edge provides a green wall between our home and the madness of the city around us. While it cannot screen out the noise of helicopters overhead during rush hour or the emergency vehicles as they rush by enroute to tragedies, the green wall provides a sufficient break from the outside world that our home has no drapes in any of its windows except the curtains in our bedroom to black out the light early in the morning.

That green wall was intentional. When the rubble had finally been removed from our home after the hurricane in 2004, I cordoned off our yard and began working to regrow the jungle that had once stood there. Regrowing trees from stumps left by chain saws and planting new trees where others once stood, I slowly but surely recreated my yard even as the reconstruction of our home languished for nearly four years.

This was the way I worked through the grief of the loss of my home, my mother and our beloved beagle which all came at once threatening to overwhelm us. Today the jungle continues to be the place where I work through the grief of the end of my time in academia while preparing for the next stage in my life journey. But more importantly, it is the place that alternatively grounds me when my reading and reflection become too ethereal and inspires me, sending me back to my computer to write once again.

New Coverleigh is hardly on the scale of any of the holy sites I have recently visited. But I recognize in the rhythm of life I am establishing here the essential role that this natural sanctuary in a sea of urban life plays in my life. And for that, I am grateful.

Quietness is the ultimate expression of humility

The Means, Not the End

As I left for Gethsemani some three weeks ago, I included this comment in a blog entry about that trip:

“If Iona was the place to discern it was time to leave behind my life as a full-time academic, Gethsemani is the place I begin wrestling with the obvious questions in its wake: What now? What might G-d be calling me to do, to become? Where might I be called to go and among whom shall I find my new calling? What challenges will I encounter?”

A long-time friend who has himself been to Gethsemani twice for silent retreats sent me this note the day I arrived there:

“Let me suggest…that you not go there with the intention of wrestling with your future.  Let go of that need to control...because knowing IS a form of control.  My spiritual director, a Trappist for two decades, told me repeatedly, ‘Just go there and be quiet.  Quiet verbally, quiet mentally, quiet spiritually.  Don't go there with an agenda.  Don't even go there to listen.  Just be quiet.  Not so you can hear the still, small voice, just quiet for the sake of quietness.’

He was right.  Quietness is the ultimate expression of humility….I pray that your time at Gethsemani will be as rewarding as my own. I can tell you it almost certainly will not be what you expect.  It may be much more.” 

I struggled with hearing this at first. I am still not sure that one’s making themselves available to hear what direction might be offered them is a control issue. But, given the fear and pain of not knowing what one’s future holds, the hope for if not expectation of some direction or at least some reassurance that one is on the right path does speak to issues of security, not trust.

As it turns out, at the end of my week at Gethsemani I had little more idea about where the path ahead is taking me than I did when I left for the Abbey. The impenetrable mist still begins no more than a couple of feet beyond my last footstep. But, as my friend suggested, what I did hear was not what I had hoped for but more than I thought I would discover. And perhaps it was exactly what I needed to hear.

I come away from Gethsemani with a better sense of how this journey will proceed even as I remain uncertain of where it leads. The insights I gained about the rhythm of a life devoted to this journey were unexpected. But, in retrospect, they will likely prove invaluable. And for that I am deeply grateful.

Insights into the rhythm of life devoted to this journey

One last insight I would share from my week at the abbey. If there is anything I have learned over my nearly 62 years of life, it is that while spirituality is a profoundly human characteristic, it plays out in about as many different ways as there are human beings. Despite the most fervent desires of the guardians of institutional religions to attain uniformity of belief which sufficiently affirms their own faith constructs to allow them to believe them, one size does not – indeed, cannot – fit all.

As I lay in my bed serenaded by the bells of Gethsemani I also had a chance to finish Daniel Horan’s The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton. Horan makes a good case for the shaping of Merton’s thought by his Franciscan heritage. Merton was a member of the Franciscan third order for a decade and spent several years teaching in a Franciscan college prior to coming to Gethsemani. Horan expertly laid out the alternative orthodoxy of Franciscan thought rooted in the work of John Duns Scotus and Bonaventure and deftly showed where this was evident in Merton’s work.

I had to smile as I read this. It reminded me of why I am a Franciscan and, as much as I admire the brothers of Gethsemani, why I am definitely not a Trappist. And for that final gift of clarity, I am grateful.

“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.” – Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (1955) 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


Lessons from Gethsemani Abbey – Part I, A Week In Silence

A week ago I returned from Gethsemani Abbey in northern Kentucky. In between the two rounds of 14 hours of interstate grind to and from the abbey, a friend and I had spent a week-long self-directed silent retreat at the Trappist Monastery (Order Cistercians Strict Observance, OCSO), the monastery made famous by modern mystic Thomas Merton.

