[I wrote this originally for the online Art & Monasticism Symposium, April 30 – May 5, through Transpositions, a collaborative effort of students associated with the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. This is part 1, and part 2 is here. It was featured alongside great posts by Christine Valters Paintner, Cole Matson, Preston Yancey, and Sr Mary Stella McNamee]
Stepping a few paces back from the religious worlds of the West and East, we begin to see the contours that define them. We notice structures that are wholly unique, as well as patterns that repeat from tradition to tradition. One of the patterns we can make out clearly, although with a great deal of variation and localized ornamentation, is monasticism—that tendency for serious practitioners of a religious tradition to band together and avail themselves of the efficiencies that come from living in a disciplined community.
Clearly there are economic efficiencies. It’s easier to survive as a community, in which specialization becomes possible, than alone; some monks are good at holding the big picture, while some monks are better at painting icons, and others are virtuosos at cooking nourishing meals, or farming, or carpentry, or web design. There are efficiencies that have to do with spiritual practice as well. It is much easier to hold a daily routine of work and contemplation when you do so with a group of like-minded brothers or sisters. And when singing or chanting, of course, it is only possible to make harmonies together.
From this perspective, monasticism starts to look less like something spiritual and more like a type of technology, an arrangement of hardware and software that has arisen in various places at various times to meet certain universal needs—for stable community and material support, as well as the sublime. We need the nectar of transcendence as much as we need more tangible kinds of nourishment, and monastic life is designed to provide both. Like technology, monasticism appears to evolve over time as groups’ needs change, and as social, cultural, political, and ecological climates shift from season to season. Some monastic hardware & software is better suited for north Africa in the 6th century, while another kind fits medieval Japan after the arrival of Buddhism, and a dozen others are appropriate to the array of niches in today’s post-modern religious world.
Here at the Art Monastery Project, we take the source code of this software, the blueprints of this hardware, and apply them to art-making and the creative process. Our goal, not totally different from that of some other monastic orders, is to cultivate personal awakening and cultural transformation through art, community, and contemplation. Thankfully for us, most monastic software is open source, freely available to anyone with eyes to see.
So how are we doing it? What monastic technologies are we using to run our art projects?
This question is answered in Part Two: ‘The Art Monastery: Monastic Technologies’.
Nathan Rosquist is Executive Director of Art Monastery SF, a branch of the Art Monastery Project. He has an MBA in Sustainable Community Economic Development from Bainbridge Graduate institute, and is currently pursuing an MFA in New Genres at San Francisco Art Institute. He is a writer and composer.