Monday, May 6, 2013

Monks and Monkhood

The other day a friend and I were talking about the beauty of the interfaith movement, and all the trials and victories that go with it. At one point, though, he made some odd reference that I didn't quite get.

"What do you mean", I asked.

"Well, Baha'u'llah said that there should be no more monks." He said it so simply that I felt as if it were something that I should already know.

"He did? Where?"

And thus the search began.

At first, I thought he was referring to that great line from Baha'u'llah, "From two ranks amongst men power hath been seized: kings and ecclesiastics." But no, that wasn't it.

Finding this quote, however, did bring up an interesting point. Baha'u'llah does not abolish the clergy here. In fact, there are so many places where He praises just and wise clerics that it seems as if He does not abolish it at all. No. In the above quote, He takes away their power.

Think about it. Removing their power does not make them ineffective or useless.

In the Baha'i community the Counsellors have no power. (Caution: Personal opinion here.) While they are responsible for the winning of goals, they do not have the power to accomplish them. That rests with the individual Baha'i. Instead, the Institution of the Learned is given respect. It used to be that the individual cleric had power, authority and respect. Well, as Baha'u'llah has said, power has been stripped from them. Power rests with the individual. Authority resides with the Institution of the Rulers (the Universal House of Justice, National Assemblies, and so forth), and respect is given to the Counsellors, and those that serve under them.

Working in Multifaith Services at the University of Victoria has shown to me that the clergy here really do good work. They provide a valuable and important service to the community. But, interestingly enough, they have no power on campus. In the office we act as advisors, offering spiritual advice to those who need it, or going into classrooms and talking about the spiritual connection to their class. (Or sometimes I sit and write this blog, if it is slow, like today.)

So now that we are reasonably clear on what was said, and not said, in the above quote, let's go back to what began this: monks.

My friend said that there were to be no more monks in the world.

But is this true? Has the world moved beyond the need for the service that the monks have offered humanity in the past?

As usual, I like to go back to the Writings and see what is said there.

My favorite reference is, "Say: O concourse of monks! Seclude not yourselves in your churches and cloisters. Come ye out of them by My leave, and busy, then, yourselves with what will profit you and others."

You will notice that Baha'u'llah does not tell them to cease being monks. He tells them to come out of seclusion.

He continues in that same passage to say, "Seclude yourselves in the stronghold of My love. This, truly, is the seclusion that befitteth you, could ye but know it. He that secludeth himself in his house is indeed as one dead. It behooveth man to show forth that which will benefit mankind. He that bringeth forth no fruit is fit for the fire."

So He tells them to move in the world and do good things, be of benefit to humanity. He also warns them that doing nothing only makes you "fit for the fire", something that would really resonate with them of a Christian background.

He also goes on, in that same passage, to tell them to marry. "Enter ye into wedlock, that after you another may arise in your stead. We, verily, have forbidden you lechery, and not that which is conducive to fidelity."

As I'm sure we all know, there was rampant lechery in some of the monasteries. He reminds them to put that aside and obey the laws of their own faith. He points out that Jesus's holiness and importance was not due to the fact that He didn't marry. It was due to the fact that He was a Manifestation of God, like Baha'u'llah.

He goes through all the things that distinguish most brotherhoods of monks and clarifies what is really important. He purges them of superstition. Seclusion? Don't bother. Lechery? Give me a break. Bachelorhood? Why? You may as well get married, if you want, for being single does not make you more holy.

But notice that He doesn't say anything about their vows of poverty, or their living a simple life. Those are good things. They are admirable and even beneficial.

He does not condemn them for praying or studying the Sacred Writings. Not at all. He even encourages them in these endeavours, for they are pivotal to a good spiritual life. At no point does he tell them to stop those things.

He goes even further in Glad Tidings and says, "The pious deeds of the monks and priests among the followers of the Spirit (Jesus) -- upon Him be the peace of God -- are remembered in His presence. In this Day, however, let them give up the life of seclusion and direct their steps towards the open world and busy themselves with that which will profit themselves and others. We have granted them leave to enter into wedlock that they may bring forth one who will make mention of God, the Lord of the seen and the unseen, the Lord of the Exalted Throne."

It is the same message, with one addition: Their pious deeds are remembered. What a great assurance that is. By implication it seems to say that their impious deeds are forgotten, which resonates so well with other things He has said. It is like Jesus when He told the sinner to go, and sin no more. But more. He says that their good deeds are remembered, which is so different from what we see around us today, when a single bad deed will be remembered in the media for a very long time.

So, if Baha'u'llah has not told us to get rid of monks, and monkhood, what does it all mean? Well, I think it's fairly straightforward. To start, I would ask what the purpose of the monks is. They make a conscious effort to study the Writings, pray regularly, and offer a service to their community. Doesn't this sound familiar?

Throughout the Writings, Baha'u'llah brings everyone into line with His Teachings. This Faith is not for the few. It is for everyone, and that includes the monks. They have served a purpose in the past, and they continue to serve a purpose today. To help them in that purpose, Baha'u'llah offers them simple guidance. Work in the world, and marry, if you want.

And you know, it's the same guidance He offers us. Their purpose is our purpose. It is exactly what the Universal House of Justice is guiding us to do, too. Pray. Study. Serve. Is there anything more noble?

So I don't think we should get rid of the monkhood. No. I think we should all arise and become monks, in the way that Baha'u'llah encourages.

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