The Way of the Hermit – an interview with Mario I. Aguilar

 

 

Mario I. Aguilar is Professor of Religion & Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion & Politics at the University of St Andrews. He is also a poet, an eremitic Camaldolese Benedictine Oblate, and has published widely in his interests in the theology of contemplation, the history of religion and issues of interfaith dialogue. We asked him some questions about his new book – The Way of the Hermit – and his life as a hermit. 

 

A hermit’s lifestyle is one of solitude and seclusion from society. When and why did you decide to become a hermit?

As I mentioned in the opening of my book I always wanted to be a hermit. However, this wish had to wait for years as I was a missionary in Africa and then started an academic career. To become a hermit or a monk requires a long process of discernment and this process was carried out over a period of twenty years with the informal support of different spiritual directors. I would say that the decision was taken when Cardinal O’Brien encouraged me to follow this different path within the archdiocese of St. Andrews and Edinburgh. The hermitage and the daily routines developed out of an ongoing prayer life rather than out of an institutional setting. This was seven years ago in Scotland and then I opened a hermitage in Chile.

Some people might find it surprising that you are a professor of religion and a political activist, as well as a hermit. How do you balance these two different sides of your life?

There is only one single life in every human being, thus a hermit relies on a discipline of life where the day is marked by several activities. The life of a hermit, in my case in the Benedictine tradition, starts very early (3.45am) with meditation and silence until it is time to start the university day. During the day, I extend that prayer to those whom I teach and my fellow researchers. Political activism happens naturally because it is an extension of God’s action in the world, a world that should live more deeply justice, peace and understanding. I return to the hermitage happy to be left with God but with reports to be written on behalf of asylum seekers, correspondence, and my own academic studies currently related to India and Tibet.

Your book, The Way of the Hermit, documents your conversations with hermits in Scotland, Chile and India. Did the lives of these fellow pilgrims seem similar or different to your own, and in what ways?

The lives and hopes of all human beings are very similar as the Dalai Lama would reiterate. Thus, I have found a deep communion and friendship with others who seek the Absolute in India and Chile. Particularly in India I have met over the years Buddhist monks, Hindu Sadhus and Sikh scholars with whom we have shared not intellectual thoughts but our very souls, eating together, chanting, and laughing about the joys of being together. I must confess that I have found that many people who live a religious commitment tend to be sad, I do not understand that. On returning to see others at the Golden Temple or in the bathing areas of Varanasi I have always found a warm hand and a ready smile. God has given us a journey and it is great to do it with others even when in silence.

The book explores how living a life of silence and contemplation can contribute to interfaith dialogue. Could you explain how this is so?

The Western world uses too many words, too many texts and too many twitters. We try to understand something to accept its relevance. In silence the quarrels disappear because in silence and contemplation we cannot run away from who we are: human beings on a journey. The many dialogues between faith practitioners in conferences and formal meetings are very fruitful indeed. However, I have found a deeper dialogue sitting in silence with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs because it is that very silence that binds us. I cannot speak Punjabi or Hindi but I can understand our common language of silence, reverence and devotion.

What have been the toughest challenges you’ve faced while living an eremitic lifestyle?

It has always been the challenges from outsiders who want a writer and a monk to become a small celebrity. I have had to clarify many times that hermits do not need other hermits to carry on their lives and that I do not have meditation classes in my hermitage. The keeping of a daily structure and discipline gets interrupted sometimes but I return to read the lives of hermits I admire and that set a very clear example for me: Abishiktananda, Bede Griffiths, Raimon Panikkar, and those sadhus without name who have inspired me in India over many years.

Do you have any advice for readers who would like to apply eremitic practises to their own lives?

Set a small routine of prayer and meditation for your daily life, start and keep to it. Do not read about it, or talk too much about it, just do it! And the Absolute will be waiting for you.

