Stepping outside

Daily Reading for September 5

Monasticism tells us something important about the structure of our humanity. Almost every single one of the major world traditions has developed some form of coenobitic life. Just as some people—at all times and in all cultures—have felt impelled to become dancers, poets, or musicians, others are irresistibly drawn to a life of silence and prayer. . . .

The monastic life demands a kind of death—the death of the ego that we feed so voraciously in secular life. We are, perhaps, biologically programmed to self-preservation. Even when our physical survival is not in jeopardy, we seek to promote ourselves, to make ourselves liked, loved, and admired; display ourselves to best advantage; and pursue our own interests—often ruthlessly. But this self-preoccupation, all the world religions tell us, paradoxically holds us back from our best selves. Many of our problems spring from thwarted egotism. We resent the success of others; in our gloomiest, most self-pitying moments, we feel uniquely mistreated and undervalued; we are miserably aware of our shortcomings. In the world outside the cloister, it is always possible to escape such self-dissatisfaction: we can phone a friend, pour a drink, or turn on the television. But the religious has to face his or her pettiness twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves—incrementally, slowly, and imperceptibly. Once a monk has transcended his ego, he will experience an alternative mode of being. It is an ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the confines of self.

From Karen Armstrong’s Introduction to A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor (New York Review of Books, 1982).

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