Sister Galen: The basic question I would like to ask you is: “Do you feel that the artist is important to the religious life, or does the artist in some way fragment the fabric of religious life?”

Bro. David:    The way I see it is that there is within each one of us, personally, a realm of the artistic, in whatever way this might express itself — poetry or painting or music or in many less conspicuous ways. We are makers, “mindful makers,” and within each one of us that realm of the artistic mediates between daily chores and religious aspirations. So if each one of us, by strengthening and cultivating in the widest sense the artistic realm of our psyche, if we can integrate our lives and prepare ourselves for the mystical, deep religious experience —which is, of course, in the last analysis a total gift — how much more so in a community of people who are dedicated to the mystic life, and to openness towards it.

Sister Galen: The part that is difficult is that in many cases religious communities are also dedicated to certain works which sometimes seem to siphon off so much energy from ever being able to make art, that the people who are dedicated to creating it feel that their center is being crowded out. So they finally leave to go and create art, when it seems religious life would be the very place where art should flourish because it cultivates the center where God lives and art grows.

Bro. David :    It is important to make this distinction. There are monastic religious and there are non-monastic religious. Monastic religious are monks or nuns, people who have no particular work, who do not join this religious community because they want to do this or that work. But they join the monastic community for nothing else but to cultivate mindfulness. In the strict monastic community the prerequisite for being accepted is that you do not have a particular work in mind; neither being a teacher, nor a poet, nor a musician. Many Benedictine communities nowadays are truly Benedictine because they are in the Benedictine tradition.

This is a historic development. But they are religious; they are not monastic. And what is happening today is that they are rediscovering a monastic dimension. I think they deserve to have monastic houses within their communities. Just as other religious are founding houses of prayer, all the more so, Benedictine religious houses should found Benedictine monastic houses within their communities.

The Artist As a Bridge

Sister Galen:    Do you think it is possible that the artist might be the bridge back to that concept? Because the artist is cultivating mindfulness of God, out of which flows the making of art. And that’s work. But at the heart of it is the single-hearted mindfulness.

Bro. David:    Exactly. That is a very interesting term which I had not at all anticipated, but that is very true. Historically one of the things that is happening is that within a community that is dedicated to this or that work, there are now some who say, “Yes, but there is something pulling within us in another direction,” and they come together not because they have some preconceived notion about a monastery, but because they want to fulfill their artistic vocation. It happens to be, then, one monastery within that religious tradition. And then others will look at it and say, “I’m not particularly a musician or artist in any sense at all, but that idea appeals to me — that either for a long time or for a short time you can go to a place where you cultivate mindfulness, and where the whole environment promotes and helps you to cultivate your single-minded attention to God and purity of heart. And when I have refreshed myself I will go out and I will be a better teacher for that. I will remain a Benedictine religious with a certain time spent in a monastic environment.” I could see this as a very interesting historic development.

Sister Galen:    What I am very concerned about is the people who do feel this hunger right now — whether it’s for art or just straight-to-the-heart wanting to find God, no matter what work one does. I am concerned that these people somehow feel out of step with the rest of the community. Their hunger is for something different from the doing and making and teaching and work-oriented or product-oriented society that the religious house has begun to be. If we lose them, we lose the people that will begin the new colony or the new community after this form has been dissolved. I see the artists as people who are somehow intuitively conscious of the fact that there are going to be new forms. They are not saying that consciously; they are simply following their hearts, but that’s how God leads them.

Bro. David:    I see that very clearly, and it’s a very sad thing, which we see happening everywhere. You have on the one hand the hermits — whether they’re called to a permanent hermitage, or for just a year or two, or an indefinite period of time in solitude. You see them being edged out of communities where they have a right to belong because they have dedicated twenty-five or thirty years of their lives to this community. I would say the community owes them the opportunity to go out now and have a vacation or sabbatical if it can at all be arranged economically. Or at least let them be full members of the community and not make any fuss about “leave of absence” or “exclaustration” or anything like that. Just say, “Yes, now she has reached a stage in her development where after teaching for twenty-five years she wants to go into solitude. Let her go.”

That is very important. It is not done in many cases and that is how people are lost. Sometimes they go and found hermitages or find themselves another community to attach themselves to, and sometimes they are lost in the sense that they are just floundering around and do not find the realization of their own ideal. But what I said about hermits also applies to artists. It is very sad that there are some communities who are so purpose-oriented and so narrow that the artistic bent of mind appears as a threat to them. I know of at least one community in which the novice master had the idea that anybody who had an artistic bent of mind ipso facto had no vocation. He rooted them all out and the community was for many years totally impoverished because that particular element had systematically been screened out. That has a crippling effect on the community, and that is a very sad thing.