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Stephen Cherry’s Three Very Positive Reasons for Exploring Theology

Three Very Positive Reasons for Exploring Theology

It’s Fascinating

Theology is fascinating even at the simply human level. It’s extraordinary that people can hold such different convictions and yet get on really well. And at the same time it’s very odd that people can hold very similar views and yet get into serious and bloody conflict over what seem to be rather minor differences to anyone outside their tradition.

One of the things that I have found interesting as I have recently re-read some of the great theologians of the Reformation era, is just how extremely rude they are to each other, and how confident they are that they themselves are right. What Martin Luther had to say to Desiderus Erasmus would make anyone blush! It is also extraordinary that people with religious convictions have put such huge amounts of energy into their controversies.  It is said of Augustine (the one who wrote Confessions) that he worked hard all day as a bishop and then worked all night as a theologian, writing books and commentaries and letters. Sometimes he was in a reflective mode, wondering about who he was and what his life meant, sometimes he was in dispute with those who understood human nature quite differently, sometimes he was sketching out (I mean writing thousands of words about) his understanding of how society should be organised.

One of the things that people easily forget when they think about theology is that people have often been prepared to die for it, that theological opinions have often been a matter of life and death.  There are different versions of this. Some people will die for their faith because they believe that martyrdom is a fast track to paradise.  But this isn’t the driver of most martyrdom down the ages and is not, in a Christian understanding, true martyrdom.  A martyr is a witness and true martyrs are those who have been so committed to their faith, their understanding of the truth, that witnessing to this truth became more important to them than their own life. True martyrs don’t want to die; but they are not prepared to lie their way out of a situation when matters of ultimate truth are at stake. True martyrdom is not about seeking any personal reward but about standing up for truth, however costly that proves to be.

Along with the idea of martyrs goes the idea of heretics. Although people don’t often make this point, it almost goes without saying that all heretics are theologians. They are people who have thought things through for themselves and come to conclusions that religious authorities have not found acceptable. A heretic is not someone who suddenly has a dodgy idea in their head. A heretic is someone who has taken a lot of trouble to come to their unpopular view and is prepared to take the flak for maintaining their position. The study of theology involves the study of heresy and heretics. And thank goodness for that, because it is potential ‘heretics’ who push the boundaries and possibilities of theology wider and wider.  The pursuit of deep wisdom involves the possibility of making major mistakes. It may seem strange, but to a theologian that is all part of the pursuit of the truth. It is fair to say that just as some mistakes in life are worse than others, so some errors in theology are worse than others and it is therefore possible to think of heresy as sometimes very negative; it does not follow that all heresy is bad or that all those branded as heretics have been in error or done a disservice to the truth.  Often, inevitably enough, heretics are castigated not because they are actually and ultimately wrong, but because what they have to say is inconvenient and awkward for the powers that be.

Fun

Theology is fun partly because it is one of the most interdisciplinary of subjects. To study it properly you have to engage with philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology and sociology.  But that’s not all. Recognising that people express religious, spiritual and theological ideas indirectly, theology very often involves the study of literature. Novels, poetry and drama often include or allude to theological themes and discussions.  Theologians also try to progress their understanding by looking at historic works of art. The pictures, buildings and music of religious communities can teach us a great deal about their beliefs and values, and in today’s world you are as likely to find theological questions addressed in films as you are anywhere else. So yes, theologians go to the movies and try to ‘read’ or interpret them in a theological way.

One of the observations that I have made in life, not least in my ministry as a pastor, is that many people will be happy letting life go by, enjoying the good times and not asking many questions until something goes seriously wrong for them or someone they love. It’s for this reason that theology is often borne out of suffering or catastrophe. Good, interesting, lively compelling theology doesn’t often grow on happy trees in jolly gardens. It tends to spring up from the ruins of some kind of lost hope or shattered vision, or if not that then some genuine puzzlement and dissatisfaction with existing answers. Theology never grows out of smugness, but comes out of perplexity and the need to find answers to questions that keep us awake at night or which occur to us when life (or death) stops us in our tracks.