The office of None (Ninth Hour, 3 PM)
Gethsemani postcard; all other images here taken during my week at the Abbey

In the week that has ensued since departing Gethsemani, I find myself still hearing the soft, melodic voices of the Gethsemani monks as they sing their liturgical hours in unison. There is something tremendously calming and profoundly holy about Gregorian chant. The monks mark the liturgical hours which begin at 3 AM matins and continue through 7:30 PM compline. That service concludes with a blessing by the Abbot who sprinkles each of the monks and retreatants with holy water one by one.

The Trappists literally sing their way through all 150 of the Psalms within a two week period.  The explanation we were offered for this in the once weekly information session given by a retired priest from Florida was that these were the prayers that Jesus prayed to his Father and thus the monks enter into that prayer through their sung services throughout the monastic day. While that may or may not be terribly historically accurate, it is a comforting thought that the monks and their guests may well be engaging in a form of worship which Jesus would have at least recognized.

I can see why Thomas Merton would have found this place ideal for the solitary meditative life he led there. The daily schedule offers structure for lives like Merton’s which had previously been chaotic and, at times, self-destructive. The manual labor required of all monks (the monastery has historically been a producer of wonderful cheeses, fruitcakes and chocolates) is grounding and helps provide the stability which is one of the marks of the order. The liturgical hours and Eucharistic celebrations offer opportunities for creative expression in liturgy and music. The settings for the chants are largely original to the abbey as is the pattern of bell ringing from the abbey tower marking the hours.

Gethsemani Abbey

The Abbey is a multistory brick structure with confusing passages and stairwells that connect the buildings constructed and reconstructed over the 167 year history of the Cistercian order there in Kentucky. A few of the areas are cordoned off to protect the privacy of brothers who strictly observe the rule of silence and require all guests to do the same. Surrounding the abbey are the rolling hills punctuated by rounded, wooded peaks called knobs and cultivated fields of soybeans and corn.

It seems we had come at a particularly propitious time for the Abbey. This year is the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth and his legacy is alive and well at the abbey particularly in its museum and bookstore. It was also the week in which the 900th anniversary of the founding of the Cistercian Order by Bernard of Clairvaux was celebrated.

Sleeping Disciples, Jonathan Daniels Memorial, Gethsemani

In the woods across the road from the Abbey atop a medium grade hill just beyond the small reservoir which supplies the Abbey with part of its water, there is an incredible set of sculptures which commemorates the events in the Garden of Gethsemane from the Gospels. Jesus’ disciples slumber collectively in one graceful dark granite sculpture which points toward the top of the hill several feet away where a powerful stone depiction of a Jesus agonizing over his rapidly approaching encounter with his Roman executioners is to be found.

“His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”

The sculptures were the gifts of the family of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young Episcopal seminarian who had been slain in Mississippi during the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Daniels had died protecting a black woman who was simply seeking to enter a grocery store to buy food when she was attacked by a white racist man wielding a shotgun. Daniels pushed the woman out of the way and took the brunt of the blast which killed him instantly. His feast day had just been celebrated on the Episcopal Church’s calendar the preceding week.

Whispered Insights Arising from Silence

A week in silence at a monastery is a good opportunity to check in with oneself, to explore one’s inner depths and to consider whatever insights may arise. It would be hard to do justice to this week of meditative silence, liturgical worship and walking the woods with my friend and fellow priest, Dale Truscott, who generously agreed to make the
drive to the abbey. But here are a few thoughts that emerged for me over the week.

1. Silence is a gift. -  If you ever want to assess how much noise we all endure as a matter of course in our daily lives, go to a place where silence is the rule and distractions such as cell phones, internet, television and radio are largely eliminated. By the morning of the second day, I was suddenly aware of how light I felt not having to endure the onslaught of noise that most of us see as the expectable background to our daily lives.
The abbey provided some written guidelines for retreatants in their rooms. Among the guidelines was the following:

            A retreat here at the abbey is meant to provide two important things:

            1. A sharing in the monastic liturgy

            2. The elements of silence and solitude so as to be open to God in a 
                particular way that is not always available in the world today.

It is important to allow others that space and silence they need to be open to God and to receive those graces he may wish to give. If you came with people      allow   them their silent space. Leave them alone so that they may be with God. You have them year round. Allow God to have them for a few days on his own.

A gentle reminder from the monks

There is much to be said about this. So much of what passes for prayer is spent in talking at the divine. Somehow we seem to believe that G-d needs our constant reminders to do G-d’s job as we would see fit. On a good day, praying for our own needs provides an opportunity for reflection and distinction between our needs and our wants. I also am clear that praying for the needs of the others and the needs of our world are helpful for drawing us out of our native myopic and egocentric tendencies to engage the world.

But what is usually lost in that transaction is any ability to actually hear what our lives, our depths, our very Spirit may be trying to tell us.  It’s pretty hard to hear any responses of any kind when we are constantly engaged in talking. Indeed, might our non-stop talking signal a fear of actually hearing what might come to us?

