When Is a Monk not a Monk?

When he or she is a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Given that this is a religious-studies class (academic, not doctrinal) at a secular university,  I thought that the professor had an interesting idea.

The … course on monastic life and asceticism gives students at the University of Pennsylvania a firsthand experience of what it’s like to be a monk.

At various periods during the semester, students must forego technology, coffee, physical human contact and certain foods. They’ll also have to wake up at 5 a.m. – without an alarm clock.

Rather than reading or watching videos, they would have an embodied experience.

Now obviously it is a doctrinal-content-free experience on one level: it is just “monasticism,” not Catholic or Buddhist or anything else in terms of content. We might call it “core monasticism,” on a parallel with Michael Harner’s “core shamanism.”

The “faith-free” aspect—and the reporter’s failure to ask the how’s and why’s—annoyed Terry Mattingly at Get Religion, the blog critiquing journalistic coverage of religion. (Believe me, there is plenty to critique.)

I assume that there would be other ways of stating that requirement that the students eliminate “physical human contact.” That might have something to do with chastity and celibacy. One wonders why the story didn’t simply state that clearly, right up front. Perhaps it’s more shocking these days to discuss students giving up coffee and cell telephones.

The key to reading this AP report, however, is to strive not to focus on the content of McDaniel’s class and to try to figure out the degree to which the reporter did or didn’t miss some basic subjects.

But first, what is the tradition that shapes this form of monasticism that is acceptable on an elite university campus?

In the comments, Prof. Anthea Butler, another member of Penn’s religious studies faculty, promises a response in her column at Religion Dispatches. It is not yet published, but I will link to to it when it is available.

Did the class have a “spiritual” component? Should it have? Or is asking college students to give up cell phones and coffee and to take notes with a pen equivalent to hair shirts, self-mortification, and ora et labora in itself??

Actually, my first thought was, “Where is the music?” The students should meet at 5 a.m. in a large room with a good echo for half an hour of Gregorian chant. But that would be “content.”

4 thoughts on “When Is a Monk not a Monk?

  1. Medeine Ragana

    Anyone seriously interested in deepening their spirituality through “monasticism” (and that includes atheistic monasticism) can get more information at the Hermitary: http://hermitary.com/

    Fantastic resource. They also have a forum which folks can peruse and talk with people who are interested in that way of life from all religious backgrounds, and includes atheists as well.

  2. Pitch313

    HTG, it never crossed my mind that a public university might do any such thing as an element of a religious studies class.

    But then, I read Thomas Merton. Didn’t really want to live like him. (At the time, I was living in a pretty secular commune, learning about living along other than monastic avenues.)

  3. [I posted this comment yesterday but I think the firewall at work ate it…]

    Well, they could always chant something from one of the pseudo-Gregorian rock cover groups that are out there, like Chant Masters or Sabbatum… or my personal favorite faux-medieval work, Sandra Boynton’s “Grunt: Pigorian Chant” (which is much cleverer than the title would suggest, truly!).

  4. Pingback: Mysteria Misc. Maxima: February 17th, 2012 « Invocatio

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