Conversation with Sarah Coakley
On 26 January 2022, Church House staged an event to launch my book, Entering the Twofold Mystery: On Christian Conversion. It took the form of a lively conversation between Professor Sarah Coakley and myself, introduced by Maggie Fergusson, literary editor of The Tablet. Below is a very slightly edited transcript. You can still watch the broadcast by following this pathway.
Maggie Fergusson Sarah Coakley is an Anglican priest, a systematic theologian and a philosopher of religion, for many years Norris Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. She’s had so many other distinguished appointments that you have to forgive me for not listing them all.
Erik Varden is bishop of Trondheim in his native Norway, former abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Mount Saint Bernard in Leicestershire. How can a bishop continue to be a monk, I wonder? I hope we are going to discover.
Three years ago when Fr Erik published his astonishing study of remembrance, The Shattering of Loneliness, I was sent by The Tablet to meet him at Mount Saint Bernard. His days there were numbered, but I think he didn’t know this then. Many things stayed with me from our conversation. One is what Fr Erik had to say about the danger of getting stuck, a particular hazard, he told me, for monks. ‘The fearful possibility of stalling should motivate us until our last breath’, he has written. I asked what is the sign that someone is stuck? He answered: a loss of joy. And how do you get unstuck? He directed me to St Anthony of Egypt, who started each day by saying, ‘Today I begin’. Fr Erik said: ‘When you endeavour to live life seriously and zestfully, it is constantly new, every day is like the first day of creation.’ I found that quite thrilling.
Sarah Coakley Fr Erik, you do have a unique way, in your writing, of combining erudition with complete accessibility, spiritual depth with biblical concision and a wonderful array of poetic and literary examples all woven in. The book starts with an unforgettable story of your encountering a homeless man on the street in Paris. It precipitated your monastic conversion of life. In your book you say: ‘Within the mystery of the Church, we dare to believe that a Christian life truly given may, by God’s providence, be effective balm on the wounds of the poor of our world, who are given us to carry and nurture.’ As we go into the main part of the book, we realise it consists of conferences given to your brothers in the Cistercian Order. How can these texts have applicability for us who live very unmonastic lives?
Erik Varden The monastic life exerts fascination, when seen from the outside, on account of all that makes it specific. People see big edifices, they hear the bells and the chant, they see people wearing strange clothes observing strange rituals. It can seem like something very other. But these are just the tools. Fundamentally, monastic life is an attempt to live coherent Christian lives. The monastic life as such is, as our Order’s Constitutions say, ‘obscure, laborious, and ordinary’. I can testify to the truth of that statement.
What makes the monastic life relevant is that it is an applied way of living faith, applied discipleship. When the first monks went into the desert, it was because they were conscious of their baptismal commitment. They saw they needed props to live them out — a community of support, a little bit of distance from distraction. This they found in an experimental way by developing the monastic institute. It came about in different ways, at different times, in different places, in Northern Africa, in Egypt, in the Middle East, in Southern Europe. A great monk of the fourth century, Evagrius Ponticus, a theologian of note and a friend of the Cappadocian Fathers, is famous for the statement: ‘A monk is someone who is separated from everything and united with everyone’. He points to a profound solidarity rooted in what is deeply human, oriented towards the transcendent. Obviously there is, too, communication flowing from the fact that monks and nuns pray for the world.
SC Could we probe more deeply into the three vows specific to the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition? The vows are of stability, obedience, and conversion of life. You have illuminating, novel things to say about each. Let’s take obedience first. In our contemporary culture, we tend to think of obedience as something capable of being abused by those in power, against the powerless. We value autonomy highly since the Enlightenment. Autonomy and obedience don’t seem compatible. You have a lot to say about this. Could you reduce it to a few aphorisms?
