Father Christopher Jamison is the abbot of Worth, a Benedictine monastery in Sussex, England. He is also president of the International Commission on Benedictine Education and the host of the popular BBC documentary series “The Monastery.”
On Abbot Jamison’s recent trip to the United States, the Register interviewed him about the role of monastic education in the Church today, as well as about his new book, Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps for a Fulfilling Life.
At the end of your first book, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life, you said that St. Benedict describes the monastery as a “school of the Lord’s service.” The Church has variously been described as a “hospital for sinners” and an “army barracks.” Is the Church also a school?
I think first and foremost a school — no question about that. Above all, parishes and Christian families are places for formation in Christian living — that’s their primary task. The whole distinguishing feature of Catholic community against secular society is that the Catholic community is a school of ascetical living. What I describe in both books is the attraction, the goodness and the beauty of a community of ascetical living.
Is it accurate to call your book Finding Happiness a guide to the self-aware interior life?
Yes. The book is an attempt to rescue the interior life from the growing clutches of commercial interests. Because we have a society that doesn’t value the asceticism of the interior life — which is, of course, a reality — someone is going to fill the vacuum.
So when you’ve purchased a certain cultural product, you think, “Ah, now I’ve found that. I’ve had the therapy that makes me less stressed,” for example. Or, “I’ve taken my family to the ‘right’ event,” which means we’re now a “good” family, and so on.
You write a lot about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Why?
Because they were the first psychologists of Christian culture. And they did it experimentally. They took themselves out into the desert with nothing around them and said, “Now let’s search for God and see what happens.” They noticed this pattern emerging.
They went out into the desert and fought the demons. We have the word to describe the problem still. Whenever a celebrity goes into rehab, there’s always a spokesperson on hand to say, “Britney is fighting her demons.” Well, that expression comes from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. But we have forgotten their solutions, and I want to remind people of their solutions.
When you speak of the journey to happiness, you detail eight thoughts that make people miserable. Is happiness anchored in thought and not in emotion or feeling?
Well, that’s the theory of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and the theory of my book. Extraordinarily, the rise of cognitive psychology in the 21st century is asserting this, as well.
Putting it simply, if you were angry and depressed your family doctor in a previous era might have sent you to a psychotherapist. And after 10 years of exploring your family origins and your family traumas, it is very possible you were no less angry or depressed.
Research has now shown that if you go to a cognitive therapist who asks you not “How is life with your mother and father?” but questions like “Why are you angry and depressed? Please tell me what makes you think that person is so bad? Why do you think life is that bad? Tell me what you think,” the therapist then nurtures you to new thoughts.
And they say that in a dozen or so one-hour sessions, people’s emotional life improves.
Now that’s exactly what the Desert Fathers and Mothers taught. They said, “Come to grips with your thoughts: That’s the source of your difficulties.”
You write that of all thoughts, the most lethal are pride and vanity.
Pride is the cleverest thought, the cleverest demon. It’s the only one that redoubles its efforts every time we face it. The others take flight when we turn around and confront them. If I think, “No, I’m not going to be greedy. I’m not going to eat all that extra stuff,” the demon of greed goes, “Oh, all right,” and it goes away.
The demon of pride goes, “Aha!” and begins pushing back. If you think, “I have now conquered my greed and anger, so aren’t I doing well? I’ve really cracked this spiritual thing,” that’s the day you’re in deep trouble. The demon of pride has really got you.
You also mentioned gluttony. What can the Desert Fathers and Mothers teach us about eating and fasting?
Amma Syncletica, one of the most powerful Desert Mothers, asks the brilliant question: “How do I know what is fasting that comes from the devil?” And she answers, “Because it’s unbalanced. That’s how I know it’s from the devil.”
“You must eat the food you’re given,” Amma Syncletica says. “That is part of your fasting.” So they sensed the way we eat — and the way we don’t eat — is a disciplined activity. There is a discipline in making yourself eat properly regularly. The fast food-on-the-go concept they would be appalled by.
What’s the thought at the root of the forgotten deadly sin, acedia (spiritual carelessness)?
The thought goes, “All this prayer stuff, this introspection, this attempt to live a community life, my attempts to be loving, it’s all a waste of time. I should get out of it. I should do like it says on the advertisements: I should have more ‘me’ time.”
God save us from “me” time! What an appalling thing! And people go around saying it as if it was a virtue!
What people have to discover is that “me” time is all the time if you approach it with the right thought. The idea that looking after your baby or doing your work is not “me” time: How silly can you get? If you see it all as God’s time, it’s all me time.
My worry is that what too often gets “bought” and taken away from the monastery is meditation techniques for more “me” time, as opposed to a sense of real prayer, which leads out into the community.
In Finding Sanctuary, you suggest that to learn to contemplate we even need to learn to read in a new way.
A core part of your ascetical community is the way you read, a refusal to buy into the current reading-for-entertainment, reading-for-information culture and instead learning how to slow down and read for wisdom.
Until the 12th century, Christian Europe saw all reading — whether the text was sacred or secular — as the learning of wisdom. To read a text of arts or sciences is to be engaged in the work of your salvation, not in the acquiring of information. This is to read the book of creation alongside the book of the Bible.
Sue Ellin Browder writes from