Up to our necks in Augustine

Posted by on Sep 30, 2010 in Otherhood | No Comments

On Saturday the Art Monastery, a community of artists from a wide range of spiritual traditions working to apply the tools of monasticism to art-making instead of religion, will embark on a 7-day silent retreat in the Jesuit tradition, in which the primary form of activity (and inactivity) will be to read the Rule of St. Augustine, a 1,500 year old document—only about 7 pages long—written by someone who is arguably the 3rd most influential figure in Christianity (after Jesus and Paul).

Are we masochists?!

For a while, it’s been evident that monasticism is still something very other for us artmonks. Sure, we inhabit a monastery, we’ve done meditation retreats, we’ve chanted compline every night for months, and we’ve shared meals and chores and periods of silence and selective abnegation. Yet still, the monastic experience as it has existed for thousands of years remains a strangely scary and romantic, exotic creature. And yet, if we aim to concoct our own Art Monastic rule and vows, we had better know viscerally what it is we’re dealing with.

The unique combination of Jesuit exercises—at their core a form of meditative, reflective reading that unfolds into a visualization practice—and the Rule of Augustine will give us a chance to live, if only for brief moments, according to this 1,500 year-old monastic structure. Having done so, we can choose to incorporate some of the rules into our own set, or toss the whole lot out.

Why Augustine? For one thing, his rule is shorter than the others. He gets to the point. His rule is much less specific than Benedict’s.

Additionally, Augustine was hugely influential on Western monasticism as a whole in all the right ways:

[Benedict’s] sources such as John Cassian and The Master emphasize the vertical [hierarchical], whereas Benedict includes that horizontal perspective, a perspective he learned from the monastic writings of, you may be surprised to hear, Augustine—whom we always think of harshly and whom we blame for so many of the problems of modern Western Christians, not realizing that in his monastic teaching, Augustine chose a very different side of himself, and that some of Benedict’s best soundbites about pastoral sensitivity and love for one another, in fact, are stolen from Augustine. (source)

To give you a better sense of the rather daunting task we’ve set ourselves:

We’ll have as our only companion an average of 1 page of Augustine—and nothing but 1 page of Augustine—each day for seven days. Seven days, alone, with the Christian’s Christian, the ideologue’s ideologue, the dogmatist’s dogmatist. [1. One of our priest friends, who has just written his doctoral thesis on Augustine, says that Augustine never wrote a coherent, systematic theory of theology. He was usually responding, in his writing, very pragmatically to the world around him (even to atheists). The more I learn about Augustine, the more it seems like what he wrote was taken out of context in support of dogma by medieval scholars, and later served up as a comprehensive ideology by the later church. ] Seven days, alone, with the Christian Nagarjuna [2. Immediate, unscholarly parallels between the Christian philosopher born in North Africa in 354 CE, and the madhyamaka philosopher born in southern India around 150 CE: similar thoughts on the nature of time; similar thoughts on the limits of conceptual knowledge; separated in time by only a hundred or so years; similar impact on their respective growing religious movements(?)]. To me, that prospect is both frightening and fascinating.

That’s one day listening to Augustine the prude saying things like, “Although your eyes may chance to rest upon some woman or other, you must not fix your gaze upon any woman,” and another day listening to Augustine the authoritarian saying things like, “Books are to be requested at a fixed hour each day, and anyone coming outside that hour is not to receive them,” and another day listening to Augustine the zealot saying things like “Chant only what is prescribed for chant; moreover, let nothing be chanted unless it is so prescribed,” and still another day listening to Augustine the fanatic saying things like “Subdue the flesh, so far as your health permits, by fasting and abstinence from food and drink,” etc.

Our 2 teachers, both from the Jesuit tradition, have come up with a schedule that promises to be a thoroughly interesting ordeal.

Day 1. Saturday: Introduction — Informal Introductory lecture on Augustine and Ignatian meditation principles. Start Silence

Day 2: Sunday Principles of monastic life. What is your contribution to the Art Monastery as a community?

Day 3: Monday. Care for each other. What is the strength of a community?

Day 4 Tuesday. Common responsibility for each other. Common responsibility for ‘evil’

Day 5: Wednesday. Serving each other. Distribution of the duties in the community.

Day 6. Thursday. Love and conflict. The power of differences.

Day 7. Friday. Spiritual Beauty: Plotinus (the spirit of the daily life)

Day 8. Saturday. Collection of insights of the week. Evaluation.

Our daily schedule:[3. I’ll be incorporating my own practices into this schedule. In the spirit of #openpractice:

  • 6 Wake up
  • 6:45 Concentration practice
  • 7 Noting practice
  • 7:30 Self inquiry
  • 8 Morning writing
  • 9 Breakfast
  • 10 Lecture
  • 11 or so: 1st reading/visualisation meditation
  • 12 Lunch
  • Lunch – 2: Poetry
  • 2: Noting practice
  • 3-3:15 Self inquiry
  • 4: 2nd reading/visualisation meditation
  • 5:30 Convo w/ priest
  • 7 Dinner
  • 8:30 3rd reading/visualisation meditation in church w/ art expression
  • 9:30 Compline]
  • 9 Breakfast
  • 10 Lecture
  • 11 or so: 1st reading/visualisation meditation
  • 12 Lunch
  • 2 or so: 2nd reading/visualisation meditation
  • 5:30 Convo with priest
  • 7 Dinner
  • 8:30 3rd reading/visualisation meditation in church w/ art expression
  • 9:30 compline

I’ll let you know how it goes. During the retreat I’ll have this blog auto-release one chapter a day for your perusal as the Daily Lectio, which you can subscribe to here: Daily Lectio.

Here are all the readings we’ve been doing leading up to the retreat.


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