EV I can try! I entirely concur that obedience can be dangerous, which is why it requires discernment. The monastic tradition — in particular the Greek tradition — is sceptical with regard to the notion of autonomy. The Fathers would say it’s simply false. They argue their case by referring to man’s ontological status as created ‘in the image’ of God, being constantly sustained by God. If God stopped sustaining us, we would cease to exist. So we are by nature dependent creatures.
The originality of the Christian position is this: to hold that I, by owning this dependence, don’t become a slave, but actually become free. This is because the power that sustains me, that has willed and loved me into being, is an infinitely benevolent power that has a plan for my life coinciding with my own happiness. It even directs me towards beatitude. In living by obedience, the monk tries to live according to principles that correspond to the deepest truth of his being and the deepest truth of his longing and desire.
Our word obedience comes from a Latin verb, ‘ob-audire’, ‘audire’ having to do with audio — auditive things. Obedience is principally a matter of listening. It’s a response to a call, which directs my life towards thriving. There are many safeguards regarding the exercise of obedience. St John Climacus, the seventh-century abbot of Sinai, said something paradoxical: monastic obedience is a matter, he maintained, of ‘relinquishing discernment through a superabundance of discernment.’ The superabundance of discernment is about, first, looking at the project from the outside, having made a preferential option for the Christian proposition. The candidate will consider the monastery to see if it seems to be a way that works. He will consider a concrete community living in a given place to see if it seems to work for them, changing these people for the good. He will then decide, well, I’m going to risk this, too, because it seems reasonable. Trust has got to be in place first. And trust is something the monastic institute has got to earn. We find ourselves now, sadly, realising that many institutions have proved themselves historically not trustworthy. But that doesn’t mean that the proposition as such is invalid. On the contrary: the great task is to try and rebuild trust, and to be worthy of it.
SC Building obedience in its best form, in the monastery, is related to the next vow, or stability. Stability means more than just staying put. Else how could it apply to postmodern non-monks?
EV Stability is primarily about an inner rootedness that normally coincides with rootedness in a place. In terms of the technicalities of the vow, it means I pledge myself to remaining a member of a community for life. We are talking of stability within a human group. You mention postmodern instabilities. What you say is true. But what strikes me when I think of the fifth and sixth centuries, when the Benedictine project took off, is that they were also pretty unstable. Monastic stability is a counter-cultural response. It springs from a resolve not simply to move with the flow, with the crowd. To choose to be rooted in a place is an organic form of living, based on the conviction that it is by rootedness that I will grow and be fruitful. I think we see what this means when we meet people who’ve been faithful to a commitment, a relationship, a task. I find it interesting that several characters who are to my mind great heroes of contemporary literature are people who embody stability. I think of John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Jayber Crow in Wendel Berry’s eponymous novel. By being faithful to a place and the community that makes up that place, both have accumulated a depth of wisdom and a warmth of compassion. These are some of the fruits stability will ideally produce.
SC Many of us find ourselves living in more than one community and flipping between them, as it were, in our mores, often unconsciously, because this is the kind of pressure our lives today make on us. Your recalling us to think of stability in this way is helpful.
EV Obviously, the resolve of stability has to be constantly renewed. The monks of the desert were conscious of that. They knew that your body might be unmoved in a hut in the Egyptian desert but your mind could be shopping in Alexandria.
SC The theme of the third vow, of conversion of life, runs right through the book. You stress how we tend to recoil, these days, before the deep demands of conversion of life, the requirement that the mystery of suffering, for instance, is a necessary part of sharing in the life and death of Christ. Do you feel that even Christians have come to find this idea of ongoing costly transformation unto death somehow repulsive and offensive? Do people rush to churches to try and avoid this rather than embrace it?
EV My impression is that people find the proportion at the same time forbidding and attractive — attractive for other people, especially! It is demanding to embrace it for oneself. In its root sense, conversion is about orientation, about turning round and moving towards a goal. Conversion presupposes having a fixed goal. Something that makes a lot of people unhappy and frustrated is the fact that they don’t really know what their goal is in life, or what the goal is of life as such.