Maybe that idea doesn’t quite belong under the heading of theology as fun, but there is in fact a kind of fun to be had in looking difficulty and despair in the face and letting that reality challenge complacent and easy believing. And there is a huge amount of fun to be had (though ‘fun’ is too light a word now – joy would be better) in seeing hope rise again in the once despairing, in seeing the liberation of the oppressed, the forgiveness of those who have made great mistakes and the reconciliation of sworn enemies.  No theologian would claim that the study of theology will make these things happen, but for theology to be complete it must be interested in the upside of life, even if it often begins in the downside.

Important

Thirdly, theology is important. There was a time not very long ago when it was common for people to think that religion would die out.  ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ wrote John Lennon, ‘and no religion too’. This line of thinking didn’t start in the 1960s with the Beatles however, but in the nineteenth century.

In 1882 the philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche declared that ‘God is dead’ (adding that ‘we have killed him’). Previously, in 1867, one of the big name English literati of the Victorian era, Matthew Arnold, wrote a poem called ‘Dover Beach’ in which he referred to ‘the long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith’.  Arnold was connected with the strong-minded and eminent Victorian Leslie Stephen, whose father and grandfather were leading evangelical clergy, very much involved in social campaigns such as anti-slavery. They were members of the so-called Clapham Sect alongside social reformers like William Wilberforce and John Newton (the former slave-ship captain who wrote the hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’) and missionaries such as Henry and John Venn.

As the twentieth century dawned the advance of atheism continued. Thomas Hardy wrote a poem called ‘God’s Funeral’ between 1908 and 1910 and the First World War put an end to any easy idea that ‘God is in his heaven and all is right with the world’.  This was the era in which Leslie Stephen’s daughters, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, found themselves at the heart of an elite London group that was as different as it is possible to be to the Clapham Sect of their grandparents.  This was the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, which was famous for its artistic and progressive values. After the First World War religious authority figures were no longer trusted as they had been and it became increasingly common for people to think that what was taught or thought about God was essentially what people made up about God.  This approach was given a huge boost by the work of Sigmund Freud who developed the idea that the human mind was dominated by thought processes of which we were not aware, and that ‘God’ was essentially an idea conjured up in the recesses of our ‘unconscious’ to help us feel better and cope with life’s more difficult challenges.

But the end of faith wasn’t only prophesied by philosophers, poets and psychologists. Sociologists came up with the idea of ‘secularization’ almost as soon as their subject was invented. Studying the number of people who attended church from year to year they soon saw that the numbers were declining and, plotting graphs of the decline, proved to their own satisfaction that church-going should be over and done with by the early years of this century.  The sociologists were both right and wrong. Church going has declined in many places, especially in the north of England, but there are also places where it has increased, and the actual ultimate decline of religion, the death not only of God of which Nietzsche spoke, but of believing in God, has not yet happened. In fact, the reverse is the case. The spin-doctors of the ‘New Labour’ government of Tony Blair famously announced in 2003 that they didn’t ‘do God’. But that didn’t matter, plenty of other people were busy doing God, although the equally ‘new Atheists’ were becoming increasingly vociferous, annoyed perhaps that their predecessors had not managed to put an end to faith and that, if anything, the tide of the sea of faith seemed to have turned and was coming back in again.

There are many reasons for this, and not all of them are based on the better aspects of religious thought and practice, but that’s not the point.  The point is that religious beliefs and religious organisations are today having an enormous impact on the lives of people all over the world. Religion has not died out and it isn’t going to die out anytime soon.  It had a very serious wobble in Europe and Britain, but the edifice of organised religion has not toppled, and the whole new phenomenon of people calling themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ has exploded. It is evidence of ‘faith’, the sort of thing that a theologian out to try to understand. And if you have the cast of mind that is theological you may be thinking ‘hmmm, there is interesting and important stuff here. I wonder whether anyone understands all this. Let me try to find out’.

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From Chapter 3 of God Curious.

If this extract has made you feel a little God curious, why not follow this link to find out more about Stephen Cherry’s book.

