August 12, 2010

Spheres of Influence

Some time ago, I had an opportunity to do a silent five-day retreat at a Benedictine monastery. In the past, I had done long meditation retreats of a Buddhist nature, but I had never done anything in a Christian context before, so I decided I should give it a try.

The monastery, which I’ll call Our Lady of Silence, was located in the back woods of Mexico, in the middle of nowhere. The grounds were incredibly beautiful, dotted with agave and cactus, nopal and mesquite. Burros and sheep wandered across the landscape, which was so quiet you could almost hear the butterflies winging past you. Except for the occasional hum of crickets, the stillness was literally absolute.

This beauty extended to the architecture as well. The new church, cloister, and refectory were built only a few years ago, with a kind of simple, modern design that nevertheless captured the harmony of the Middle Ages, complete with wooden beams and stained glass. Seven monks and a priest constituted the permanent residents; most of them were in their late twenties. At one point, I remember looking across the table at one older monk, with his cropped hair, carefully trimmed beard, and pensive aura, and thinking that I must have seen him before, in some medieval woodcut.

Hours are observed here with great regularity: Matins at 4:30 a.m., Lauds at 6:30, mass at 7, breakfast at 8, Terce at 8:50, lunch at 1:25 p.m., Nones at 2:30, Vespers at 5:30, dinner at 6:45, Compline at 8:10. I went to Vespers every day; the chanting of the monks was so gentle, it was as though they were singing love songs, like the troubadours of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

And it was, in fact, like living during that time; really, like living in a kind of glass sphere. No outside news entered the monastery. There was no TV or radio, no newspapers or journals of any kind. I wondered if the monks knew who the current president of Mexico was, let alone of the United States.

I had brought a couple of books of a spiritual nature along with me to read, but other than that, I had decided to follow the monastic example and stay cut off from the outside world: no magazines, history books, transistor radios, or anything of the kind. As a result, the silence, and the empty space, got filled up with the contents of my psyche. Material spontaneously started drifting upward, as it were. Within two hours of arriving at the monastery I had a major breakthrough, unraveling something that I had been emotionally wrestling with for several weeks.

Two other experiences stand out. One was coming into the refectory at dinner and sitting down in front of what looked like a blue corn patty, mixed in with nopal. As I picked up my knife and fork, one of the monks slipped a CD of Ave Maria into the stereo system. The sounds filled the hall; I wavered, suddenly on the verge of tears, not able to eat for two or three minutes. (I later learned that the monks were worried I might be staging a protest against the food. The patty did, in fact, require a large dollop of salsa roja in order to liven it up.)

The second event consisted of “accidentally” locking myself out of my cell at 6:20 in the morning, on the way to the bathroom. My first reaction was: Oh dammit to hell. But then I was grateful that I was dressed and wearing clogs, and carrying a flashlight; it could have been much worse. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to put on my glasses, and I am terribly nearsighted. I also realized that this annoying event was probably not an accident: I had been embroiled in identity issues for three days now, and keys are a symbol of that. Whenever these types of issues arise for me, I typically lose my keys or wallet, or lock myself out of my car, and/or have a dream about these things. I should have known, I thought. In any case, what was there to do, in the near-freezing cold, except climb the hill up to the church and sit through Lauds and the mass? At least, I consoled myself, it was warm in the church.

I had been to mass only once before in my life, Christmas Eve 1973, at the Église St.-Séverin in Paris, a thirteenth-century structure that sits adjacent to the Sorbonne. It had been exquisite; it’s a wonder I didn’t convert to Catholicism right then and there (my complete atheism notwithstanding). The mass at the monastery was also “Parisian,” but in a rather different way: without my glasses, I couldn’t see much beyond blobs of color–an Impressionist mass, as it were. When it was over, I approached one of the monks with my problem, and he immediately got the master key and let me back into my cell.

