Is this love?

Posted by HC in Celibacy / Monasticism / Spirituality on 24 January 2009

I have spent a couple of months looking after old monks. It may surprise you to know that some of these holy old men are smelly, scruffy and sweary – just like their secular brothers.

So far as I can see, old men are the same whether they’ve spent a life in prayer or in banking. Obviously, some of them become ga-ga, and then – to be frank – their childhood years and memories are much more clear in their heads than the long decades they spent in psalmody. Even the most compus mentus of the old seem more direct than younger people are, and more direct than they used to be when they remembered that being circumspect is necessary whether in monasteries or businesses.

As piles or teeth or arthritic limbs caused them gyp, my elderly charges quite often muttered an audible and often quite basic Anglo-Saxon curse, and it was a pleasure to hear them do so.

It is a bit of problem to know whether the very nearly daft can be spiritual. Certainly, I have seen lots of courage and a lot more to admire in old monks as they face death. But I’ve seen wonderful quality in secular men and women too. But I am not clear which were the more spiritual. I think spirituality is a matter of living life (as Thoreau might have said) in a deliberate way. That takes mental strength.

It was always doubtful to me that the old promise of monasticism could honestly be made in our time. The old idea was that monasteries “were hard places to live, easy places to die”. It was presumed that a monastic life could be a sort of guarantee that unpleasantness and penitence now would be rewarded by a quick march into heaven. One of the reasons I left my monastery all those years ago was that I had great difficulty with both sides of this deal: I didn’t believe we had to do special suffering here and now to guarantee speedy bliss in the here-after.

I don’t, by the way, believe that these old boys wasted their lives by staying in the monastery I abandoned. I still believe that a life of prayer is valuable.

Did I love these old men? I am not sure that I did. But then, I am an ex-monk. I am not any more engaged on a mission to love the world. I am pretty happy to have done at least some of my duty, as I perceive it.

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