Friday, February 06, 2009

The Artist's Life as a Kind of Monasticism

Courtesy of Mark Vernon, and his sculptor friend Guy Reid,here's a quote from Thomas Merton:

Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such a haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity.

This speaks against the constant rush and acceleration of daily life, not only art. The century continues to accelerate; connections continue to be tied more tightly into knots; we all know more than we used to, but it's also shallower than it used to be; we all have massive amounts of raw data to hand, and no time to interpret or evaluate any of it. Life moves ever faster for most people, driven by technology and communications and the manifest activation of Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere and Marshall McLuhan's global village. Perhaps life moves ever faster especially for those who choose to move with the social or political whirls; the news-stream becomes their caffeinated fuel.

But the increasing speed of life guarantees neither depth nor wisdom. In fact, acceleration tends to lead to skimming: shallow perception of quantity, rather than slowed perception of quality. What happens to quality of life when the dominant cultural message is about quantity; specifically, consumer quantity? As every monastic knows, the path of contemplation leads to richness; and it is better achieved by minimalism and reduced means. The world and the world's trials can all be found in the monk's cell, where you have no option but to confront your own true self, without distraction. In the same way, there's a saying in Aikido that the mat is the world: all of life's issues appear on the mat, in the dojo.

And now my own life is slowed down, by circumstance, choice, and events. I've had no choice, at times, but to slow down; but it's a choice I've made before in life, even before I was forced to. I once lived for two years without a home telephone; which forever cured me of the urge to always rush to answer, especially in these days of anytime, anywhere cellphone conversations that most people seem to do without thinking.

I'd rather live a simpler life than one that means I have to juggle several plates in the air all at once. I'd rather have more time to do what I want to do, which is mostly to be creative daily, and less money that I don't have time to spend, only time to earn. The truth is, I was forced to slow down partly by chronic illness; one whose chief side effect in debilitating tiredness; I doubt I could work at a high-pressure fast-paced many-hours-a-week job anymore, my body just isn't up to it. When I chafe at that circumstance, it's because of financial fear, not because I'm restless to work at a job I don't want to do anyway. When I can calm the financial worry, I find myself very much at peace about my slower pace of life.

I would be lying if I said I'd never thought about the monastic life. I have, more than once. What holds me back is the obedience to the established rule of an established order: I would no doubt chafe, and would no doubt become an anti-authoritarian troublemaker. I've thought being a lay brother at a monastery. I've made retreats at two or three different orders' houses. I live alone for now, and I like the silence and solitude a great deal. I like being able to follow a monk's daily discipline, but with the flexibility to vary the details of my daily practice.

So I think also of Marsha Sinetar's essential book Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics. Sinetar writes in her Introduction:

I call the monk one who had detached emotionally from a known, familiar and comfortable way of life in order to embark on an uncharted inner journey. The monk responds to an inner call, reinterprets his/her basic way of being in the world—which might include reinterpreting the way s/he relates to others, work, marriage, Church or other organizational status, and even includes a renewed definition of self and his/her basic place in the scheme of things.

And I mean more: I use the term monk without reference to gender, material statuls, occupation, or place of residence, and with full knowledge that some I'd call monks would not, and do not in fact, call themselves "monk." . . . I simply needed a word which embraced the imagery of silence, the dignity and obedience that automatically accompanies those who embark on an inner journey, whatever route that may take, whatever the costs.


Sinetar's book contains a lot of practical wisdom, mostly expressed by example rather than theory. Before the current wave of interest in voluntary simplicity, before the urge to slow down began to manifest as a grass-roots movement, Sinetar was interviewing and describing people who had already chosen the path of lifework as contemplation. Some of them lived off the grid, in more or less monastic solitude; others lived and worked in the hearts of cities, holding down high=pressure jobs, but their attitude towards life and work was a monk's attitude. One of contemplative engagement with the work; one of detachment.

I also think of the great avant-garde saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, who was asked not too long before he died, now that he had achieved a pinnacle of creative, artistic and financial success, what did he want to do next? Coltrane answered simply: I want to become a saint. He took his time about it, and I think he achieved that goal.

Thomas Merton had much more to say on art, being a writer and photographer himself. He was a good photographer, although he was not known as one till after he died. He borrowed cameras from friends, and went through film roll after roll. He was friends with a couple of professional photographers who lived near the monastery, and who both encouraged his explorations in their medium, but also gave him creative feedback. Some of Merton's most lucid photographs are simple, plain images of brilliant afternoon light falling on the simple, plain objects in his hermitage in the Kentucky hills. Some of his most memorable photos are snapshots of the Spirit in repose or in motion. The best photos contain a great stillness. One can well imagine Merton taking his time, looking first, before making a photograph. He looked, he saw, he composed, and then he took the photo. As Minor White said about his own often very spiritual photography: No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.

So, a few more Thomas Merton quotes now. Spirit also stood still long enough for Merton to sketch its likeness into words.

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.

Do not depend on the hope of results. . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to that you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Guy Reid said...

I thought people might like to read this related comment by the writer and concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl, writing on the success of his book 'Man's Search for Meaning'.

'Don't aim at success-the more you aim at it, the more you make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself....'

Take note all artists for your own sanity.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Guy. A relevant and valuable quote, indeed. Frankl is someone whose books deserve to be re-discovered at this point; there's a lot of wisdom in there.

9:52 AM  

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