How to live like faith-free monks?

On one level, nothing in the following story is surprising.

Stop and think about it: What kind of class could a mainstream university professor possibly teach these days about monasticism that featured a strong element of student-participation? The key is that it would be impossible to choose one tradition in which to root that experience, because to choose one is to reject others. Thus, the only solution is blending pluriform traditions, creating a kind of do-it-yourself synthetic tradition.

Call it “emerging” academia.

Monks, you see, have to have tradition. Tradition is the frame that surrounds the life of a monk. The goal is to live a tradition and to be transformed by it.

On one level, Kathy Matheson’s report for the Associated Press does a good job of revealing some of the obvious elements of a University of Pennsylvania course on “monastic life and asceticism” taught by Justin McDaniel. The goal, readers are told, is a “firsthand experience of what it’s like to be a monk.” No, really.

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. That’s just a sample of the restrictions McDaniel imposes in an effort to help students become more observant, aware and disciplined. Each of the constraints represents an actual taboo observed by a monastic religious order. …

The discipline starts with a dress code for class: White shirts for the men, black shirts for women, and they must sit on opposite sides of the class. No makeup, jewelry or hair products. Laptop computers are prohibited; notes can be taken only with paper and pen. And don’t even think of checking your cell phone for e-mail.

Taboos? Say what?

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?

The course, which focuses primarily on Catholic and Buddhist monastic traditions, stems in part from McDaniel’s own history. An expert on Asian religions, he spent a portion of his post-undergraduate life nearly 20 years ago as a Buddhist monk in Thailand and Laos; he says he’s both a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Catholic.

Restrictions outside class are introduced gradually: Students sacrifice caffeine and alcohol during one week, then swear off vegetables that grow underground in another. The latter rule stems from an extremely nonviolent sect that eschews such produce because uprooting the food could kill insects, McDaniel said.

The real test is a full month of restrictions that begins in mid-March. Students can eat only food in its natural form; nothing processed. They can’t eat when it’s dark, nor speak to anyone while they eat. They must be celibate, foregoing even hugs, handshakes and extended eye contact. No technology except for electric light. They can read for other classes, but news from the outside world is forbidden.

Of course the spiritual father, in this scenario, is “a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Catholic.” What other option would be academically acceptable?

However, it is at this point that it’s easy to see that this story has a gigantic hole: It contains no information whatsoever about the prayer and worship life of these monks. There is no hint that this class teaches any spiritual disciples, that it attempts to introduce students to any particular worship tradition or to a fusion of several traditions.

Monks without prayer? Monks without worship? This is something like birds without air, fish without water, journalists without questions that yield crucial information.

So what is the bottom line? What is the point of monasticism, if not transcendence, submission and union with Another? What is the purpose of this class?

“It’s not about individual restrictions,” said McDaniel. “It’s about building hyperawareness of yourself and others.”

I do not doubt that the story is accurate in conveying that this is the professor’s answer to these crucial questions. However, I find it hard to accept his answer without some kind of information about the spiritual tradition — wither ancient or postmodern — used in this academic exercise. Is there, in fact, a monastic tradition in which increasing one’s knowledge of self and becoming more aware of others are not initial steps to a higher ultimate goal? It would be good to hear the Catholic/Buddhist professor discuss that issue.

This may be one of the strangest religion ghosts I have ever seen in a news story. Ever.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Great point about prayer and worship. I’d also include all of the other “positive” things that monks do. The article focuses on what monks give up. What about the things they take up? In addition to prayer and worship, off the top of my head, I can think of monastics orders that:

    Make food or drink to sell
    Manage farms, retreat centers, or other housing
    Produce art (books, paintings, music)
    Beg for alms
    Practice martial arts
    Work to spread their religion through missionary activity

    Isn’t there even a monastery that runs a web design company? While asceticism might be the most immediately noticeable aspect of the monastic life, I’m not sure it’s the most important. Or, at least, it can’t be regarded in the absence of the rest of their activity, which is usually rooted in their theological convictions.

  • Matt Jamison

    This experiment tells us more about the contemporary university environment than it does about monasticism in any tradition. Somehow we have developed the idea that higher education can and should take place in a milieu of complete hedonism. Suggesting any sort of voluntary self-discipline on on an American campus is a real novelty.

  • Julia

    It sounds more like that TV show about “grasshopper”.
    The one about the Shaolin monk roaming the American West.
    He was always posing those koan riddles, but I don’t recall him ever saying anything about God. BUt, if I understand it correctly, Bhuddism is not really concerned with a deity.

    On the other hand, a Catholic monastery most certainly would be centered on God.

    There’s a great movie about it.

  • tmatt

    My point, however, is that this is a GIANT factual hole.

    It’s a journalistic hole.

