I’ve been reading about the New Monastics, especially those in the United Kingdom. It may be that anyone with the name MacLeod who comes from Scotland catches my eye, but I thought that I might share a bit of his writings. George MacLeod founded the Iona Community, an ecumenical monastic community in Scotland.
The Royal Road?
When the Church got enmeshed in a pagan state after Constantine in the third century, the best among the Christians fled from so much materialism. Unfortunately they left that frying pan to land in the fire. They went to the deserts of Egypt and met the streams of mysticism that rooted from the Eastern faiths with their denial of the body. And from that contact grew up a form of mysticism alien to the incarnation faith which, none the less like ivy, battened on the pristine oak, and still enmeshes our idea of holiness. They introduced the Via Negativa: the way of interior denial. Unfortunately. the Via Negativa cuts dead actors the Emmaus Road.
It is in this uneasy situation that we come, from the little books on spirituality, to suppose that the prayer life is a series of rarefied spiritual exercises, if by any means we can attain. We must, they say, go through what the mystics called the purgative experience, forcing from our minds what is unclean. We must then be open to the illuminative experience lest seven devils enter into the heart made clean. Finally, if we practise enough. we may be granted the unitive experience when in a selfless stillness we know ourselves in the Presence.
They are daunting instructions. Laboriously followed, we have known them to lead on to what seemed like an achievement when, usually, on turning to the next stage in expectation, the instructor warns us that what we feel we have experienced is certainly bogus!
That such experiences, in more disciplined obedience, have some validity it would be blasphemous to deny. But I am convinced that few have the psychic capacity for such flights. I dare the further claim that such excursions are not even the royal road to holiness within the Christian dispensation, though we may be sure they arc paths accepted by the Father of our Lord.
Yet how many earthbound mortals have departed almost completely from a serious prayer life because they thought such the essence of prayer, and are benumbed by their failure to attain. Again, and it is here that I question it as the royal road, how many who genuinely attain in fact keep on that knife-edge of practical obligation that is the urgent need of our time? So delectable, if demanding, is the exercise that they are apt to cut off the telephone when a whole world is trying to get through to them in the extremity of our need. None the less, it is these whom we are inclined to suppose are the truly religious, or the really spiritual.
I have to wonder if the New Monastics haven’t preemptively abandoned society… I admit that their notion of the gods of consumerism is appealing, but in reading some of the modern writings, they seem to live seeing only despair.