Monday, October 1, 2012

The Half World

Welcome JR, and thank you for that lovely poem.  Thank you all for a week of wonderful words and interesting questions.  I want to devote this week to answering your questions as best I can. 

Katrina and Pam, Tammy and Ember, you ask about our life in the monastery.  It is interesting and even moving to me that you should ask that, because I don't think I mentioned a monastery.  And yet you are so nearly right.  

We did stay in a monastery a few years ago.  It was a wonderful experience.  In truth it entirely changed my direction in life, from forever inward to outward at last.  We were away from Innermost House for awhile, and at the time I had no idea we would ever return to it.  I was truly desperate.  We attended a service at a monastery chapel, and one of the brothers very kindly invited us to stay for a few weeks.  Then a few weeks more, and so it went.  I think I would have been content to stay for years.  Other guests occasionally came for a few days.  I was the only woman who had ever stayed there, but the brothers could not have been more gracious.  We lived together and dined together and prayed together.  But my favorite time of day there was when we all gathered for conversation in the large parlor before dinner.  

The monastery campus was like a little village.  The grounds were beautifully cared for, the buildings dignified and serene, the interior spaces scholarly and atmospheric.  There was a soaring, austere chapel and well stocked library.  The monks wore black and white for ceremonial occasions and plain clothing the rest of the time.  Theirs was a teaching order, and they had devoted their lives to young people around the world.  We stayed in the retirement wing with the elderly brothers, where the atmosphere of scholarly retirement was especially intense.  They had shared one common purpose together for so long that they had learned to make little of personal incompatibilities.

Innermost House is a kind of monastery, a hermitage really.  To me it is the innermost place, inward of which I never expect to penetrate in this world.  So when we were without Innermost House, I felt very naturally at home in a monastery. 

But now I am in the world again.  At least I'm half way in the world.  It took a long time to make our way to Innermost House, and through those years we deliberately lived half way in and half way out of the world.  I call it the Half World.  University or college towns best represent the kind of places we lived. We live in a college town now.  

I looked up the word "college."  Its etymology is interesting.  "In ancient Rome, a collegium was a club or society, a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = "together" + leg- = "law" or lego = "I choose").  This reminds me of Elizabeth's remark a week or two ago about gravitating toward towns with an alternative community.  There is a sense in which the college or university is the original Half World or "alternative community," sharing at once in the nature of the monastery and the secular world.

Universities in Europe are a thousand years old.  They are the direct descendents of the monastery schools where monks and nuns were the teachers.  The relationship between monasteries and universities is still vivid in traditions like the academic cloister, the quadrangle "garth" or lawn, the graduation "parchment" and the academic gown.  Even the idea of academic freedom has its roots in the free worldly passage given to the unworldly pursuit of the truth.  Universities are almost the only places left in the modern world where the ideas and practices of monasticism make any sense at all.

At the foundations, college towns and monasteries and Innermost House are related in many ways.  Beneath the surface of things a college town represents the monastic relationship between body and mind that we reconstituted inwardly as Innermost House.  To pass through the university gates is to enter another world, full of chanted echoes, where knowledge still wears a beloved and beautiful body.

Of course there are many ways to reconstitute that midway kind of balance. Well-preserved ancient towns and villages can be such places, especially in relation to our lives today.  Resort towns can sometimes be such places. Midway places are distinguished by being somewhat more self-contained, somewhat less sprawling, somewhat more cultural, somewhat less commercial, somewhat more contemplative, somewhat less hyperactive than the world at large.  They stand midway between the woods and the world.

College towns have offered us a world of advantages through the years.  The best of them combine to a truly unusual degree the advantages of cosmopolitan 
culture and real local roots.  They are often architecturally beautiful places, constituting ideal villages in themselves, in harmony with the surrounding community.  Almost everyone you meet is there to teach or to learn, or to support the work of teaching and learning.  How very pleasant that is!

They are walking towns which offer local services of necessity; they cannot afford to outgrow their pedestrian roots when so many students rely on walking. And even small college towns are rich with many of those things of the world I love bestancient music, traditional arts, fine libraries and a literary life. There are good professional services, and often local farmers markets for food.  People gather together in such places who, for awhile in their life or for a career, are interested in the truth of things.  

A learned visitor to us in the woods once said that he found in Innermost House a "pure university life" where he felt free to ask and explore the deepest questions.  Now a retired professor friends of ours says he could never live elsewhere than in a college town, where "you can hear knowledge happening"as opposed to all the things you hear happening in other places!  It is perhaps the serious, searching conversation that I love best wherever I am.

