Tom Hodgkinson investigates the resurgence of monks in popular culture
Have you noticed that monks are so hot right now?
Our event with mega-monk Haemin Sunim earlier in the year sold out in a few days. Ruby Wax’s new book features a monk, Gelong Thubten (who is speaking at our festival in June) and other former monks are going in for Silicon Valley money-making schemes by releasing mindfulness apps that promise to release us from the anxiety caused by… other apps.
One of the books by my bedside is A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, which recommends both getting up early to sweep the kitchen and wearing white underpants for inner peace. It is a lovely book. And of course there is the ‘hot priest’ in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Seems like we all want a monk in our life.
It makes me think what a terrible tragedy it was that Henry VIII so brutally exterminated the monks and nuns in England. Until 1535 or thereabouts we had a thriving monastic culture. The monks looked after the poor, educated the children and played the role of shrinks and counsellors. They were like Shelter meets psycho-therapy. Unfortunately they also had a reputation for being lazy and for taking money off poor credulous people, promising to get them into heaven. So we broke with Rome. It was the 16th century Brexit – but much worse. Not only did we lose our monks and nuns, and not only were the monasteries given to Henry’s earls and dukes, but also the Tudors introduced a brutal new work ethic. Persistent idlers or vagrants were branded with the letter V and then often killed by the state for not having a job. The monks had given dignity to the reflective life, but now everyone had to toil like slaves for their masters. The Tudors introduced Nazi-like Houses of Correction to inculcate wastrels with the values of hard toil and discipline. The Puritans later took down the maypoles, because they encouraged shagging, and banned the all old saints’ days, branding them as superstitious.
So in the Brexity effort to claim independence from Europe, we actually created a whole new load of problems. One of which was a mental health crisis. The 17th century was probably the most miserable we’ve ever had – that’s why Robert Burton’s self-help book for the depressed, The Anatomy of Melancholy, was a massive best-seller.
The UK and the US are still largely monk-free countries, so is it any wonder that they have terrible opiate problems and that their people are so depressed? And is it any wonder that the Eastern monks have become so popular? It’s because they are communicating a set of principles that are different from the “work stupid hours and earn lots of money or die” philosophy promoted by the Trumps and hedge funds and Silicon Valley tech companies and Big Pharma and all the rest of it.
“Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin, yet I say to you that Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed as one of these.”
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I like Friar Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, taught by Thomas Merton, also a top monk. Enjoy your retreat. I’m jealous.
– Sally Phillips
The mention of Gelong reminds me of my favourite monk, Ge Hong, who in 370 AD China wrote Traditions of Divine Transcendents which discusses the various Taoist techniques to achieve longevity and transcendence. This is usually understood as reaching the age of 300 and then slipping away to the caves in the mountains never to be seen again. There are stories of people who outlive their allotted lifespan but find ways of deceiving the collectors. Ge Hong himself was a practitioner of ‘yellow soup’ medicine.
Hippocrates wrote that all disease begins in the gut. Ge Hong offered a cure. You would visit him and he would prescribe a soup made from his own excrement. Nowadays we call it ‘faecal transplantation’ and it is the only effective cure for Clostridium difficile, which kills 4000 Britons a year as it is caused by antibiotic destruction of the gut flora and can only be cured by introducing gut flora (through a nasogastric tube and up the bum) from a healthy person. With difficult cases, Ge Hong would identify the herbs and elixirs that could help, consume them himself and then supply the personalised yellow soup excrement to the patient. The future of Western medicine? Look up the Taymount Clinic for details.
The dissolution of the monasteries wasn’t all bad. Part of the function of monasteries and convents was to isolate unwanted spare children so that there wasn’t too much pressure on limited land assets (primogeniture was the other part of this strategy). Kept away, mostly, from members of the opposite sex, monks helped keep population levels stable. Then they were all thrown out by Henry VIII and had to make a living. They could read, write and keep records and understood herbal medicine. They became the lawyers, accountants, doctors and clerks that the emerging industrial society required. First they had to get rid of the competition which consisted of wise old women, so they burned them at the stake. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Witches, Midwives and Nurses details this process.
