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Engaged Enlightenment

March 27, 2013

Years ago when I was traveling in India, I was able to finally put a name to something that always made me uneasy as I observed the various examples of 3362044364_ac9da597d9_m contemplative and monastic life. Why did this level of spiritual existence have to happen separate from the world? Why were people with spiritual discipline and enlightenment locked away in monasteries and dwelling in caves? The amount of beauty and suffering that exists side by side in India makes it an environment highly conducive to realizations. Surrounded by that crush of humanity I had to wonder, what is the purpose of seeking spiritual enlightenment if not to be of service to the world?

The election of a new pope has me thinking about this again, not because I think any big change is underway in the Catholic Church, but because there has been a lot of talk about the changes that people think need to happen, including the admission of women to the clergy and allowing clergy to marry. (not to mention the much broader social issues like the church’s stance on birth control and marriage equality, to name a few)

To me, the prohibition of priests to marry and the vows of celibacy often taken by monastics, while perhaps good for some, deprive these devotees of one of the keys to growth – relationship. So much, if not all, of our growth as humans happens in relation to others. Being in committed romantic relationships, having and raising children, learning to integrate into the extended family of another – all of these provide so much potential for emotional and spiritual learning.  I also have to wonder about the effects of denying parts of ourselves in the name of God or service. How can we model unconditional love and acceptance if we are denying our own very basic human needs and desires?

The following quote is from Robert Thurman’s “The Politics of Enlightenment”

“It is a misunderstanding to think that enlightenment is some sort of final escape from life and that the doctrine of the unsatisfactory nature of samsara obviates any need for involvement with other beings or social responsibility. Because nirvana is selfless, there is no self that enjoys a state of being beyond the world. Wisdom and compassion are ultimately inseparable, wisdom being the complete knowledge of ultimate selflessness and compassion being the selfless commitment to the happiness of others”

I really love how he so perfectly encapsulates the reality that the goal of spiritual enlightenment is not to exist beyond the world, but to be of service to the world.  If one is not selflessly committed to the happiness of others, one is not truly enlightened.

This is not to say that people who choose not to marry or have children cannot reach enlightenment or that they are not selflessly committed to the happiness of others.  Nor am I saying that romantic relationships are the only ones in which we grow and the only means by which we can serve others.  All relationships provide opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. What I am saying is that  marriage and family provide ample opportunity to practice selfless service, compassion, empathy, kindness, and equanimity. As such these life choices should not automatically preclude a contemplative life.  It’s true that marriage and children require immense energy that cannot be directly devoted to study and prayer, but any mother will tell you that the moments she spends with her little one asleep against her bosom are some of the most Divine she will ever experience. Many married people will tell you that their earthly model for unconditional love is their spouse, who loves and accepts all of their flaws and errors.

These thoughts are not original to me. Greater mind and deeper intellects have been pondering these very things and there is a new monastic movement happening. People who feel called to a contemplative life are eschewing the age-old ideals of celibacy and separateness and instead choosing to live fully engaged lives full of purpose, meaning, and the day-to-day challenges that most people face. There are also many examples of contemplatives and monastics who have kept traditional vows while completely immersing themselves in service. Mother Theresa, Thomas Merton, Father Greg Boyle to name a very few.

The key is not whether or not our spiritual leaders are married, but how engaged they are with humanity. There was a great deal of what I will politely call “fuss” in the media about the fact that Pope Francis washed the feet of AIDS patients. While I am well aware of the significance of this act of humility, shouldn’t we instead have been asking why it is so noteworthy that a cardinal would do such a thing? Shouldn’t all cardinals be imitating Christ in this way? Shouldn’t such humble acts of service be, yes acknowledged and appreciated, but also expected?

Isolation in a monastery, a convent, a cave, or the Vatican can no longer be the answer to the spiritual needs of the world. Like the age-old question of a tree falling in a forest with no one near to hear it, if a person reaches enlightenment with no one to serve, even if it really happened, does it matter?

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