The first chapter of St Benedict’s Rule gives a description of types of monks. We’re told that the worst kind is the gyrovague, who just walks round and round. The point about the Rule, the regula, is that it points a straight line from A to B, A being where my life is now, B being the goal I desire to reach, the vision and knowledge of God. That path will, in a Christian optic, necessarily go through the cross; but the cross is a passage, the emblem of Christ’s Pasch. It looms large on the horizon but bears the promise of new, endless life and flourishing to be found on the other side.
SC This brings us to the title of the book, a quotation from one of the people you reflect on, a poet. Would you like to quote the text? It will take us into the heart of the next question I wish to ask: How are we to conceive of the suffering to which we are drawn by being united with Christ in our baptism? How can we avoid a false kind of wallowing in suffering and a false kind of evasion of it?
EV The title is part of a quotation from a poem I cite in the book, by Elsa Morante, who died in 1985:
Alone the lover knows. If you love not, I pity you!
The myriad lives will seem to you then but common and cheap
Like the sacred Host to unconsecrated eyes.
Only the lover has eyes to see the splendours of the Other,
With access to the house of twofold mystery:
The mystery of sorrow and the mystery of joy.
In the book this text occurs in a homily for Maundy Thursday. It’s a way of trying to comment on the Gospel for that day, from John 13. The Evangelist says that Jesus loved those who were his own in the world ‘to the end’. What does it mean to love ‘to the end’?
Love is a word that is, at the same time, almost too banal and too sublime to speak. We’ve mixed-up notions of love, very often. This applies in various languages. We think of love as something to do with sentiment, emotion, a felt sense of well-being. Those can be components of love. But one of the marvellous things about this poem — not specifically Christian — is the affirmation that love is not incompatible with pain. In a certain way, love almost presupposes pain, for by loving someone, and by being loved, I am vulnerable. I open myself and am opened to the deep truth of another. I love the expression, ’unconsecrated eyes’. In order to perceive what is holy, I need to integrate it into myself and sanctify my way of looking at the world and at others. That is simultaneously a painful and a thrilling thing. I chose to refer to this insight in the title of the book as a way, perhaps, of de-sentimentalising love. Let’s not forget that love has got to be the motor of conversion, else we’re not going to reach very far.
SC The book is absolutely fulfilled in its goal, I think, by the wonderful usages you make of individual saints, known and unknown. They illustrate your points. This is one of the most striking and remarkable features of your writing. Are there others you would like to focus on here, as we’re talking together?
EV I am not particularly given to abstract thinking, nor particularly gifted for it. What has always fascinated me in Christianity is its concreteness. Christianity is about life. It is not theoretical. Sublime, beautiful theories have been developed on the basis of the Christian proposition. It’s important to engage with them; but fundamentally what is at stake is an encounter that changes my life.
I am interested in case studies. If you like, the calendar of saints that runs throughout the Church’s year, is just that: a range of case studied showing how this adventure works out in practice. I have drawn on examples that have challenged and inspired me. I have tried to bring out some who are less well known than they might be, such as two twentieth-century saints of my Order: Bl Gabriella Sagheddu and St Rafael Arnaiz Barón. The former is the patron of Christian unity. The latter, a gifted artist, found that the regularity of monasticism channeled the complexities within him. Ingmar Bergman once said that, in order to render complex content, strictness of form is called for. I think that is what monastic life can provide for some people. I also draw on people who are not canonised, probably not very canonisable. One such is Clarissa Dickson Wright, the TV chef, who speaks of how what might seem the low point of her existence turns out to be a turning point, a moment of grace and illumination, humiliating but at the same time freeing, enabling a foray into a future that had seemed extinct.
SC Another example you draw on is that of a woman who suffered lengthy mental illness. It is not often remarked upon that the act of contemplation is a bit of a danger for those who may be inclined towards depression. What can you say to a generation suffering anxiety and mental distress in the face of the pandemic?