    Something like writing about the life and disciplines of, well, a scholar without any discussion of his actual work in scholarship.

  • Prof. Anthea Butler

    I’ll respond to your blog at Religion Dispatches. I’m surprised that you didn’t see the bigger picture. Penn is a .not religiously affiliated and b. we are a religious studies department, not a Div school or Seminary.
    Thanks for your opinion. I think this will be an interesting interchange of differing opinion.
    Prof. Butler

  • tmatt


    Make sure you understand my post.

    I am not criticizing the CLASS. I am saying that the STORY should have addressed why the class did or did not contain a spiritual tradition or any disciplines. The university’s choice may be totally logical. I do not doubt that.

    But for AP to be SILENT on that issue?

    Please make sure you focus on the fact that my essential point is JOURNALISTIC, not academic.

    If you write in defense of the course, you missed my point entirely.

    It’s not that I didn’t see a bigger picture. I am writing about a different picture.

  • Prof. Anthea Butler

    I do. And I will.

  • Mike

    The reporter should have have asked:

    1. Professor McDaniel, monasticism is generally affiliated with a religion. Aren’t your students missing the key ingredient of the monastic life by not making it a part of their exercise?
    2. Please explain how you can be both a practicing Buddhist and practicing Catholic at the same time.

    Thank you and have a nice day.

  • tmatt

    Hey readers:

    Read this:

    “Penn is a. not religiously affiliated and b. we are a religious studies department, not a Div school or Seminary.”

    Is there any part of my post that suggests that Penn either is or should be a religious school or that it should have a seminary?

    I’m not sure what the professor read that led to that statement.

  • Prof. Anthea Butler

    LOL. I haven’t even written the response and you are upset.Chill. It won’t be that bad.

  • tmatt

    Prof. Butler:

    Asking a factual question does not mean that I am upset. I am trying to figure out what you read in the post that made you make that statement.

    My question is sincere.

  • tmatt


    Two points. I do not know that the class does not have a spiritual component. There is no way to tell by reading the AP report. That’s my question.

    Asking the professor about his own religious beliefs — let alone to justify them — would only be relevant if the class did contain some fusion approach to prayer and worship.

    Again, the point is that facts are missing from the story. We have a journalistic hole.

  • Fr. Richard

    I’ll be interested in reading Prof. Butler’s thoughts. Unless this class is concerned only with non-Christian monasticism, Christian monks are called to total dedication to God, especially through prayer and worship. I’m not sure why a state university’s religious studies department would not be able to discuss, explain or expose students to such core Christian monastic values, as the professor seems to imply.

    But in any case, why didn’t the reporter even ASK about these things? They do not appear in the article. Is the reporter so clueless about monasticism that she never thought to ask, or does she consider it unimportant? Holey, holey, holey.

  • Martha

    Taboos? What – I don’t even – never mind.

    I agree that taking practices out of traditions but not exploring the spiritual element of monasticism (whether Christian, Buddhist or the Hindu forest hermits and sadhu) does not explain why people do these things or the benefits they hope to achieve, the sacrifices they make for what ends.

    If that is all that is featured in the class, it would be reminiscent of how yoga has become a means of physical exercise in the West, rather than a system of disciplines for spiritual insight and devotion. The way that giving up things for Lent might be treated as simply a way of detoxing and going on a diet, which is not at all the point.

    I would imagine the professor would approach it at a deeper level than that, but I suppose a newspaper report will only focus on the external, measurable features (e.g. dressing a certain way, eating or refraining from certain foods, etc.) rather than spiritual development or deeper understanding of a religious tradition. Do students from Protestant denominations get an insight, for example, into why Catholics and Orthodox mandate fasting and abstinence for certain seasons of the liturgical year?

  • Matt

    Another major hole in the story is commentary by anyone actually familiar with monasticism, preferably a practitioner. Would a real monk find McDaniel’s course to be a reasonable introduction to his way of life, or would he perceive it to be overlooking anything important?

  • Jerry

    Prof. Butler please post a link here when your piece is done. I’m very interested in what you have to say.

  • Rob

    Leaving aside the obvious shortcomings of this approach, it must be a refreshing change to see university students adopting *some* kind of self-discipline, even if it is just for the credits…

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Speaking of reading, this article made me wonder what the students of the course were reading. There is a whole body of literature on the contemplative life (yes, including Thomas Merton). Unfortunately, the syllabus is not online. What is online is the name of the course: Living Deliberately: Monk, Saints, and the Contemplative Life.

