Monday, March 15, 2010

Comment on NYT articles on Contemplatives--personal statement replying to Ross Douthat

by Peter Menkin

This article from “The New York Times” (NYT) was noted on a list read by this writer. Here is an editorial comment of a more personal kind to The Times piece, found here under the title Mass Market Epiphany on a NYT blog.

The article by ROSS DOUTHAT published March, 2010, starts:
Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.

This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion ­ the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.
This writer’s notations and comment for Ross Douthat posted originally as an email:
Are we contemplatives coming into fashion, for here is an article that is backward compliment for contemplatives?
I suppose the literary world's preoccupation with confessional and personal experience also jars with the quiet, even private though community practice of the contemplative life, and continues at odds with contemplation. Religion is not in fashion, but contemplation, so the article implies—saying really both should be. Narcissi are not a real or valued element of the contemplative way for union with God. Ours is a self involved American way, and maybe we should say, Tch, Tch.
The contemplative way is a life of surrender, and individualism is not a road to surrender. Not as I understand it.
I am happy to see the conversation by article in The New York Times and will look at the paper itself to see the comments.
The contemplative life is not just about union with God, alone, as in everything mystical. It is a form of being, and though the mystical may be sought or practiced by many, to a great degree it is a whole way of life, of seeing the world. The life with God is not solo, per se.
There is a photograph I've got on my computer by amateur photographer Henry Worthy, Oblate, who lives in London, of a woman standing gazing away from the camera on what is a spring day. She is looking at a field of flowers. She is seeing the world, and it is being done in God's presence with a sense of his presence. I call this the sense of creation. God is creator.
Again, the work of Arthur Poulin, a Camaldolese Priest and Monk makes in his painting work contemplative statement, even call it reality. I call this vision. Father Arthur lives and works in Berkeley, California at Incarnation Monastery. His work is found at the I. Wold gallery in St. Helena, Napa, County. They are also found at Immaculate Heart Hermitage, Big Sur, California.
So as I dare to make these remarks as comment to the article, and I am glad for Ross Douthat’s posting, I guess the writer knows little about the Camaldolese Oblate witness. For the number of these Benedictine Oblates was small when I began about 16 or so years ago; now there are so many more: Maybe 500 or so.
My point is that this is a lot of contemplatives, and they are in the world, being a light to the world and a presence for good. If I am right in recollecting, there have not at any time in history that great a number of contemplatives, but the writer's point is broader. He suggests there be a more serious exercise in religion, an inspired one. As for me, Christ is inspiration as Christ is truth. The heart is moved.
To go on, we are in America so distracted a society, a society that is individualistic and seeks diversion and distraction, that it is likely that the writer Ross Douthat's thesis is even more genuine. Note cell phones and their ubiquity.
I think it would be enough if more people said, felt, and sought God in a sense that they began to recognize that God loves them. For God does love them. For me, this is an important recognition, not Epiphany, for that this is a friendly universe is a helpful starting point for a larger faith. I think Mr. Douthat is asking that we all seek a larger faith. Is that not to a degree what Lent is about, a return and seeking larger faith. We look towards Easter.
From The Times…
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for He is the author of "Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class" (Hyperion, 2005) and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" (Doubleday, 2008). He is the film critic for National Review. A native of New Haven, Conn., he now lives in Washington, D.C.
Image (1) Photo of monks at Communion by Henry Worthy. (2) Photo of woman at contemplation by Henry Worthy. (3) Painting "Radiant Light" by Father Arthur Poulin, OSB Camaldolese. (4) Ross Douthat by Susan Etheridge for The New York Times.

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