Merton’s abbey has reinforced a recognition that has been dawning on me over the past two years of gradual withdrawal from active life in academia that I not only need silence to lead any kind of quality life, I actually crave it. In all honesty, for a once screaming Extrovert who now tests out near the dead center of the E/I scale in the recently discovered land of Ambiverts, I admit that I find this somewhat puzzling. But I also know that when these assessments ask me whether I enjoy time alone in silence with only my own company, I inevitably find myself checking the “strongly agree” box.

That is a major sea change for me. But what I realized at the Abbey is that the silence I find myself craving is not a given. Silence was very intentional at Gethsemani and implicitly but effectively enforced. If I want silence in my life, and, increasingly I find that I do, I must be intentional about it. For that insight, I am grateful to an order of monks whose order bears words that historically would have sent me running away screaming: Cistercians of the Strict Observance.

2. Solitude is a gift – Maintaining silence often requires being alone. Most of my life I have felt the need, even the compulsion, to be with others most, if not all, of the time. Sometimes my need for others was due to fear of my surroundings. Feeling threatened as I did during my younger days of teaching in a hostile rural school district made being alone intolerable and ultimately insured that my tenure teaching there was brief. The constant challenge of my expertise, my ethics and my very person during my days as an attorney made my need for supportive company an ongoing concern.

Now at what may well be the end of my full-time working career I find that I feel little threat from any source. My home, rebuilt after destruction by a hurricane, is secure and paid off along with all my other debts. I no longer need to justify my existence to academic bureaucrats, ecclesial authorities or judges in courtrooms. My person is no longer under attack and thus I feel little need for constant supportive company.

Making the journey in solitude

What has surprised me in the lifting of these existential sieges endured during my various careers is that for the first time in my life I find I actually like my own company. I enjoy time alone and increasingly find it absolutely necessary to reflect upon the considerations which now occupy my attention. It is increasingly important to me to have time uninterrupted by concerns for online course technologies failing, unhappy student consumers or commuting and campus parking surprises encountered without warning. I have come to begrudge interruptions from UPS delivery people, the neighbors’ yard services and even the sad ghetto kids peddling everything from candy to household cleaners, trying to win trips to Disneyworld.

For while solitude is a gift, it never a given. It is necessary to cultivate solitude, to resist the temptation to distract myself with any number of online sites from weather radars to Facebook.  It is also a struggle to discern when enough solitude has been engaged, when it’s time to leave the house and engage the world if only to go to the grocery store.  For the realization of the need to work to create and preserve the gift of solitude, I am grateful.

He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul

3. Being Kind to Brother Ass – Bernard of Clairvaux lived in a time of great ferment among Europe’s religious orders. While the Cistercians were a reform movement within the much older Benedictines, Bernard’s contemporaries included Francis of Assisi of whose Franciscan order I am a tertiary professed member.

Franciscan theology has always struggled to provide a creation positive alternative to the ascetic, world denying theology of the middle ages which saw the body largely in negative – if not evil – terms. Christianity has never completely shaken off its Platonic dualistic roots here which privileges the spiritual realm of the Ideal while seeing the material realm and especially the body as the prison for the spirit, a burden to ultimately be transcended.

As Francis of Assisi was dying, his hands were bleeding from the stigmata he had received, his eyes blind from the cauterization employed to seal open sores possibly contracted from the lepers among whom Francis lived, served, his poor body completely given out after a brief lifetime of relentless hard work. Francis was only 44 when he died, well short of the life expectancy anyone from his social status could have expected. As he took his final breaths, Francis felt compelled to apologize to his body. Reflecting the medieval aversion to the body, Francis called it Brother Ass, probably because it had proved so recalcitrant to being constantly denied and denigrated.

Francis was able to see the divine everywhere he looked in the good creation – except in the mirror

Perhaps it was an epiphany for Francis who was so able to see the divine everywhere he looked in the good creation - except in the mirror. Yet, the good creation Francis loved included the body which housed his noble spirit, a body which bore the image of G-d. As he lay dying, Francis begged the pardon of poor Brother Ass. Had he been able to do it again, he might well have treated his own body a bit more generously.

Perhaps Francis is not alone in that concern. A good bit of my time at the Abbey was spent in bed. Wakened periodically by the bells ringing just outside my room, I read from Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, the work of one of Merton’s novices at the abbey, James Finley, only to find myself repeatedly drifting off to sleep.

What began to occur to me is that I had come to the abbey exhausted. But I also realized that since arriving I my caffeine intake had been restricted to a cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of iced tea at lunch. Moreover, I had no wine to numb the pain at the end of a long, driven day.

My body was relaxing. But how long had it waited to do so? How driven had it been prior to that point, unable to register its suffering? And to what end?

“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak“

I think I should not wait until the end of my mortal days to apologize to a Brother Ass I have neglected and abused. If I am going to live a life of reflection, writing, and productive engagement of the world, I am going to need to give Brother Ass his due. For that insight, I am grateful to my time at the Abbey.


Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)