The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (1965) has said
that where there is a baby there also must be a mother. There is, he
said, no such thing as a baby. Babies are not singular nor are they
individuals. They are profoundly relational and cannot exist as babies
outside of relationship with the mother. Nor, for that matter, can a
mother be a mother without being in relationship to their baby. Life,
from the onset, is communal and networked. In the "with-ness" and the
flowing exchange of joys and care between the couple, community forms.
The mother, said Winnicott, can be thought of as having two
dimensions. There is the mother who is an "object," and the mother who
is an "environment." As an "object," the mother is an otherness who
provides functions, ministers in discrete acts of care and attention.
This is the mother who is "over there" and who is, in being "over
there," distinct yet available. As an "environment," the mother is a
presence, an atmosphere, a flow, an elemental given-ness whose being
forms for their baby a background sense of holding. The mother as
environment is the matrix in which relatedness is embedded and against
which relatedness stands out as figural. Not only is the baby held in
tangible and physical and sensual acts of support, the baby is also held
in states of mind, through intention and attention and in ontologic
self-presentation. Simultaneous to being an "object," the mother is also
a "holding environment."
It is this aspect of the mother-baby relationship that forms the
vessel or membrane inside of which discrete acts of attention and care
happen. The holding environment aspect of maternal care gives shape to
community within which solitude is possible. A mother who is both
consistent as an object and provides continuity of presence as a holding
environment is "good enough." As "good enough," the mother provides
neither too much, which would risk indulgent dependence or spoiling, nor
too little, which would risk the intolerable frustration of
deprivation. Dom Jean Leclercq (n.d.) has provided one of
the few illuminating commentaries on the Rule from the viewpoint of
Winnicott's perspective on the mother as a "good enough" holding
Leclercq considers the position of the Abbot within the community as
an exemplar of the "good enough" mother through whom the mind of Christ
is made manifest for internalization on the part of the community. He
also considers the community as a corporate entity whose form, suggested
by the Latin morphology of words designating community (congregatio, schola, institutio, and acies),
is inherently feminine. It is this good enough maternal holding aspect
of both Abbot and community that allows each monk--even those of the
cenobium, as Merton (1973) points out--to seek the
solitude of the desert as the medium through which develops an authentic
openness and purity of heart. The solitude of the desert is the medium
proper to communion and communication with the divine.
Each epoch and each distinctive cultural matrix must realize the
desert most proper to their own sensibility and to their own proper
encounter with the living God. This is as vital and as compelling now as
it was in the fourth century when Anthony, at thirty-five, shut himself
for twenty years in a fort in the Egyptian desert (Chitty, 1966).
Recent examples of this same spirit that beckons one into the fecund
and infinite nowhereness that is the eye of God can be found in the
eremeticism of Charles de Foucauld, of Henri LeSaux, O.S.B.
(Abhishiktananda) and, more recently, of Nazarena, the Camaldolese
recluse (Matus, 1998).
As a holding environment, the desert is a cauldron where the soul is
refined. "Each day begins clean and promising in the sweet cool clear
green light of dawn. And then the sun appears, its hydrogen cauldrons
brimming--so to speak--with plasmic fires and the tyranny of its day
begins" (Abbey, 1968). The desert is the nowhereness of
place, is where there is no place, where place is nowhere, where there
are no boundaries, no geopolitical demarcations of difference, no
spatial markers of identity, no confusing discriminating borderlines.
The desert, said Jean Baudrillard (1993), shapes a
"brilliant, mobile... neutrality... an outer hyperspace, with no origin,
no reference points... the end of aesthectics." In the desert, the
absence of shadow is the shadow of the Spirit (Taylor, 1992).
In the unrelenting soup of heat and vast horizontal expanse of the
desert, the anima, filled to the brim with silence and with
self-emptying awe, feeds off of this silence and grows full with a
solitude through which God, also in silence, speaks. "Not another
word... God is speaking to me... I answer.... Not another sound: silence
listens to silence," said Reb Safit (Jabes, 1990). Out
of this silence of void and abyss in which one hears the amplifying echo
of eternity, there is also an appeal for the tangible, for palpation of
the infinite, for communion with the sublime, for an aesthetics of
communication. The nowhereness of the desert and its sublime call is
exemplified in the recent cult fascination with the Mojave Desert phone
booth. Hundreds of persons each week now call this telephone where
mostly there is no one but where some pilgrims have traveled, in an
ambiguous mix of delusion and inspiration, to answer these calls from
those who wish to make "contact" with silent traces of the unspeakable
divine, the God of negative theology. The Mojave Desert telephone is a
symptom of an uncanny contemporary secular eremiticism. The space
conducive to its emergence is the borderline between modernity's
valorization of place and the web of postmodernity.
