Face to Face with the Sham

“After all, some of the basic themes of the existentialism of Heidegger, laying stress as they do on the ineluctable fact of death, on man’s need for authenticity, and on a kind of spiritual liberation, can remind us that the climate in which monastic prayer flourished is not altogether absent from our modern world.  Quite the contrary: this is an age that, by its very nature as a time of crisis, of revolution, of struggle, calls for the special searching and questioning which are the work of the monk in his meditation and prayer. For the monk searches not only his own heart: he plunges deep into the heart of that world of which he remains a part although he seems to have ‘left’ it.  In reality the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from its inner depth.

This is why the term ‘contemplation’ is both insufficient and ambiguous when it is applied to the highest forms of Christian prayer.  Nothing is more foreign to authentic monastic and ‘contemplative’ (e.g. Carmelite) tradition in the Church than a kind of Gnosticism which would elevate the contemplative above the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevate him to a privileged state among the spiritually pure, as if he were almost an angel, untouched by matter and passion, and no longer familiar with the economy of sacraments, charity and the Cross.  The way of monastic prayer is not a subtle escape from the Christian economy of incarnation and redemption. It is a special way of following Christ, of sharing in his passion and resurrection and in his redemption of the world. For that very reason the dimensions of prayer in solitude are those of man’s ordinary anguish, his self-searching, his moments of nausea at his own vanity, falsity and capacity for betrayal. Far from establishing one in unassailable narcissistic security, the way of prayer brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the ‘consolation of prayer’ for its own sake.  This ‘self’ is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or madness.

On the other hand, we must admit that social life, so-called ‘worldly life,’ in its own way promotes this illusory and narcissistic existence to the very limit.  The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more ‘bearable’ because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes – and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine Christian self-forgetfulness.  But underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self-questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life. This self-questioning can never be without a certain existential ‘dread’ – a sense of insecurity, of ‘lostness,’ of exile, of sin.  A sense that one has somehow been untrue not so much to abstract moral or social norms but to one’s own inmost truth.”