What does an Artist Bring to Community?

[quote text=”The world today needs most the witness of people who show how they love one another by upholding one another in their difference, and reveal the enrichment, the variety that springs out of that”]

Sister Galen:    When you say “impoverished” you are saying the negative of a definite gift that the artist brings. How would that community be impoverished? What is it that an artist brings to a community?

Bro. David:    The first thing that an artist can contribute is that the artist is a real test to the patience and to the love of everybody. There is no one harder to live with than an artist. Therefore an artist is a real gift because he or she raises the sanctity of everyone else in the community. One simply has to face that. It is a difficulty, a stumbling block. But if that is creatively met by the rest of the community, it will become that much richer.

Of course, there is something much more constructive, and again I am speaking mostly about monastic communities because that is my perspective, but in a sense it applies to other religious communities, too. Our great task in monastic communities is to create an environment, in the widest sense that supports and helps in this quest for single-minded awareness of the presence of God. That is not an easy thing. And the artist by vocation — by his or her very special talents — has the ability to create an environment with her art. A poet will always be that person who in many other ways of being and living creates a much stronger, much more clearly crystallized environment. Artists must be the leaders in this. If that element is lacking it would almost be as if you were going about building a house without bricklayers. It is an essential function, namely, the creating of the environment.

Sister Galen:    It is a sadness, but I think that the artist has been thought of as the person on the outside of that task, of the tasks that matter in the religious life, monastic life. Here it depends greatly on what you choose to call the essence of monastic life. You are defining the essence of monastic life to be the single-hearted search for God. But it would change with what you said the essence was. Now if you said that the essence was “community” and this person was not lockstep with the rest of the community, was not physically present, or was not seeming to be a good community member in the way that “community” was defined, then the artist would by definition be on the outside. Then that which she has to give — living for that search, following the rhythms that would take her to God — will be thought of as inconsistent with “community” and the artist will be pushed out one way or another.

Two Models of Community

Bro. David:    That happens frequently. The reason for that is, as I see it, not so much the emphasis on community, but the emphasis on the wrong notion of community — the notion of community that is in a way self-defeating. I think that there are two basic models of community. There’s the one model that says you can be a member if you conform, and there conformity is the premium and the price you have to pay for being a member. There is another community in which the very community is formed in order to support each member in their differences, not in their conformity. That is a very different direction. In my mind nothing is more urgently needed and more in line with the authentic tradition of religious community than this second model of community. Historically, religious communities were most of the time of the first type. But that is not in line with the liberty of the children of God or with true love, which is unconditional love. Abstracting from what are strictly religious aspects, it is not what the world today needs. The world today needs most the witness of communities that uphold people not at the price of giving in and conforming, but a community of people who show how they love one another by upholding one another in their difference, and reveal the enrichment, the variety that springs out of that.

Sister Galen:    It seems as if in going the safer way we may have lost that risk.

Bro. David:    Don Juan in Journey to Ixtlan says, “Your safe ways will be safe as long as everything is quiet, but when the crisis comes you’ll see that your safe ways were not that safe at all.”

Sister Galen:    I think the crisis is now. The crisis is that we are beginning to discover that there is so much to know that is essential to know, not just optional, that we will never be able to learn in our life-times. So if you have “one mind” in a house all you know is that one thing. But if you have all the variety of the way God works in people, and they know many different things, what a richness!

Bro. David:    That is another important argument in favor of religious community — that today in this special time of crisis there are people with one heart, but with so many different minds who feed so much different information into that one heart.

Sister Galen:    That richness is needed so much today because different knowledge can fragment people. But if people within this community have found their center, then they are linked by a very deep bond because that center is the same for all of them, and then they are in touch with God in that deep way. But it is not a way that is so superficial that you have to think the same way. You are free to follow the Spirit. It strikes me that that is the only safe way to follow. Otherwise you are saying we believe in a God, but we ultimately control this. Then how would you be following God?

Bro. David:    That is the crisis for many people today. It is true that there must be something people have in common in order to form a community. And it will probably be a great task to find out what is that necessary minimum that will hold us together as a community. If a group of people come together to create an environment in which no more than the necessary is laid down in the form of rule for the purpose of mutually sustaining and upholding one another in that search for the presence of God and the fulfillment of one’s personal calling, it would seem to be enough, but that minimum would have to be there.

Sister Galen:    It would also depend on how many people you have. If you had a very large group you would have people at so many levels that it might be difficult to arrive at a common perception of what is that essential minimum. How do you keep the balance of risk, which means that every person has something which is a unique perception to say, without getting formless and chaotic?


Br. David Steindl-Rast
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.