    Had the reporter included that factoid, it might have given us a more in-depth – and interesting – article. Unfortunately, as noted above, the story is about one thing, that being a very simplistic and shallow notice of asceticism. Any monk will tell you that asceticism is giving up that which is good in favor of that which is better.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I think the experiment is a good one. But as tmatt pointed out –the problem is the holes in the story about the experiment.
    I didn’t see the word “Mass” or “Divine Liturgy” anywhere.
    To write a story about Catholic (or Orthodox Christian) monasticism without mentioning those Church’s and monasteries’ centerdness and grounding in Christ, present “body, blood, soul, and divinity” in the Holy Eucharist is to make Christian monasticism into just another physical “experience” devoid of its true beating heart–the Sacred Heart of God.

  •, Prof. Anthea Butler

    Here’s my response to this post at Religion dispatches. The syllabus is not public, but this explains how the course is designed, and my problem with this post.

  • Jerry

    Professor Butler, thanks for your informative post. It helped put things in perspective for me. I can see where Terry went wrong because of the lede which included the word “monk” as you stated.

    Terry’s jaundiced eye is jaundiced for a good reason given the low level of much of journalism today.

    I’m far from a traditional Christian and sometimes I find GR’s choice of stories to be overly tied to their beliefs, but I hope you don’t stop reading this blog because of this one post.

  • Ben

    Having read Prof Butler’s response, I’d suggest that there was a very real ghost in the story. Maybe calling it religious is inaccurate. I also hadn’t seen the original title of this post and can understand why she responded somewhat defensively to it. I wish Mattingly had included a note explaining the change as the original title does highlight to what extent private commitments could have colored his assessment of the AP article.

    Prof Butler provided the missing information that the students study “[a]scetics from several traditions…” Without that, it did sound a bit like monasticism, as a broad category, was being decontextualized, which it now appears was a misrepresentation of the course. Rather, the students’ practicum serves as an experiential backdrop for the study of ascetics in context, helping the students to get a better grasp of the similarities and differences between discrete systems of monasticism. I do think that the course may nevertheless privilege certain types of monastic experience, but that is an academic or pedagogical, and not a journalistic concern. It actually reminds me a little of a course I read about that was taught by the late, great Howard Thurman.

    I’m not sure that’s a religion ghost. For myself as someone somewhat aware of Religious Studies discourses it did clarify a bit. It does raise questions for me about the obligations of journalists. The more interesting story is the practice. Leaving out other details related to the course won’t likely matter to most readers but it may sensationalize the subject. It would have been nice to hear about other, similar types of courses that have been taught in Religious Studies departments or to have had a little bit more information provided about the other components of the course. The story could have placed the project into the context of trends in Religious Studies by quoting an expert in Religious Studies as a culture. Prof Jeffrey Kripal might have been able to offer some unique, albeit hardly universally shared, perspective. But does journalistic obligation extend that far? Where does it end?

  • sari

    Two things came to mind when after reading the article and Dr. Butler’s excellent post. First, much of the confusion could have been avoided had Matheson stated the name of the class. Likewise, she misued the word monk. While it may have a acquired a secondary and more secular definition in common parlance (“He lives like a monk”), it has always and continues to have religious connotations. She would have done well to have used Dr. Butler’s description: that given the non-religious setting, the instructor would confine the students to exploring the ascetic aspects of being a monk while ignoring the spiritual aspect.

  • Randy

    Prof Butler makes this story even more interesting. It seems the religious tradition behind this monasticism is secularism. Secularism refuses to call itself a religion but it is the state religion of the west. Monks have a truth that they are trying to deepen their understanding of. What is that truth in this case? The truth that religious truth is unimportant. That is a central claim of secularism. Religion is valuable in many ways but the core doctrines of any religion are false. So monks matter not because of God but because they do monk-like things. It is an extension of the understanding of religion as a way to make people nice.

    But the story can’t say that. Secularism never disrespects religion directly. It always does so by trying to accept all religions and ends up affirming them in such a watered down way that it actually says they are all false. But the key is to never admit you have removed the essence of the religion. Secularist way too nice to do that.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    That you can be both a Buddhist and a Catholic is a modern secular-university-steeped in syncretism fantasy. Someone who is of another religion is not even supposed to approach the altar to receive the Holy Eucharist. If they do consume the Eucharist, it is considered a sacrilege. That is hardly the way to immerse one’s self in a religion. To claim to be active in two religions insults both religions (especially with Christianity’s claim to being the True religion and the Catholic Church, the True Church).

    On the other hand, for some, studying a religion deeply as an academic pursuit sometimes draws a person to take that religion seriously and join that religion in a commitment to it rather than treat it as just another new “experience” for academic and university dilletantes.

  • tmatt


    What does your comment have to do with the journalism of the story? You expect the reporter to enforce doctrine there? To at least question it?

  • tmatt

    “[a]scetics from several traditions…”

    Curious. The only traditions mentioned in the AP article are related to two traditions that — have monks.

    So “monk” is the wrong word. What is the right word?

