John Main once said (with Irish humour: monks, don’t take it too personally) that he had never met more egotists than in monasteries.
This is the point he was making. There are two dangers about monasteries. A monk might be very serious about self-transformation and his spiritual practice but also be focused on it in such a way that nothing and no one will get in the way of his direct path to enlightenment. Usually this is manifest in a hyper-critical attitude to those of his brethren who appear less rigorous – a kind of spiritual snobbery. The other danger is illustrated in the monk who enters the cloister with the purpose of escaping any challenging association with others rather than to find himself in others. An early Christian monk defined a monk as someone who sees himself in others and others in himself. This hyper-introverted type, self-centred type of person will use monastic routine for insulation rather than encounter.
Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, spoke recently about ‘Leadership and Values’ at a Meditatio Seminar in London. He enumerated some of the ideal qualities of leaders and the values they embodied, recognizing (as with the figure of the Abbot in the Rule of St Benedict) that it is unlikely to happen that all this will be combined in one person at the same time. Governor Carney’s guiding principle, however, was the value of purpose. A leader needs a clear purpose – and the right purpose is always other-centred.
All this can only be relevant to us if, in some sense, we are all monks and we are all leaders. According to the Rule, the monk is someone who ‘truly seeks God’. Isn’t that what a serious meditator does, with deepening renunciation, as her journey progresses and transformation takes effect? Your image of God might not be anyone else’s and you may prefer to articulate it outside religious language. But, at the essential level, the experience of meditation is the experience of God – of love, wholeness and universal connection.
And we are all leaders – to children, for example, who watch us closely and imitate us. Even those who do the humblest service to the world – toilet attendants, street cleaners – can show real qualities of leadership and service in the way they work with their colleagues and relate to the public.
But we are also leaders to ourselves. Lent is a time when we do something extra and give up something familiar. Where is this decision made? How is it made? What is its motivation? Its source is in that subtle part of our own mind-heart mix that sees clearly and gives us a sense of purpose. It is not a rival or competitive part of our selves but the unifying, healing energy of ourselves that we call spirit.
Does it make us more or less egocentric? Or do we feel that the real purpose of our spiritual practice is actually direct service to others? Whatever fruits and benefits it might bring us are then dedicated to the well-being of the world. As we are also part of the world, we get our fair share of those benefits provided our guiding purpose is other-centred.