EV One can learn from the example I cite the sheer, dogged refusal to let go of hope. The nun in question was someone who lived in great darkness for a number of years, but who also experienced the lifting of that darkness and entry into what her sisters describe as a contagious, incarnate joy. Still, one has to be cautious. There’s a fine line between a sense of bewilderment and inner loss that is spiritually induced, that can have something to do with a process of spiritual, mystical purification, and psychiatric illness. One’s got to be rigorous in one’s diagnosis and not try to treat spiritually what may require clinical attention. That’s part of being realistic and humble. At the same time, I think one needs to be open to the possibility that illness, physical illness and soul-illness, can have graced potential. That’s where I think an example like that of Sr Donata can be an encouragement.
SC Perhaps I can ask you now to reflect on some slightly trickier elements in the book, relating to agonies that come up today about sexuality, gender, abuse, and so on. You are not afraid of tackling them. But the way you’re tackling them is different, I think, from the way they’re often tackled, even by public theologians, because of your monastic perspective. To take issues of gender, first. We know from reading early monastics and ascetics that their lives were often freed up in extraordinary ways from gender presumptions of life in the city or life in the married condition. I think you imply, as I have also in my writing, that this may be a source of fertility, if I may put it like that, for contemporary thinking. Could you say a bit more?
EV One of the things I’ve always found liberating about monastic writings, going right back to the beginning, is the extreme straightforwardness with which monks and nuns speak of sexuality as an integral part of human being, a part of our being made in the divine image and thereby called, like every other part, to be transfigured and sanctified; but also as a part subject to great perplexity and often a source of suffering. The Cistercian Fathers were fond of citing a line from the Song of Songs: ‘Ordinavit in me caritatem’ — ‘he has set love in order in me’. They sort of took it for granted that the run-of-the-mill Christian, the run-of-the-mill monk or nun, would come into their Christian commitment with a certain amount of disorder which had to be oriented (to evoke again that key monastic theme) and ordered for the purpose of freedom and flourishing.
You raise the question of gender. One of the challenges of the celibate state is to try and integrate in oneself the complementarity between man and woman which is normally fruit of the symbiotic union of marriage. Isaac Stella, an English Cistercian, abbot of a monastery in France in the twelfth century, reflects on virility. He says, ‘This thing we’ve undertaken, this monastic project, is a manly task’. We’re cagey now about talking of anything at all as being ‘manly’. The term is charged with stereotypical presumptions. Isaac turns it round. To be ‘manly’, for Isaac, is not to be macho; it is to be reasonable. He presupposes a long tradition of thinking reaching from Antiquity into the Middle Ages. To engage in the Christian pursuit is to go about it reasonably, in a way well thought-out, but with a view to render possible a feminine capacity of receptivity by which the life of Christ is born in us. The Cistercians were sometimes very daring in their use of maternal imagery. Also, given their love of the Song of Songs, they drew parallels between the seeker — who for them was the monk, a male subject — and the bride in the Song of Songs.
They were convinced that part of our Christian task is to be firmly lodged in our biological self; but they also had clear ideas of the multiplicity of worlds that we need to integrate in ourselves in order to become whole. Holiness is ultimately a function of wholeness, integrity.
SC Recent developments in trans thinking and queer theology would be suspicious even of the complementarity you’ve outlined. Do you think monastic thinking is capable of responding to that challenge? Even as Isaac is talking, he re-inscribes certain gender presumptions and plays with them. You see the problem?
EV He would take it for granted that some gender presumptions are true, corresponding to things as they are in fact. Presupposed, as well as the categories of Antiquity, is the Genesis account of creation, which, I think, if one is to present a Christian reflection on this theme, has got to be to some extent normative.
SC We could go on further about that! There’s a difference between the way this problem is developed by the Greek Fathers and by Augustine, who most profoundly influences us in the West.
EV I would stress that that the monastic Fathers and Mothers have a variegated perspective. It’s not as if they’re trying to reduce something complex to something simplistic; but they would set out from the assumption that we carry in us disorder that’s longing for order and direction.