  • sari


    The correct word would have been ascetic. Ascetic can stands alone with no religious connotation; monk does not.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    tmatt–I should have pointed out the journaist angle I was thinking of. I thought a story like this should have delved a bit on any doctrinal problems some churches might have with what appears to be syncretic roll playing, especially with the prof claiming to be both Catholic and Buddhist. What is his rationale for claiming he can be a “practicing Buddhist and a practicing Catholic?”

  • Fr. Richard

    Prof. Butler writes, “The word monk for the AP reporter was a shorthand, a way to connect readers to the actual course. Perhaps Matheson could have used another word, but that’s how she decided to construct her lede.”

    The reporter actually used the phrases, “course on monastic life…what it’s like to be a monk…observed by a monastic religious order…Catholic and Buddhist monastic traditions…Buddhist monk.” It’s not just about a lede, it frames the whole story. If this description is inaccurate then it’s very bad reporting, because obviously when people hear the word “monk” nearly all will think of a person with a religious vocation. It naturally follows we would expect to hear a little bit about that, whether from one or from many traditions.

    Mr. Mattingly’s question is still quite relevant:

    ” Is there, in fact, a monastic tradition in which increasing one’s knowledge of self and becoming more aware of others are not initial steps to a higher ultimate goal?”

    It is left unanswered.

    The course’s professor said:

    “It’s not about individual restrictions,” said McDaniel. “It’s about building hyperawareness of yourself and others.”

    With that explanation I don’t see why this same experiential class would not fit better in the departments of Psychology or Sociology, rather than Religious Studies, and the reporter does not offer us a clue as to why it couldn’t.

  • sari

    Mr. Mattingly’s question is still quite relevant:

    ” Is there, in fact, a monastic tradition in which increasing one’s knowledge of self and becoming more aware of others are not initial steps to a higher ultimate goal?”

    It is left unanswered.

    But that was outside the purview of the class. Both the professor and Dr. Butler were explicit on this point. The problem was with the reporter, not the school or teacher. Whether we think it’s useful exercise or not, no one misrepresented the class to the students or to the reporter. That she chose a word with religious connotations reflects poor judgement on her part.

    In her rebuttal, Dr. Butler describes the actual course. The point is clearly to learn how self-control and self-sacrifice can be used to filter out the extraneous noise of everyday living and help the person target what’s important in life. While many of us see this as a religious endeavor, it need not be. One can use these skills to improve oneself, to attain a goal–quitting smoking, for instance, or adding extra time in the practice room, without invoking a deity. That religious groups use these techniques to achieve spiritual goals does not mean that they can’t have a wider, non-religious application. And they can be practiced outside a monastery setting: fasting on Yom Kippur, Ramadan fasts, the Mormon first Sunday fast (apologies if I’ve got it wrong), restrictions on dress, diet and fraternization, chastity and celibacy. All these require the same self-discipline and for pretty much the same reason: they make us aware, which brings us closer to G-d.

  • Mike Hickerson

    sari and Dr. Butler,

    If the course doesn’t cover the religious content of ascetic and monastic practices, why is it being taught in a religious studies department?

  • Julia

    In case anybody is still reading:

    The biggest hole was the failure to include the name of the course in the article. Next biggest problem was the use of the word monk throughout the piece. The combination of the two misleads readers. Perhaps the reporter observed a class about monks that day and assumed the whole course would be like that.

    From the class title and the professor’s response, the course probably also touched on wandering Hindu holy men, contemplatives like the Carmelites, and maybe the very early Christian ascetic saints who lived in the desert, caves or even on the top of pillars for years.

    Some people might use meditation and depriving one’s self to better know one’s self and others, but that’s not a monk or saint’s purpose.

    Perhaps the teacher’s comment about getting to know yourself and others was more about what the students might get out of practicing a bit of asceticism. A state school couldn’t be having students doing practices to get in touch with God Nirvana like monks and saints. Maybe the reporter took the comment out of context or mis-heard it?

    In any case, the article didn’t convey what the class was really about according to Professor Butler’s description.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Likewise, she misued the word monk. While it may have a acquired a secondary and more secular definition in common parlance (“He lives like a monk”), it has always and continues to have religious connotations

    Which brings us back to the fact that the course title is “Living Deliberately: Monk, Saints, and the Contemplative Life.”

    All this attention to “Monk” has obscured the religious connotations of “Saints”. While we do speak of “secular saints”, the normal usage is religious, possibly more so than “monk”.

    FWIW, I tend to agree that if you want to use religious words without situating them in specific religions, or studying them across various religions (including secular movements), then I have to wonder why it’s the business of a religious studies department. If contemplative experience is a universal human experience (which it is), then the mediating human element is psychological, not religious, and (journalistic element coming) why did the reporter not wonder about that?