Simplicity and Terror

The following excerpt is from Douglas Burton-Christie‘s “Simplicity, or the Terror of Belief: The Making and Unmaking of the Self in Early Christian Monasticism,” Cistercian Quarterly Review 40.4 (2005). Too often, as Professor Burton-Christie says, we dismiss the monastic ideal of simplicity as “a first order naïveté or credulity devoid of subtlety or depth,” when it is really a “simple openness” only received after deep personal struggle:

“We have acquired a dark house full of war,” says Antony in one of his letters. This ominous declaration captures accurately Antony’s sense of the general condition of human beings caught in sin. But it also describes with haunting pathos his (and so many other monks’) experience of being so intensely vulnerable to the subtle and debilitating power of “the devils and their disciples … [who],” he says, “sow in our hearts every day … their hardness of heart and their numbness.” Antony also bemoans “the many sufferings they bring us at every hour, the weariness which causes our hearts to be weary at all times.” Nor does Antony give any comfort to those who wish to live with the illusion that these demonic forces are somehow distant from us, not part of us. “We are their bodies,” says Antony, “and our soul receives their wickedness; and … then it reveals them through the body in which we dwell.” It would be hard to imagine a more difficult, entangled, compromised existence than this. And yet this is precisely the character of the monks’ existence.

Not that this is the only thing that can be said about their existence. Early Christian monastic tradition testifies everywhere to the belief in the possibility of liberation from the demonic forces at work in the world and in the depth of the soul. This was part of the monks’ immense appeal to their contemporaries: they were seen to have achieved, through Christ, a real freedom from the tenacious assaults of the demons and an authority over them. We catch a glimpse of this in the story related in Palladius’ Lausiac History of a demon, who, struggling for mastery over a certain Abba Paul, ultimately succumbs, crying out: “O violence! I am carried off! The simplicity of Paul drives me out! Where shall I go?” Yet one should not imagine that such freedom or simplicity – which is so often construed as mere naïveté – came cheaply. It did not. For the early monastic tradition also testified continuously to the withering cost of opening oneself to the ascetic path, and to the ultimately fruitfulness of this path in the life of the ascetic and for the larger community. Simplicity in this view can hardly be understood, as it so often has been understood, as the “path of least resistance,” or as a way of being that admits of few or no challenges. Nor can it be understood as solipsistic or narcissistic. If by simplicity we mean instead, as I believe the early monks meant, simple openness, an openness that exposes the ascetic to everything, that invites him or her to hide from nothing that may emerge from within or without, then our entire perception of this ideal changes.

… Perhaps it is like the exchange between the two monks I remember from an old New Yorker cartoon. They sit side by side in the lotus position, the young monk with a look of barely concealed bewilderment on his face, the old monk, wizened and impassive. The younger monk has apparently just asked the old monk a question, something we realize by the old monk’s reply. “Nothing happens next,” he tells the younger monk. “This is it.”

Perhaps in the end, it is just that simple. And yet even this exchange, ironic and playful, suggests something immensely complex and challenging that corresponds to what the early Christian monks knew so well from their own practice: that the meaning of our experience, including our experience of ourselves and our experience of God, is not always comprehensible to us. This too must be relinquished. It seems unlikely that the young Antony, setting out on the ascetic path, had any idea of this. Nor it is easy to guess at whether he would still have set out along the way had he known. There is grace in that initial impulse to leave everything behind for the sake of God, the grace of simplicity and purity as yet uncomplicated by the testing that will follow. But this is only the first gesture, the initial step. To continue walking into the desert, as Antony did, is to move deeper and deeper into a place of unknowing. It is to become lost to oneself, a bewildering and terrifying experience, but one somehow necessary to the mysterious process of being remade in God.

Only the closest of Antony’s friends witnessed his terrifying struggle in solitude, his reduction to a condition of utter helplessness. But many more came to know the person who emerged from that space of desolation. And that person was capable of holding and tending to so much – he emerged from his long solitude as a healer, someone capable of reconciling those who had become estranged from one another, a person able to encourage those lost in grief or despondency, a bearer of compassion. There is real simplicity in this. But it is the simplicity of wholeness, not exclusion or fragmentation. Born of suffering, of self-emptying, it is simple in the way love can be simple, ever expanding, ever deepening, capable of holding everything and everyone.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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