The day before, I had been rereading one of the books I brought with me, What We May Be, by Piero Ferrucci. Ferrucci is an Italian psychotherapist, a student of Roberto Assagioli, who founded a school and technique known as Psychosynthesis. It has much in common with Jungian analysis, in fact. The section I had been reading deals with beauty:

Music [he writes] has a powerful effect on several bodily
rhythms and functions and on psychological states...neural
networks in the brain may be responsive to harmonic principles
in general. And there is such a factor within us as an “inbuilt
urge to maintain a state of intellectual and aesthetic order
and harmonic balance, essential to mental health.”
But we do not need research to know that the
magnificence of a cathedral’s rose window, the design of
Celtic manuscripts, a flower in full bloom, or the perfect
geometry of a Greek temple does not leave us unaffected.
And the moment we let ourselves be touched by beauty, that
part of us which has been badly bruised or even shattered by
the events of life may begin to be revitalized. At that moment
a true victory takes place–a victory over discouragement, a
positive affirmation against resigning ourselves to the process
of crystallization and death. That victory is also a step forward in
our growth in a very precise and literal sense, for the moment we
fully appreciate beauty we become more than we were. We live
in a moment of pure psychological health.
We effortlessly build a
stronghold against the negative pressures that life inevitably brings.
But that is not all, for all stimuli–beautiful or ugly–sink into
the unconscious, where their influence becomes less immediate,
but more powerful and pervasive....
When stimuli of the same kind are repeated a number of
times–as in the case of the 15,000 killings the average American
adolescent has seen on TV*–their effects multiply and come to
generate a real psychological climate in the inner world of the
We can be[come] exposed to what Assagioli called “psychic
smog”–the prevailing mass of free-floating psychological poisons....

Earlier I referred to the monastery as a kind of glass sphere, hermetically sealed. If it keeps out the news of the modern world, it also keeps out the garbage of that world as well. It is a sphere of harmony, of beauty, designed to bring peace to the soul. As for the modern world, in particular the America of endless violence and “psychic smog,” Ferrucci follows up the above quotation with a reference to a famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch, in which the sixteenth-century artist “depicts the damned of Hell as being enveloped by an opaque crystal ball, impeding all communication with the outside world.”

And this is, very unfortunately, a fair description of the United States. The fact is that Americans live in a kind of hologram, or glass sphere with mirroring on the inside. Literally every thought they have is on the order of a programmed response, dating from the early years of the Republic: “chosen people,” “City on a Hill,” “endless frontier,” “rugged individualism,” and so on. For more than two centuries now, the same slogans and buzzwords have bounced around inside the sphere, mirroring and confirming each other. Contradictory information–represented, for example, by the analysis of that sphere and its mental processes–is never allowed to get through in any significant way. (There are hundreds of examples of this: Noam Chomsky, William Appleman Williams, Chris Hedges, etc. etc. A recent example is Walter Hixson’s The Myth of American Diplomacy, an attack on the sphere so massive in scope, and so fundamental, that only a tiny handful of Americans would be able to read it without having a nervous breakdown. It got very few reviews.) The result is the smog or poison Assagioli talks about: a culture that is not merely stupid (and stupefied), but remarkably violent, all the while celebrating how “superior” it is to all the rest–and certainly, to some medieval throwback in the hinterland of Mexico, right? In fact, when you think about it, American society is no less hermetically sealed than the world of a medieval monastery; only the content is different.

I couldn’t help remembering a film I had seen shortly before coming to the monastery, Crossing Over, about the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its persecution of alien residents, legal as well as illegal. But it proves to be about much more than the daily activities of the ICE. By the end of the film, you realize that you have been watching an X-ray of the American soul, and you are struck dumb by how violent it is, down to its very core. Destructive as well as self-destructive, it reflects a culture in a state of fear, on its last legs, lashing out at helpless victims and imaginary enemies alike. The “toxic cloud” Don DeLillo described many years ago in his brilliant novel, White Noise, now seems to have arrived in full force. This is psychological poison at its worst (or close to it).

I left Our Lady of Silence determined to carry the silence with me into my daily life: gardening, walking, meditating more, whatever. But the key issue, of course, is not my own personal life, but the dichotomy, the problem of the two separate spheres. Very few of us are cut out to live in a monastery, after all, myself included. All beauty aside, it’s not a solution for the modern world. Yet what kind of solution–to anything–is U.S. corporate-commercial culture? That much of the world seeks to emulate it doesn’t change the fact that it amounts to little more than trash, “psychic smog” that is slowly (and sometimes rapidly) killing off its inhabitants (who nevertheless can’t seem to get enough of it). If there is a third sphere, a serious institutional alternative to these two that exists in practice, not just theory, I have yet to see it. And without that, what kind of future do we finally have?

*Written ca. 1980; we can expect that the current number is by now four or five times that amount, especially if we add in input from movies, DVD’s, computer games, and the Internet.

©Morris Berman, 2010