Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Monasticism and Marriage

I read a discussion recently about whether the celibate life of a monk or the married life of a householder was more pleasing to God. Traditionally it was usually the monk who was regarded as higher in the spiritual scale of values and closer to divine reality. However in more recent times some people maintain that the relationship of a married life better fulfils what God intends for us. The monk is seen as someone who has completely dedicated himself to God but he has cut himself off from the world. So the married person might be regarded as better reflecting the activity of God in his creation, and therefore being truer to the divine pattern.

In a sense this is the old debate between contemplation and action and I can see reasons to advocate either one as the more perfect state, though naturally it always depends on how a particular life is lived. You could say that if the goal of life is to know God as he is in his essence then it is the monastic life that best fulfils this purpose, but if life is intended to make of us a creator in full relationship with the world, or, in other words, to be as God is as he is in expression, then it is the married life that more perfectly carries out this role. From this perspective neither one nor the other is necessarily better though perhaps the best state might be said to be a combination of the two. One in which the inner dedication and ability to be fully focused in God of the monk are joined to the ability to act creatively in the world. Why should the two necessarily be contradictory if God is at the centre of both? Of course, that means that the married state would be rather different to how it is normally conceived but then maybe how it is normally conceived is a very imperfect representation of how it should ideally be.

If monasticism is directed towards attaining union with God and marriage is solely concerned with this world then clearly monasticism is the higher spiritual state but I would like to look at the two from a slightly different point of view here.

The purpose of life in this world is learning. Earth is a school. So what we have to ask is in which state the soul learns more.  And the answer clearly is that it depends on the individual and his needs of the moment. This is especially so for a believer in reincarnation like me. Sometimes the soul might need a life in which inwardness and contemplation is required. At others the benefits of a more active and outgoing life are needed to make a fully rounded person, developed in all aspects. So neither from this point of view is necessarily more spiritually advanced. Both are part of the whole pattern of development. The monk learns to become spiritually conscious through prayer and meditation but he goes back into the world once this is achieved, firstly, to express it and secondly, to be tested as to how deep his understanding is. Can he remain spiritual in the world when not surrounded by the support system of monastery, spiritual guides and superiors, community of like minded individuals and the discipline that the monastic structure provides? It might be easy enough to be close to God in an environment wholly dedicated to that end and with no distraction, but can this be maintained when that is removed and in a situation that might be at variance with it? For a believer in reincarnation it makes sense to think that all souls who wish to develop spiritually might have to experience something equating to the life of a monk during the course of their incarnationary cycle. Many may then have to go back out into the world to put into practice what they have learned there. Of course, if you don't believe in reincarnation you can say that whether you are a monk or married doesn't matter as long as your heart is fixed in God. Moreover some souls might more naturally gravitate to one or the other way as a consequence of their individual leanings and temperament. At the same time, if God wants to make souls that are fully rounded then he might require them to experience a range of different ways of life, in which case the reincarnation scenario offers a more reasonable explanation.

So all that is to say that you cannot necessarily judge whether the monastic or married state is more pleasing to God for any one person at any one time. In traditional Indian culture there are four ashramas or stages of life which go from student to married householder to retired person, who withdraws from the world and begins to take the spiritual life more seriously, to the renunciate or sannyasi who gives up everything and is totally devoted to God. The more dedicated can skip the intermediate two stages and go straight to the last. According to this scheme of things it would be the monk who fulfils man's highest duty to God (and to himself since the two are the same). But this is a linear path and life may not always be completely like that. In principle it may well be correct but if we think of the path of spiritual evolution more as a spiral than a straight line then we see that the same pattern may repeat itself at different points on the journey as similar lessons are learnt at deeper levels. So, as I say above, the one time sannyasi may have to go back into the world (in a subsequent life maybe) to learn further lessons that can only be learned in that situation. Lessons of love, giving and self-sacrifice perhaps.

There is something else to consider. In the context of a single life, for both the monk and the married person, it is quite possible that too much happiness or content can lead to spiritual stagnation. This is obvious in terms of marriage but the possibility is strong in terms of monasticism too. We generally need challenge to grow but the monk can settle too comfortably into his routine of prayer and spiritual discipline. He can become attached to it.  It can be the source of his happiness and pleasure to the extent that, if deprived of it, he becomes unsettled, even lost. What was a spiritual path has become a habit (no pun intended). There is no longer any challenge. So I am going to propose a third option as spiritually creative which might at first seem absurd. It is an unhappy marriage.  A relationship in which you have obligations and cannot rest in yourself (unlike the monk who even though he has relationships with his brothers and superiors still has a degree of freedom a married person doesn't, precisely because he lives a life bound by rules and common purpose). In an unhappy marriage your spiritual centredness and ability to forgive and forget self might be pushed to their limits. You are tested. This, of course, is the case for both partners in any marriage and one of the ways that the married state scores points over the monastic one in which there is no equivalent relationship of equals. But in an unhappy marriage this situation is intensified. It is a scenario in which the practice of spiritual virtue becomes essential and that is especially the case if children are involved. The point is it is relatively easy to be spiritual in a community of like minded individuals or a happy state. The test is whether you can be in a stressful situation with no support.

So the conclusion I have come to is that there is no conclusion. It all depends on which facet of the diamond is being polished and what the particular needs of the individual soul are at a particular moment. As always in the spiritual world, it is the inner attitude that counts not the external life.

1 comment:

Bruce Charlton said...

@WIlliam - This makes sense from my understanding that each individual pre-mortal spirit has reached a certain stage in spiritual progression; and is incarnated to mortal life for a different reason, with different experience and learning-needs - and therefore into different circumstances (including different eras, nations and families - and with a different type of personality and different abilities - each tailored to requirements).

On the other hand, a *culture* can only really be structured for one particular life trajectory; to which the highest status is accorded.

In the Protestant past (until a few generations ago) and Mormon present the social structure was designed to lead to stable marrige and family; in the Catholic past the aim was some type of celibate life - including monasticism - modern society aims at a kind of self-overcoming, hedonically orientated, progressivley expanding sexual variety and experimentation.