Some of the somnolent quality of life in the cloister still lingers in the atmosphere here, where so many are intent upon the patient work of study.  It is not the woods of course, it is not quite a monastery.  But there is still the ceremony of seasonal life, there is still the bell to sound the hours, and there is still time to think.  

The Half World is my home for now.  I am only half way out of my hermitage in a college town.




  1. :0) I love the idea of Innermost House being a "pure university life".

  2. Thanks for writing this Diana. High thinking, indeed. I love that you trace the development of the university from the monastic schools - the university I attended for my undergraduate degree is one of those ancient institutions, and I felt I could draw strength from the ancient stones and their continuous inhabitation by those who love the truth.

    I have managed very little so far to make my outward life reflect the inward simplicity that I feel. I have made a small beginning - with simple clothes - but largely I live surrounded by clutter as I don't seem to be able to keep up with cleaning and tidying. Reading your essays gives me hope that one day I will get to a more comfortable place in life - I am committed to the truth and I believe that if I hold fast to it I will find my way, no matter how messy this part of the road. I live for the truth, for heart to heart connection with others who also love the truth. I choose to believe that by holding to that, all that is unnecessary will gradually become more obvious and fall loose.

    It's funny, some of what is least necessary in this life where I live seems most to signify the life I reach for in my love of truth. I have a mechanical clock; and a mechanical analytical balance. The clock is not ticking, I am not keeping it wound, but I have a feeling that it and I are going somewhere together. I will keep it on the shelf, until it becomes obvious that it is not needed. I use the balance just a little, if I am making a salve where I must weigh tiny amounts of a herb. Yet it, and I, and the clock seem to belong to a pattern language that is much closer to where my heart lives than the digital clock on the microwave that told me the time just now. I feel that those objects are in my care, and I must carry them through this time to another person's care in the future. Muddling through in the half world.

  3. I really missed my university city when I left it. I've never thought about it in this context, but it explains some of my yearnings. Thanks Diana.

  4. This post is raising interesting feelings in me.

    On one hand I am drawn to university settings because of the community of people who are focused on learning and discussion. The students are often filled with fresh wonder of life and the possibilities available to them. There are usually active groups for environmentalism and vegetarianism - causes and lifestyles I follow so it does feel wonderful to find like-minded people with whom I can share ideas and learn from and the products and services I am looking for. I also love the orderliness of the grounds and the availability of services catering to the residents, helping them stay focused on what is really important, knowledge and truth. The accommodation is usually simple, furniture is sparse and practical, and the lifestyle includes a lot of outdoor time socializing or in discussion. For most residents, there is very little focus on mortgages, utilities, purchasing 'things' for the home and all the other things we 'householders' tend to think about and spend money on. The university life offers the opportunity to be single minded with the bare necessities taken care of.

    On the other hand, reading this post reminded me of my college years which for me were also stressful. The social obligations and academic schedule where felt like just that: obligations. In retrospect, had I been more grounded, I might have realized I had more control over these decisions than I thought at the time, but still, this setting of group classes and school schedules is not appealing to me. Unfortunately my tolerance levels change day by day so one day I may sign up for a course I would like to take and by the day of the first class I might not feel relaxed enough to take it. This is likely my personality or imbalances but it is real to me and certainly affected my appreciation of school life.

    Diana, you have the best of these worlds as a resident who is not an enrolled student. You can enjoy the atmosphere and availability of books and services as well as the potential relationships with knowledge seekers, often from around around the country.. and often the world! Now, this lifestyle would appeal to me if I had a residence with sufficient privacy and charm.

    I would like to preface all this by saying that I have just gone through 18 years where my quest for knowledge and truth centered around knowledge and truth for child rearing. This is a whole different lifestyle and focus than that offered in university towns and one that I could not imagine my life without. They children grow up, but an element of concern and responsibility remains.

    And finally, sorry if this is a bit long, I want to mention that right now in my life my focus is on academics related to the body and mind and spirit(all aspects of health and natural healing) and much of the learning I feel ready for is on the feeling level to find the truth in me. A large university book collection may have some information that would help, but I am sensing that much of the relevant knowledge is already within me, waiting for me to simplify my life and home so that I may not be too distracted to hear it.