SC That leads me to another, even more painful question, that of the explosion of exposures of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, also within monasteries — without implying that this only concerns the Roman Church, of course. We see that religious power, wherever it is manifested, is capable of appalling forms of misuse. In the light of all that from which we continue to reel and recover, would you say there’s something monastics today need to say afresh about how celibacy is not only possible, but transformative? I think many people would come to the conclusion that the abuses, say, in Boston, which I lived through at the beginning of this century, were the result of celibacy. They would blame it on celibacy. I don’t agree with that myself. But I think we’ve a long way to go to make a theological and spiritual case, again, for the fruitfulness and efficacy of celibacy. Would you agree?
EV The legacy of abuse is something I live with, that we all live with, as a continual pain. It’s like living within an open wound, accepting that the healing of that wound will take a long time. One’s got to shed tears of grief and remorse on the Church’s behalf. That said, I think it is simplistic to presume that celibacy somehow automatically engenders abuse. Maladjusted celibacy is terrible. Even as maladjusted life in a couple can be terrible — maladjusted, unintegrated sexuality in general. But maladjustment is not specific to a state of life.
What can the monastic tradition contribute? Above all its realism and truthfulness. The realisation that these values have not always been effective should motivate us to rediscover this part of our patrimony. I see signs of that happening.
SC Do you think there needs to be a new genre of teaching in this area? Spiritual and psychological formation was long inadequate. People were simply told what not to do, not given insights needed to maintain this difficult vow. You’ve just been talking interestingly about bad celibacy and bad marriage. This reminds me of a text I’m sure you know by heart, by Gregory of Nyssa, from his De Virginitate. Uniquely among the acetic writers of his time, he sees good marriage as closely related to good celibacy. They’re not opposites, as we often think. They need each other, to help encourage each other in a very hard forms of faithfulness.
EV There’s a fundamental complementarity here that is very beautiful. To think and speak of, and, even worse, to impose celibacy simply as mortification, as not doing certain things or trying to switch off a part of oneself — it’s so obvious it’s almost embarrassing how necessarily fatal this is! I think something we really need is a renewed reflection on chastity. Chastity and celibacy are not the same thing. Chastity has come to be associated with a denial of sexuality, but it isn’t! We have, in the Christian tradition, a tremendous wealth of resource to draw on which can be helpful in practical terms and as a contribution to wider discourse in society concerning these complex themes, omnipresent now.
SC A last question! Your whole book manifests a cultural moment I am very aware of. Young people are fascinated by asceticism and monasticism, but wouldn’t really want to do it. They’d like to be third-order, maybe, or to go on retreats. But doing it, is another thing. Is this an evolutionary cull, as it were?
EV There’s something of a post-cultural shift going on, I think myself. It’s possible to have a promiscuous relationship with the idea of a monastic vocation, to keep it on hold as a tantalising possibility. But tantalising possibilities kept on hold are not nourishing over time. I ascertain that people now in their late teens or early twenties look at their parents, perhaps at older siblings, and see that just standing back and not making commitments isn’t necessarily a way to be happy. It’s my perception that there’s increasing readiness to accept that there comes a point, and it needn’t be after I’m forty, when I have to make a choice.
Just after finishing my doctorate I lodged in Paris, with the Dominicans. One Saturday the oldest friar in the house was invited to address a youth group. After his talk, he invited questions. A young fellow asked: ‘Father, how can I become happy?’ The friar, almost a hundred years old, looked at him and said: ‘Choose an orientation for your life and stick to it.’ I thought that pretty good advice.
SC We’ve time for a few questions from viewers:
Question If baptism is an objective ‘conversion of life’, how does the Church reach the baptised non-believers of today?
