Thursday, September 29, 2011

Of airborne monasteries and boy Benedictines.

The above photo is one that I took over the North Atlantic during a late June flight from Philadelphia to London, on my way to Vienna for a month of language study. I've been waiting for the right opportunity to use this image here, and it seemed like a good fit for a post that Michelle Francl-Donnay offered earlier this week on Quantum Theology about the contemplative dimension of intercontinental air travel:
It might be the modern day equivalent of a medieval monastic enclosure. Everyone sleeps in a common dormer; we sit in our assigned places, as if in choir; once the doors are closed, you can't leave; you eat what is served, when it is served; we have made temporary promises of obedience; bells ring and we tighten our belts. There are no cell phones, no landlines, no wi-fi. It is a remarkably silent place, and I imagine not a few of us are praying.

No, I'm not on retreat, I'm on a China Air 747 somewhere between New York and Osaka, traveling with my students and two colleagues to Japan. We're off to see and experience Buddhist practices of mindfullness and meditation in particular, but we are also keeping our eyes open to the ways in which silent spaces are constructed. What constitutes a sacred architecture of silence? of solitude? of stillness? How many of these constructs, physical and metaphorical, cross traditions?
I am intrigued by the parallels that Michelle identifies here, and by the questions that she poses. I'm not used to thinking of air cabins as contemplative spaces, but in some sense flying does move me to contemplation. Though I enjoy travel, I don't particularly like being cooped up in the cramped confines of an air cabin; I also find enough distractions and discomforts on planes to thwart attempts to do serious reading or to get any real rest. To make the experience of flying more bearable, I invariably withdraw into myself, closing my eyes and thinking about various things - rummaging through the past, or thinking about my destination and what I'll do there - and, yes, doing a bit of prayer.

My approach to all of this has been informed by a piece of advice that I once received from an older Jesuit who regularly flew back and forth between Europe, North America, and the Far East. How, I wondered, did this well-traveled Jesuit deal with the tedium and discomfort of intercontinental flights? "I become an object," he said, meaning that he found a way to disengage from his immediate environment and relaxed his body and mind in such a way that both were basically inert. The spiritual discipline that this requires is obvious: 'becoming an object' in this context is essentially a form of meditation. I can't say that I'm very good at this - quieting my mind is particularly difficult - but I nonetheless offer this approach to air travel for any readers who may find it helpful.


The second item that I'd like to call to your attention this afternoon is unrelated to Michelle's post on airborne monasteries but does serve to justify the "boy Benedictines" part of my title. By way of this post from The Hermeneutic of Continuity, here is a charming anecdote from a young mother in England:
We've had a really nice Benedictine Brother visiting our parish recently, much to the interest of my eldest son who is 9. After Mass this morning I reminded my son - as always - that it's anti-social to walk around with the hood of his jumper worn up.

"Sorry mum, you can't ask me to put my hood down any more..." was his reply "... I'm practising to be a Benedictine."
This is one way that vocations to religious life are born. I hope that this boy remains open to the idea of becoming a monk as he grows older; I also hope that I and others in religious life can take to heart the message here about the critical role that visible witness plays in promoting vocations. For more on this theme, consult this post from 2008, which still accurately captures my thinking on this subject. More importantly, please pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life - and invite others to consider them. AMDG.


At 10/02/2011 10:57 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

The photo is gorgeous....your comments about dealing with travel reminds me of a bit from Henri Nouwen, about the difficulties of travel and his struggles to practice being present to the moments of travel. No easy way to dig it up where I am now (though I can visualize the shelf the book is one and the page...)

At 10/03/2011 11:22 AM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the comment - I've been enjoying your posts from Japan, so I hope that all continues to go well for you and your students and fellow travelers this week. Safe and happy travels!


Post a Comment

<< Home