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  6. Aargh! Typos above! Corrected copy:

    Leah, you brought back some interesting memories for me of an earlier time when I still thought that possessing knowledge equalled being loveable. When I was growing up, the only time I received praise from my dad was when I brought home a great report card, so naturally I came to believe that my worth and loveability was tied up in the knowledge I possessed and in the honed capacity to think and to learn. My own father never finished high school because he went into the Navy at age 17 to help out his family (he was the youngest of twelve children). I'm sure that I represented the unfinished potential in his own life and as the progeny of his seed, my intellectual accomplishments, by extension, must have made him feel that he had the same innate intelligent too. I still collect lots of books and my personal library is strictly non-fiction, mostly about philosophy, psychology, spirituality, writing, and working with the dying, but when I had my insight into the workings of my addiction to books they no longer held the same sway over me. Now, I feel rather detached as I look at my collection and wonder why I still hang onto so many books that I will never read again, but the major reasons are that the books are way too expensive to just donate to the public library to be sold off at a dollar a book, yet I'm too lazy to catalogue them and list them on eBay or Craig's list, so there they stay by default in glass-doored bookcases in my living room and finished basement. I've undergone quite a radical shift in my understanding of myself over the last twenty years and while I still continue to read for personal enjoyment, there is no longer an underlying feeling of unconscious longing to be smart enough to be loved. And, in the last three years or so, I've lost a lot of interest in books altogether, because, like you, I know that all the relevant knowledge I need to live mindfully in the present moment is contained within that moment AS me and no amount of book learning will add a whit to the wholeness of my inner Self. I'm now more interested in having a still mind rather than an active, adept one, and have found that since I'm a 'mental' (as opposed to bodily or emotional) personality type, it behooves me to get out of my head as much as possible to balance out my ingrained tendencies. Now, if only that would translate into loving physical exercise as a replacement. Alas, it appears I may always prefer the couch to the gym mat!

    1. Lovely post and obviously a lot of growth, Pam -- thank you for sharing this. I suspect I am more of a 'bodily' personality type but still find myself 'in my head' too much, and it is distracting. As for the physical exercise, perhaps a yoga mat would feel more comfortable and inviting than a gym mat? This is the case for me. :)

    2. A timely post on my facebook page today:

      "You cannot teach a person anything. You can only help him find it within himself." -- Galileo

      ... and of course, I am sure in today's world he would say 'him/her'.

  7. Oh how birds of a feather will flock together. I too was "the smart one" in my family. It was my whole identity--"Just the smartest little girl in the whole wide world!" How gratifying my subsequent adult life has been to me, however. For I discovered a latent and inherent knack within myself for being just as stupid as anybody--stupider even...A month before my Dad passed away, he had reason to call me a "dip-stick" over some ignorant thing I had said without realizing it. (It is a profoundly inadvertent gift, stupidity.) I cried a couple of real tears of joy. At last he had seen me for MYSELF before he left this world.

    1. Julie, thanks for writing this. So moving and beautiful and real. What a wonderful opportunity we are finding here, each of us in our own way, struggles and joys and all, but drawing near one another to listen and be inspired.

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  9. Typos again! I have such a hard time noticing them when I type in the box; I need to see them in the published form in order to catch them. Sorry! I hope I got them all this time.

    Diana, you wrote: "It is perhaps the serious, searching conversation that I love best wherever I am." I've been so curious about this right along. Could you give us a specific example of a topic you've explored that has lent itself well to the serious, searching type of conversation you so love? The kinds of inner contemplation that feel that way to me often evolve when I examine the nuances of words that an author chooses to use, like looking at the origin of the word and then contemplating how that origin relates to the whole of the word, much in the same way as you described the etymology of the word 'college', but then going even deeper into each of its parts. So, for instance, in the 'college' example, how would the 'leg'/law part of the word 'college' be reflected in the commonality of behaviors of a group of people who study together? What are the ramifications of following the letter of the law over the spirit of the law? Does following a set of rules for a particular field of study with others create rigidity or inflexibility, or does it promote discipline and respect? Then, I'd start looking at the collegial relationships in my own life to see if they fit the definition I came up with, or if not, in what ways they differ. If they differed, then I'd have to think of another word that might suit the particular relationship better and then the exploration of THAT word might elucidate the nature of the relationship even more, and so on. Then, I might think about the quality of the collegial relationships I have. Do I like them? Do they nurture me? Is there something I might need to do to make them better? Is there a teacher/student quality to the relationship (as in noticing the balance of power), and which one am I? Which is my favorite of these different relationships in mylife and what qualities does it have that sets it apart from the others? Is that the 'type' of discussions you like? Do you pick a random topic to talk about at night with Michael, or do you just happen upon a phrase or concept in your oral reading with Michael that prompts a discussion? Do you discuss mostly philosophical questions or do your discussions also run the gamut from historical perspectives and current politics to contemporary pop culture? What specifically do you most enjoy talking about, both with Michael as well as with your IH guests?

  10. I have always dreamed of living in a university town but we don't really have them here in Australia. I think what appeals is the blend of movement and change with steadiness and deep thought. They also seem to be places of such potential where people are exploring the world and it's ideas. The antithesis of suburbia and all it's conformity.


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