Two Monks

Last week I had two brief conversations with two different monks. One told me that, based on his years of contemplation, the entire point of the Christian life is communion with the Holy Trinity, God as three persons. The other monk told me his experience of God was impersonalist.

On the surface, it is so tempting to try to dissect or deconstruct what both of these guys are up to. Whose experience is more valid, more authentic, more nuanced, better interpreted, more orthodox, more (dare I say it) real?

Thankfully, that is only a surface desire, largely borne out of my writerly desire to understand (which is directly plugged in to my prideful desire to manage my own experience). I’m not saying we should just blow off attempts to understand where people are coming from when they share insights into their experiences of prayer or contemplation. But insight needs to arise out of a gentle desire to grow in grace, not some sort of ego-driven compulsion to control.

Several times every day, these two monks gather in the same choir and join their voices in sung prayer and praise. I assume that many times they have sat together in a shared silence. While one is communing with the loving persons of the Trinity, the other experiences an impersonal or perhaps transpersonal presence of the Divine. And yet, they sit together. They praise together. They live together. Neither one of them seems too worked up that the other’s experience (or, perhaps better said, the other’s interpretation of his experience) is so different. I suppose this is possible because each understands that the spiritual life is really about God, not about themselves or the beauty or truth or goodness of their experience.

They live an experiential faith. And they hold their experience lightly.

Life is a Pilgrimage — So Embrace the Journey
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
What Good is Religion? A Contemplative Perspective
Why Is "Mysticism" A Dirty Word?


  1. Fantastic :)

  2. Whether the ineffable quality of the Trinity or the ineffable quality of the Mystery both our friends are sojourning in the Deep Silence, for us and with us.

  3. zoecarnate says:

    …I can’t say it better than Mr. Foster. Amen.

  4. While agreeing with the gist of what you say about the two experiences, it is nevertheless interesting and indeed puzzling why they should be interpreted so differently.
    I think it IS a valid question ‘why the difference ?’, without suggesting one is more real than the other.
    My sympathy is with the impersonalist monk. The Trinitarian one is imposing concepts on his experience and that can be divisive. For example, he immediately makes himself incomprehensible to a Muslim or Bhuddist.

  5. How do you know the Trinitarian is “imposing concepts” on his experience? Isn’t “unitive,” impersonal experience also an unconscious “concept?” While my experience tends to be more in the direction of the unitive (and precisely because that Ground is what is experienced by all the mystic traditions – otherwise, it isn’t the “Real Ground”), the “well I am digging” tends to take on the Christian trappings because that’s the story that “makes the most sense” (not a head thing, but a heart, essence thing) to me. God/Jesus/the Advocate – resurrection – are personal and universal. This is why the Roman centurian at the cross, or the Syro-Phoenician woman, or the Ethiopian Eunuch could inherently grasp the truth of the gospel without being prompted by unconscious cultural presuppositions.

    Perhaps Allah, in his infinite wisdom, reaches to us in different ways – what we can receive and have prepared ourselves to receive when It/He/She comes?

  6. I know that it is ‘imposing concepts’ because the dogma of the Trinity employs concepts else it couldn’t be expressed. Remember that it was almost four hundred years before the Church defined its belief in the Trinity.
    :et me ask you – what is an ‘unconscious concept’ ?

  7. An archetype, literally a “first form,” e.g., King, Queen, Lover, Avatar, etc. In soul nursing (common form: psychotherapy) we would say the goal is to make these unconscious forms more conscious. Jung also said the only psychological sin was to remain unconscious.

  8. “Pure experience” becomes diluted the moment we reflect on it. Using language to share that “pure” experience with others (or even to reflect on it for only our personal benefit) dilutes it even further. At this point, whether our interpretive language takes us to a Trinitarian model or an impersonalist/nondual model, both are models. Both stand on the flimsy foundation of language. Bar’s comment about the Muslim or the Buddhist is certainly important, but frankly, one of the reasons I’m a Christian is because I believe the Christian interpretation of pure experience is more consistent with my experience than any other – including all sorts of monistic, gnostic, or eastern language of impersonal/nonduality. Note carefully that I don’t say Christianity is the only correct model, or the only path to salvation. It’s merely the model that rings the most true based on my admittedly very limited experience. How much this may have to do with the fact that I was raised in a Christian environment — I think that’s anyone’s guess. But to quote Popeye, I yam what I yam. I think interfaith conversation has to proceed in terms of shared values (tolerance is better than killing) or shared practices (meditating together is good) rather than any procrustean attempt to reduce all experience to the same thing. And of course, the fact that some Christians (like my monk friend, or some lesser-known mystics like Sara Grant) use impersonalist/nondual language within a Christian framework is something I find both fascinating and provocative. It makes me wonder if there haven’t been Buddhists or Muslims out there who haven’t had profound trinitarian experiences as well. There’s lots of great spiritual wisdom that languishes in the libraries of monasteries throughout the world…

  9. Hi Carl and others
    It seems almost impossible to evaluate experience without the structure of the Church and the Way of Jesus. If one is to base their life direction on subjective experience alone, it seems like personal preference and feelings will take precedence over the communal good. I think experience has to be evaluated within the Christian Community.Christianity should be the best way of salvation. Experience should utimatlly yield to love for others if it’s true. I feel a need to be grounded in something bigger than my experience. Life would be so much simpler though without the mediation of the institution. It seems like one has to live into the Church’s sacraments and dogma and ancient creeds. I teach my kids content to the Faith and rules and then let them modify as their personalities change. It seems like content,insiturions and experience should be in a state of tension.
    My 2 cents

  10. judith collier says:

    Am I getting this right? Wouldn’t both monks have the same unconscious concept? If two sisters who shared the same values and beliefs went to visit a newly aquired and extremely rich friend and both spent their time looking at this person’s array of goodies, one might look upon the new friend and his wealth as something and someone of high esteem, while the other,not dismissing the bounty would quickly start asking questions. Who are you, what motivated you, what is it you enjoy, why did you acquire all of this? Isn’t this just different minds, particular interests? judy

  11. I think Bob is spot on to point out that the concern with experience is all very SUBJECTIVE and his overall comment is a marvelous example of the BALANCE you mention in ‘Question of Balance’ ( what a great taste in music, by the way ! ).

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