Stephen is the Dean at King’s College Cambridge, and tweets here.

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Stephen Cherry’s Five Not Very Good Reasons for Not Engaging with Theology

What is theology? And why should we be interested in it?

Stephen Cherry tackles five ‘not very good’ reasons for not engaging with theology, in his new book, God Curious. Here in this exclusive extract, he shares them with us.

Five Not Very Good Reasons for Not Engaging with Theology

The first reason that might be suggested is this: I don’t believe in God therefore I can’t possibly study God.

If theology were limited to questions about the nature of God then you might have a point. That which doesn’t exist can’t have a nature … However, theology and religion have been important in history and philosophy. They continue to impact hugely on current affairs and inform the ways in which people respond to realities as different as beauty and tragedy. In other words, what goes on when people are motivated by religious faith and theological conviction is a matter of significance well beyond the community of believers. Indeed, an atheist may feel that theology is too important a subject to be left to those who believe in God. And certainly, theology and religion aren’t going to go away just because atheists are dismissive of believers.

The second reason is the opposite of the first. I not only believe in God but I know God very well, and for this reason I don’t want to study God any more than I would want to study my parents or my partner. 

I agree that if you are completely confident that you know all there is to know about God then theology is not for you.  Theology is only worth exploring if you think that other people’s views about God are at least as interesting as your own.

The third reason why you may not want to study theology is because you think it is not a real subject of study but just a professional training programme for ministers of religion.

It is true that this used to be the case, and that there are places where people study theology only for this reason. It is also true that if you study theology at university you may well come across people who are studying for this reason, and you will almost certainly read books by people who are trained and ordained ministers and you may well be taught by some.  But theology stopped being the province of the clergy alone a long time ago, and it has become a much more lively subject since – so don’t let that one worry you.

The fourth reason you may not wish to study theology is because it’s just about learning what the Bible says or what people of different religions do.

If you think this you may be muddling up theology, the most exciting subject imaginable, with what has all too often passed for ‘religious education’ at school; which is all too often dominated not by the pursuit of life’s deepest questions but by learning superficial details about religious traditions.

The fifth reason is a bit like the fourth in that you may think that theology is entirely concerned with ancient and irrelevant philosophical problems of the ‘how many angels can dance on a pin-head’ variety

I can guarantee that you won’t be discussing that question, or anything like it, if you engage with theology today! The agenda has moved on. Theologians today seek to learn from the past and to understand why theologians of previous eras posed and answered certain questions in the way they did, but they also seek to learn from theologians of other faiths and to respond to the problems and predicaments that occur in today’s world as well as to the classic questions such as the existence of God and the consequences of believing specific doctrines.

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From Chapter 3 of God Curious by Stephen Cherry.

Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College Cambridge, and the author of many books. He tweets here.

For more information on God Curious, or to buy a copy of the book, please follow this link.

For more exclusive content from our authors, why not follow us on Facebook – @JKPReligion – or join our mailing list here. You can unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. 

Be the first to read an extract from ‘Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age’

How can Islam be understood in the context of internal struggles for unity and identity, a rise in anti-Muslim hate crime and continued media portrayals of violence, extremism, warfare and oppression? Looking at Islam as a faith, a whole system with political dimensions and through the lens of Western media, this book sets out to clarify the nature of true Islam and the true nature of Islam.

“In a world in which ISIS and other terrorists are a global threat and Islamophobia has grown exponentially, Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age will be welcomed by policymakers and the general public alike. This timely volume discusses and demonstrates the importance of The Amman Message, a major statement by hundreds of major global Muslim leaders and scholars written as a refutation and delegitimation of violent extremism and terrorism in the name of Islam.”

John L. Esposito, University Professor of Religion & International Affairs and author of The Future of Islam

Follow this link to read an extract from the Introduction to Muslim Identity in a Turbulent Age by Mike Hardy, Fiyaz Mughal and Sarah Markiewicz.

For more information and to buy the book, please follow this link.