Monasteries run into various problems with the internet, but let’s not try to unravel that mess right now. Maybe another time. Right now I’d like to mention just one thing in that connection because it provides a good example of what we leave behind—or at least we should—when we commit ourselves to a life according to the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. The internet, you see, can ease our fall into temptation. No, I’m not going to talk about the temptation to look at pornography. Still other temptations abound. Let’s look at one that might appear harmless. One that seems, well… ordinary. In reality it poses a serious threat to the life we have chosen. Funny thing—we don’t subscribe to magazines and newspapers here, we don’t listen to the radio or watch tv, and yet the internet delivers everything they contain. Curiosity about current events and recent controversies, though, distracts us from the life in Christ. The news items alone would create a big enough problem. So would the ads, all by themselves. But the real threat to our efforts at ego-free living in communion with God and our brothers ambushes us from another angle. Along with each story come opinions about it, and an invitation to each of us to submit our own. As a result, we try to resist the temptation to toss in our two cents’ worth about current events, scandals, legal cases, and issues of ethics, taste, and common sense— tax cuts for the rich, the poor, and the middle class, which of two actresses looks prettier in a particular dress, bullying and how to handle it, insensitive remarks and cruel deeds by famous people or average citizens, slips of the tongue by politicians, lovers’ quarrels between singers or athletes, whether movies or popular music have gotten better or worse over the last decade or two, behavior to avoid or adopt in the workplace or while driving down the highway or while texting or e-mailing or while out on a date. We try to resist the temptation to voice our opinion about newly introduced goods and services, how to clean the kitchen or bathroom, economic and political crises, and plenty of other topics. I find all these things and more on the program that hosts my e-mail service. And below each news item the comments begin—pro and con about all or part of the story, and then for and against the other comments. They want my opinion, too. They beg me for it. And they make it easy. Underneath the comments already expressed they solicit my opinion with the note “post a comment.” They have pre-loaded it with my name and everything! They care what I think! If I didn’t know better, I might regard this as a chance to let people who I am and what I stand for. I do feel the temptation. Hold on a minute, though. I’m going to say something alarming. It originates in monastic spirituality. Apply it to your own life if it works for you. Here it is: Nobody needs my opinion, not even me. Especially not me. If I think of myself as the sum of my opinions, I remove myself from the life in Christ. And although we tend to believe
that we know someone when we learn their opinions, or that we become friends when our opinions agree, it really isn’t true. With all the trading back and forth of opinions, we remain distant from one another. We remain strangers. These revelations shocked me when I first heard them. I can still recall our abbot saying, “Monks don’t need opinions.” He said that over and over, probably because we didn’t accept it right away. But after that initial shock, over time I grasped its wisdom. It has to do with letting go of superficial things for the sake of the more essential. From the standpoint of eternity, my opinions don’t matter. Someone who becomes a monk or a nun begins to discard opinions by taking the four vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. We don’t specifically vow to give up our opinions. But it occurs as we take our vows seriously. Poverty doesn’t reduce to non-possession. We can possess little and still miss the mark of spiritual poverty. If the passion of avarice—the desire for things— still dominates me, I am not living a life of poverty. And a lot of my opinions in a consumerist society consist in a taste for this and a taste for that, a preference for one product or service over another, this sense of style as opposed to that. In a life of poverty, I abandon everything—including opinions—that attaches me to acquiring stuff. Chastity means more than disavowing sex and romance. When I get curious about which actress is prettier, wonder about the opinion of other men on the subject, and feel an urge to express my own, I am toying with the stuff I have supposedly renounced. Along with our vow of chastity, we cast aside opinions like that. They don’t play a part in the vowed life. If I’m not chasing girls, I don’t have to have opinions about which girls to chase or how to do it. Can I dedicate myself to obedience and still cling to my opinions? Probably not. Letting go of opinions here comes especially hard to a lot of us. We’d like to be obedient because it makes us look pious and spiritual, but at the same time we reserve the right to evaluate our abbot, judge our spiritual father, and criticize anyone else placed in authority over us. More opinions that have to go. And how about stability? Well, let’s take a glance at what happens “out in the world” and the purpose served by the vow of stability. In regular life as we know it, if I hate my job, I quit and look for another. If my friends bother me, I drop them and move in different circles. If my neighbor’s dog barks all the time, I relocate. My vow of stability, though, urges me to see my opinions in a different light. Instead of regarding them as an expression of who I am, I regard them merely passions to overcome. I stick with the monastic life through thick and thin, because my vow to God to stay put carries more weight than my opinions about people and things around me. My opinions do not really matter. They do not express who I really am, not deep down. From the standpoint of eternity, my opinions are part of that trash and pollution floating on top of the river that is me. I do not lose anything essential by getting rid of them. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Colossians, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3: 1-3). So do my opinions count? Nope. Not for anything important. I can renounce them without losing what matters. And in fact I must renounce them in order to get on with what matters.