By Father Dave Denny
Three months after my ordination, my community gave me a gift: I attended a seminal conference called “Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Archetype,” in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1980, sponsored by the North American Board for East-West Dialogue, whose work is carried on today by Monastic Interreligious Dialogue. Raimon Panikkar was the main speaker.
I was in awe of the attendees. Dr. Ewert Cousins was there from Fordham. Bro. David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B., attended and first told us about Crestone, Colorado, where we eventually moved our monastery. Cistercian Fr. Basil Pennington, who helped launch the Centering Prayer movement with Fr. Thomas Keating was there, as was visionary architect Paolo Soleri. I remember lunching with Kenneth Woodward, then religion editor for Newsweek magazine.
Panikkar’s presence dazzled me. I was 26 years old and had never met anyone whose intellect and experience had absorbed so much. Even with his grasp of several languages, he often struggled to express his insights. He’d say things such as, “Greek and Latin do not have an adequate word for what I want to say. It is similar to the Pali ‘w’ or the Sanskrit ‘x,’ and yet it needs to be tempered with the subtlety of the Chinese ‘y’ and at the same time incorporate the Hebrew ‘z.’”
I could not follow the vocabulary, but his body language, his infectious smile, his expressive hands and shock of thick black hair made him spellbinding. We have doctors without borders. Panikkar was a person without borders—body, mind, spirit. This was the kind of witness and wisdom for which I hungered.
When I discovered Thomas Merton in college, I discovered a way of being Christian that need not offend or threaten members of another religion. That’s what Panikkar embodied. He made me thrill to the notion that although Christ brings miraculous Good News, and our grasp of this revelation is “adequate for salvation,” we are still stunningly limited. Christian tradition draws on and is limited by Hebrew, Greek, and Latin cultures and languages. How can someone as radiant and liberating as Christ be so historically, culturally, linguistically, racially limited?
We grew up learning that we needed to convert the pagans. Why? Because they are evil or ignorant? Surely some practices need changing and taboos at least questioned and challenged. But Panikkar persuaded me. He helped lead me to trust my intuition that Jesus is essential, yes, but not as the Truth that drives out other traditions as if they were demonic, but the humble Truth that lives, grows, expands, recognizes and integrates the good, true, and beautiful from every corner of the earth. Christ is the Alpha through whom all is created. The Christian community is organic, alive, and capable of mutual cross-fertilization: changing other traditions through contact, and being changed. The fear of contamination may give way to the amazement of cross-fertilizing fruitfulness. Adherence to a closed, petrified revelation may give way to the kind of development John Henry Cardinal Newman began to articulate. For him, the Church must change in order to remain identical with herself, as an acorn needs to germinate and send out roots and limbs, leaves and new fruit in order to fulfill its end. It cannot do so without contact with sunlight, rain, and earth, none of which contaminate, all of which, in proper doses, nourish.
In recent years, some younger colleagues here in North America, Adam Bucko, Rory McEntee, and Netanel Miles-Yépez, have adopted Panikkar’s book, Blessed Simplicity: The Monk as Archetype, based on the conference, as a seminal work in their quest for what they call “new monasticism.” Recently I remembered visiting Fr. Panikkar at his home in Tavertet, Catalonia, a few years before he died. So I returned to the book and found myself enkindled again with hope. More than thirty years later, the seeds planted by that initial encounter were bearing fruit. I was surprised at my delight because since leaving a monastery I lived in for three decades, I have thought of my life as “post-monastic.” I’m not in a formal community, and I don’t want to be.
But as I reread Panikkar’s distinction between the monk as a professional living in an exclusive community and the monastic archetype at the center of human beings, I trust more confidently my strange path from exchange student in Afghanistan, Buddhist trainee, and ordained priest, to my present life as a Catholic Carmelite hermit on a Colorado cattle ranch, traveling monthly to raise funds for Cross Catholic Outreach, in service to the poor. Through the Desert Foundation, my colleague Tessa Bielecki and I accept the quixotic folly of praying and writing about healing between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah. We believe that once we encounter the “desert,” physically or internally, through loss of beloved prejudices or beloved family, friends, and loves, we suffer an expansion that makes us hunger for a deeper communion with a larger community. We are a different kind of “monk.”