– Craig Sams
I have a favorite monk – Irish, of course. His name is St Colmcille and he was an amazing person. He founded a monastery on Iona in Scotland and later all across Europe before Cromwell came and razed them to the ground. When he took possession of the lands, most of the monks headed for Europe where they found monasteries in face of Barbarians on the Continent resulting in the Renaissance.
Apparently you could tell an Irishman on the Continent of Europe a thousand years ago by the Latin he spoke. Now we can’t even speak proper English. But at least we’re preserving the peaceful link with Europe and the uninterrupted flow of philosophy, trade and cooperation. Imagine the monks of Iona in comparison to Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Rees Mogg et al. As Edmund Burke said, “All that has to happen for chaos to arise is that good people do nothing to stop it”.
– Neil McDermott
It’s important not to idealise the monastic. Being a monk or nun was a medieval form of contraception. Sex could only be controlled through celibacy, particularly when child birth was dangerous. It works by encouraging regression to a latency stage of sexual development, using techniques that emphasise transcendence. It has caused much suffering for many. Think of poor Thomas Merton, a great mind driven mad by falling in love with two women, and possibly ending his life as a result. The monasteries are often the refuge of rather sad people who do not mind or have reasons for wanting to be infantilised in this way. Within the Catholic priesthood, we now find that sexuality often finds a perverse route to emerge – infantilised men sexualising people in their care. Some beautiful things have developed from the monastic tradition, including music, art and interesting drinks. However, at its core, it’s masochistic like a lot of religions. It reminds me of Euripides Bacchae – look what happened to poor old Pentheus when he denied his Dionysian tendencies.
– David Morgan
On monks, I went to a boarding school run by Cistercian Monks. As is the case with most groups of humans most were perfectly ordinary, some especially decent and others complete shitheads. No major surprise there. One monk (the uncle of a former Irish Taoiseach and with the nickname “The Pig”) suggested I consider joining the monastery but I lacked much of a religious inclination. I do like the idea of an opportunity to live a lifestyle that deliberately excludes society however, and I could probably deal with the early starts. Cistercians wouldn’t be my first choice though as I do like to brew a bit of beer. Mind you the wife and kids would probably object.
– Sinbad Wilmot
At the end of W.W.2., the adults in my street built a great bonfire. As a child I watched the flames and sparks reach up to the heavens in celebration of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The following morning there was a large circle of melted tar where the fire had been, but there were no human remains. What on earth, you might be asking, has this minor piece of history got to do with the activities of monks?
Well, outside the General Assembly buildings in Edinburgh, there is a statue of John Knox, a Scottish monk. Knox, however, was not a Catholic – he was a follower of John Calvin. John Calvin and his associates lit a bonfire in Geneva in 1533, and chained the unfortunate Michael Servetas to a post amidst the flames. Michael Servetas burned to death because he cast doubt on the Doctrine of The Trinity. There is a statue of Servetas in Paris to remind visitors what happens when ‘monks’ forget to “Love thy neighbour” and revert to Old Testament thinking. There is, however, still hope for the human race. The Calvinists finally came to their senses when one Calvinist, Henry Dunant, came across the battlefield of Solferino in 1859. Dunant was so moved by the suffering he found there that he worked to form what we know today as the Red Cross. Dunant is also responsible for the Geneva Convention.
Dunant understood the injunctions of the Jewish Rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth regarding the killing of one’s fellow men. The other two monks, Knox and Calvin, did not. Many theologians today, such as Don Cuppitt, also have reservations regarding the Doctrine of the Trinity and, whilst this might upset some of today’s clergymen, no one is suggesting that Cuppitt should be consigned to the flames! We live and, very slowly, we learn.
– Bill Bingham
Mindfulness. Monks. Everyone seems to be buying up books and apps on slowing down and mindfulness without really changing their lifestyle. A friend of mine does Tantra / sexual energy work and she started to attract some monks and priests, who incidentally, through suppression of this energy, found themselves FULL of sexual energy and then noticed it was coming out in rather ‘unhealthy ways’. Thankfully she managed to help them find a healthy approach. Now they tithe money to her for maintaining a healthy sexuality and channelling the energy in good ways. So while I do like monks and the stillness they radiate, it’s also pretty obvious that a one sided view of life is not the full human life. And they’re still VERY human. I prefer the idler way over idealistic ways any day.
– Kristina Wirz