Perturbations in the rhythms of lived time also affect spatial
demarcations. With time becoming condensed into the urgency of the
instantaneous (Gleick, 1999) space becomes less of a
physical place and more a destabilized meta-physical designation.
Stability is subject to the turbulence of chaotic systems whose
underlying regularity has become increasingly less devoted to place as
it becomes caught up in both an insubstantial spectrology (the logos of
the ghost) and a de-centering spirituality of the virtual.
Where, we might ask, is the sapiential holding environment in this dual
dislocation that shifts identification with the center into the dynamism
of a self-evolving virtual network? This movement toward the space of
the postmodern has both its symptoms and its consolations. While
vocations for many communities are on the decline, oblates for those
same communities are frequently on the increase, in some instances
almost exponentially so. Monastic oblates are de facto hermits
as they live apart from, though spiritually linked to, traditionally
formed communities. Those who live out of the hermitage of the "inner
monk" are also contributing to shaping new communities. These
communities are less ordered around a self-contained place as they take
shape within cyberspace. The sapiential holding environment that is
monasticism is not disappearing so much as shifting shape and locus as
it incorporates into a vision of stability that always valued the
heart-centered solitude of the desert a new expanse: the postmodern
networks of cyberspace.
As its collective core diminishes, the network of monastic affiliations
is growing, becoming more expansively interrelated. Linkages through
non-physical space are possible as technologies for real-time
instantiety expand. Concurrent with growth in monastic affiliation is a
new form of desert, one that is less physical, less defined by the
stability of place and more virtual. The "stability" of cyberspace
shapes a new form of holding environment: an open democratic exchange in
which multiple facets of Spirit link across boundaries, identities,
enclosures of circumstance, and differentiations.
Monasticism is riding the cusp of an expanded consciousness no longer
limited to the defining cultural and incarnational spaces of actual
physicality as it incorporates the virtual embodiments of cyberspace.
One measure of this shift is the extent to which monastic communities
are in evidence on the World Wide Web. There are those, for example, who
simply announce their horarium to those who have turned the design of
Web pages into a monastic craft within a desert centered postmodern
scriptorium to those that provide, within cyberspace, real-time virtual
perpetual adoration of the Real Presence. There is a growing abundance
of interest groups and list-serves, from the chatty, homey, and at times
thoughtful "monastic list" to the recent addition of a list for "lay
Carthusian contemplatives." The number of "places" on the net for shared
interests has exploded from 6,000 in 1987 to 60,000 in 1994 with the
number now doubling every eighteen months.
The web is the holding environment most consistent with the emergence of
the postmodern desert. Within this non-place of flows and networks, the
formation of an exclusively cybermonastery might seem inevitable. There
is, at present, at least one instance of a Zen-inspired Benedictine
community whose "monastery" exists solely within cyberspace. Then there
is the interesting case of Bishop Gaillot who has become the first
virtual bishop. Transferred from Evreux, in Normandy, to Partenia, an
expanse of sand dunes in the northern Sahara desert that has remained
unpopulated since the fourth century, Gaillot became the Bishop of
Nowhere. The locus of "nowhere" underwent a further translocation, from
the metaphysical idea of a bishop attached to a real place (an actual
desert location) to a meta-physical place (a postmodern desert) with a
real bishop. Bishop Gaillot became the first virtual Desert Father.
With the establishment of Bishop Gaillot's web site
desert of Partenia becomes a non-place within the Internet. When place
is replaced by a non-place, the desert metamorphosizes into cyberspace.
The desert becomes postmodern in a turn that is also significantly
archaic. "The primitive Church was a kind of Internet itself, said
Gaillot... the early Christian understood that what was most important
was not to claim physical power in a physical place but to establish a
network of believers--to be on line." On line, the difference between
physical actuality and real existence is breached. Cyberspace functions
like a strange attractor for those whose solitary self-communion with
the "inner monk" seeks in virtuality a new kind of communal holding
environment. The virtual maternal matrices of the Web allow for the
development of communities outside the traditional boundaries of time
and space. These "communities" function as a holding environment for an
emergent new monk--one who is not called to the traditional cenobium but
to prophetic witness in the liminality of a new form of desert, a
Cyberspace, states Cobb (1998), is the realm of pure
possibility. It is relational at its very core, pushing us toward
inwardness and opening us to our own space of pure possibility.
Cyberspace is nomadic. It exists in the gap of "nomos." Cyberspace is a
"smooth space" whose potential for expansion is infinite. One rides a
"flux" and a "flow" of information. One wanders. As a holding
environment, cyberspace is rhizomatic (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).
It is like a subterranean stem that grows and spreads horizontally. In
cyberspace thought is pushed to the level of the formal operational mind
where the rules of thought are themselves transcended and where reason,
as a consequence, becomes a space of possibility.