EV First of all, by testimony. Let me quote a monastic example, from the life of Pachomius (ca. 292-348). As a conscript for military service, he had been more or less arrested, shipped up the Nile, and placed in prison with his companions overnight to await the next boat. While they were there, lost and bewildered, some eccentrics turned up with food and clean clothes and kindness. Pachomius said, ‘Why’re they doing this? They’re not our cousins or uncles or aunts.’ He was told, ‘Oh, they’re a crowd called Christians and they do this sort of thing because they think it’s the right thing to do.’ Pachomius was so bowled over by the thought that someone should exercise gratuitous kindness that he thought, ‘If I get out of this military business alive, I’ll make some enquiries’. Which he did. It’s a wholesome challenge for us who call ourselves Christians. Does it show?
Question Can you follow a monastic life without being part of a community?
EV Monastic life in its Benedictine form presupposes insertion into a community. But there are values in monasticism that are universal. They’re a distillation of the Gospel. Many people who feel lost in terms of Christian belonging, look to monasteries, seeking some form of association. There’s an interesting French initiative called the monasphère. It helps people settle near spiritual centres to draw strength from them. There’s something about the interface between the monastery and life out there that has always been life-giving.
Question It was often the orders that gave an impetus for reform in times of crisis. Is my impression correct that this impetus is not yet visible in today’s crisis? What could be done about that?
EV Monastics get themselves into trouble if they set themselves up as examples of others to follow! But they should nonetheless, by virtue of the promises they’ve made, be examples, albeit unworthy. What can be done? First of all we need a renewal of commitment to conversion, a restatement of the finally we propose as the goal of our existence, then coherence, joyful, charitable, hospitable coherence, in pursuit of that goal. The spirit has to be kept alive and nurtured. This brings us back to St Anthony’s principle, which Maggie quoted to begin with: ‘Today I begin!’
Question Please comment on people who are not remotely saintly in their lives, yet in their art or writing have deep insights into the nature of Christ.
I’d be cautious about making judgements of who is or isn’t ‘remotely saintly’! One of the things about sanctity is that it’s often hidden, even to the people who embody it. As Christians we believe that the Son of God, becoming man, assumed human nature as such. Human nature is touched by the grace of the incarnation; human being, originally created in the image of God, then put on by the incarnate Word, is somehow alive with the Word, whether individuals know it or not. So it shouldn’t surprise us that we find traces of Christ even in people who may not have conscious faith, or who are indifferent to it. God is at work beyond our boundaries and categories, thank goodness. I always like to look out for traces of Christ where you wouldn’t expect them. The story with which I begin the book, about the homeless man I met in Paris, is an example.
SC But what of a writer or an artist who is manifestly wicked, destructive, yet whose art reflects incarnational presence? How does one cope with that paradox?
EV I’m not sure it’s a paradox to be thought out. It’s one to be wondered at. I think of a reflection by someone who was both a musician and a Benedictine nun, Elisabeth-Paule Labat. She says we must be merciful in the way we look at great artists because they live exposed to such deep things that coming back to just normality, after creative effort, is a shock that can induce both confusion and destruction. She says it much more sophisticatedly!
I’d add this: once we touch a certain depth in ourselves, a spiritual depth, the Spirit is there, whether we know it or not. The question is whether we remain faithful to what we perceive and try to live out of that encounter, that call, also when we return to what is ‘obscure, laborious and ordinary’.
Question What might we learn from the monastic tradition about a sane pattern of daily living in the wider world?
EV A relevant question in these times of pandemic. Basically, make a programme. Don’t do anything for too long. Shift from one activity to another. Have a sane, healthy mixture of thought-work, manual work, and prayer, of time spent with others and time spent in solitude. Don’t be dictatorial, imposing this on yourself, but work out the ingredients in your life that are life-giving, and put them into order.
MF What an amazing evening we’ve had! I am zinging with ideas and am sure the audience is, too. The idea that love is not incompatible with pain and, in fact, might presuppose pain; that we’re challenged to live coherently, to risk and trust, to grow to be fruitful and compassionate; that we should dare to have a fixed goal. If not before, read this book for Lent!