Panikkar affirms what William McNamara, founder of the Spiritual Life Institute and my former mentor, proclaimed: the contemplative is not a special kind of person; everyone is a special kind of contemplative. One may substitute “monk” or “mystic” for “contemplative,” and the principle holds. The relationship with God, or as Paul Tillich put it, an Ultimate Concern, is inescapable. It’s why we get up in the morning. It may not be a pious “ultimate.” It could be lucre or power, revenge, intoxication, or fame. Or circumstances may have limited us to survival: food may be my ultimate concern when my family is starving.
The spiritual path, the monastic search, is a determined, disciplined passion to find the burning sun eclipsed by all these lunar “pen-ultimates,” concerns that, if we make them ultimates, become idols that enslave us. Maybe I’m just a deluded throwback. Maybe human maturity means letting go of the infantile fantasy of deification and accepting that we are trivial organisms driven by attraction and repulsion in a vast chemical reaction. Tempting. But I keep hearing Walker Percy saying “What about meaning?” Helen Keller puts her hand beneath a stream of cold running water and pronounces a word, “water!” and the universe opens up. When we transcend pain and pleasure, attraction and repulsion, meaning erupts. We cry out in wonder. It may include both joy and sorrow. It is paradoxical. It plants the suspicion that our destiny may be different from an amoeba.
“Inasmuch as we try to unify our lives around the center, all of us have something of the monk in us,” Panikkar claimed. And here comes the paradox: this center is immanent in us, while also incomplete, unattained. It is transcendent. As the mystics put it, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves while at the same time infinitely beyond. We travel along this thread of self-discovery that leads us both inward and outward: an exploration into God, as British playwright Christopher Frye put it.
This anthropological approach implies that before we are Animist or Zoroastrian or Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, or Christian, we are “monastic.” “If this is the case, then monkhood is not the monopoly of the few, but a human wellspring which is either being channeled in different degrees of purity and awareness by different people or thwarted altogether.”
Panikkar suggests that Western monasticism emphasizes the transcendent within. This calls the monk “out” into the world, to teach or preach, to serve and enliven the “secular” world. Eastern monasticism emphasizes the immanent within. This draws the monk to become more “acosmic” because he or she gradually discovers that there is nothing to do. All is well in the heart of the universe, and we already participate in that Heart.
The rest of the conference explored these dynamics. These themes still fascinate me today, and the New Monastics have inherited Panikkar’s longing to integrate wisdom from religious traditions that developed in isolation from each other, or in opposition. They seek a way of life that honors the monastic impulse in a world where the separation of “sacred” and “profane” no longer makes sense. Even the best of the old languages and traditions cannot articulate our current experience. With Panikkar, we reach for words no one has yet uttered. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it, the virtue of Christ has passed into matter, affirming that matter is already sacred, as are work, politics, sex, the environment, and art. These are not “secular” or “profane” realities. We need not flee “the world” in order to find peace, wisdom, the sacred. There are not two domains, of “sacred” and “profane.” There is only the sacred and the desecrated. The New Monastics are pioneering a way of life that honors this truth and seeks monastic practices drawn from the world’s wisdom traditions, in the hope that the cross-fertilization may yield nourishing fruit for people hungry for Life. Maybe they’re a little mad, aiming to infuse our corrupted institutions with the reverence, stillness, kindness, generosity, and wisdom that we used to consider weak and inappropriate in the “real” world of competition, self-interest, and power. But, as Nikos Kazantzakis claimed, we all need a little madness. It’s the grain of salt that keeps good sense from rotting.