Cyberspace is comprised of holoarchic levels of organization, each
higher one transcending and including lower level matrices in an
expanding interactive matrix that negates exclusivity and isolation. To
the machine hardware one can add many levels of software ranging from
the machine code (the strings of 0's and 1's that interact with the
hardware) to increasingly complex algorithms to the person/machine
interface, all forming, through holoarchic levels of organization
cyberspace (Cobb, 1998). Cyberspace is a hardwired version of what Teilhard de Chardin envisioned as the noosphere:
"A glow ripples outward from the first spark of conscious
reflection. The point of ignition grows larger. The fire spreads in
ever widening circles till finally the whole planet is covered with
incandescence. Much more coherent and just as extensive as any preceding
layer, it is really a new layer, a 'thinking layer,' which... has
spread over and above the world of plants and animals... outside and
above the biosphere there is the noosphere" (Teilhard, 1965).
The web of electronic information encircling the globe, its
infrastructures of satellites and mainframes and servers and personal
computers combine with a free flow of consciousness anyone with a
connection can plug into to form a constant fluctuating holding
environment of information. The Web is not unlike a metaphoric
materialization of the brain. Billions of messages shuttling back and
forth linking in an ever-growing web of communication between millions
of minds is not unlike the growth of connection between brain cells.
Each nerve cell, by adulthood, makes connection with as many as a
quarter of a million other cells.
By the year 2000, the global telecommunications network is predicted to
have attained the complexity of the human brain. Teilhard believed that
this self-organizing and self-evolving tissue of thought (information)
would become, through self-expanding density and complexity, a living
unity not unlike a single tissue. This was Teilhard's vision of the Body
Cyberpsace is one profile of the noosphere. Through linking
consciousness to the horizontal rhizomatic flow of the Internet, each
individual potentially becomes more personal as they become more
universal. While the net can become the dark vortex of an addictive
fascination and the simulacrum for pseudo-fictive selves and multiple
minds, it can also be a luminous reflection of the Spirit's virtuality.
It is striking, in this regard, that the monks of His Holiness the Dalai
Lama have blessed cyberspace. Space, in the Tibetan Buddhist view, is
an absence of obstruction, not the distance between two points. It has
no inherent existence yet exists as a field of mental activity. With the
absence of obstruction, there is the possibility that something new can
arise, its nature depending on motivation and intent, on right action.
Cyberspace hardwires the incandescent glow of consciousness that
characterizes the global brain, realizing Teilhard's vision of evolution
becoming conscious of itself.
While there is no singular viewpoint that characterizes postmodernism,
it could be said that it is a viewpoint that emphasizes an excluded
horizontal movement over the vertical and the hierarchical. The emphasis
on the participative horizontal dimension in postmodernism is
consistent with similar emphasis in the sapiental movement of the Spirit
toward reclamation of the excluded (Barnhart, 1999).
Postmodernism de-centers the "Self" from its identification with
privileged and centralized autonomous universality. While postmodernisms
are frequently reduced to a variation of nihilism, in fact there has
been a sustained dialogue with theological reflection in the thought of
one whom best exemplifies the postmodern spirit, Jacques Derrida (1992).
As a way of naming, postmodernism is a kind of negative theology in
which that which is to be named can only be done so by not naming, by
circumambulating the mysteriously un-nameable in an errant network of
virtuality. How negative theology names the unnamable and how the Web
flows are evocatively resonant.
- Abbey, E. (1968)
- Desert Solitare. Touchstone: New York.
- Barnhart, B. (1999)
- Second Simplicity: The Inner Shape of Christianity. Paulist: New Jersey.
- Baudrillard, J. (1993)
- The Transparency of Evil. Verso: New York.
- Chitty, D. (1995)
- The Desert A City. St. Vladimir's: New York.
- Cobb, J. (1998)
- Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. Crown: New York.
- Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987)
- A Thousand Plateaus. University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota.
- Derrida, J. (1992)
- Of an apocalyptic tone newly adopted in philosophy. In: Derrida and Negative Theology. Eds: Coward, H. and Foshay, T. SUNY: New York.
- Gleick, J. (1999)
- Faster. Pantheon: New York.
- Jabes, E. (1990)
- The Book of Resemblances. Weselyan: Hanover.
- Leclercq, J. (n.d.)
- New keys for the interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Unpublished manuscript.
- Matus, T. (1999)
- Nazarena: an American Anchoress. Paulist: New York.
- Merton, T. (1973)
- Contemplation in a World of Action. Image Books: New York.
- Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1965)
- The Divine Milieu. Harper & Row: New York.
- Taylor, M. (1992)
- Reframing postmodernisms. In: Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion. Eds: Berry, P. and Wemick, A. Routledge: New York.
- Winnicott, D.W. (1965)
- Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. International Universities Press: New York.