in Monasticism

Secret, Underground Libraries of Monks

read book-min

Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Hundreds of “censored” books adorned the shelves of the Mt. Washington Monks’ Library. Who inspected and sterilized the texts? A Council of Senior Monastics carefully vetted and only allowed “approved” publications in the Monks’ Library.

Rationale? The Rules of Conduct of a Resident Disciple of the Monastic Self-Realization Order dictated “…absorb Self-Realization teachings.” Warning: “Comparative reading and study, particularly in the early training of the novice, tend to confuse the mind and divert the attention from the main goal.” This ultimate goal was self-realization. While the intermediate rule was obedience and loyalty to the spiritual master-guru, the elders and counselors.

“People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.”
Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize for Literature

However, savvy monks had the gall to circumvent the Rules and accessed books on the underground black market. Underground texts were not necessarily subversive, but were not officially sanctioned (vetted and censored) by the Monks’ Council. However, most of the black market texts I read definitely were subversive.

Below is a partial listing of texts I read during my 14 year tenure within the Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order. First, I list the books I read that qualify as approved by the Council to be in the Monks’ Library. Next, I list black market books, mostly subversive, that I obtained underground and read in secret.

Partial list of books I read while a monk

Borrowed from Monks’ Library (approved/censored by Monastic Council)

Entire catalog of publications by Self-Realization Fellowship

Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence

Mahabharata (Hindu Epic) by Kamala Subramanium

Ramayana (Hindu Epic) by Kamala Subramanium

Life of Milarepa: Tibetan Yogi by Heruka (translation)

The Conquest of Fear by Basil King

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Dozens on Catholic Saints by various authors [see my post Her Stigmata Crashed Into My Karma]

Holy Bible: King James and other versions

Kabir: Biography

Guru Nanak: Sikh Saint

Dozen books on Buddha by various authors

The Miracle of Fatima (Catholic), forgot the author

Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon–Survival of Bodily Death by Raymond Moody

Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children by Melvin Morse and Paul Perry

G. Washington Carver: Biography

Luther Burbank: Biography

Samurai Warrior: Miyamoto Musashi: Biography

[More to be listed as I recall or as fellow monks remind me]

Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Underground, unapproved texts (obtained in secret, monks’ “black market”)

When Helping You Is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap by Carmen Renee Berry

Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers

Cults in Our Midst: The Hidden Menace in our Everyday Lives by Margaret Thaler Singer

Dozen books on religious cults [I’ll try to recall the titles and enter here]. These books I secretly ordered through Amazon while visiting family and had them shipped discreetly–with much trepidation–to my address in the monastery. I shared these only with a few trusted monks.

Contemplation in a World of Action by Thomas Merton

Several books by Trappist Monk Thomas Merton. The Merton texts I read were about the challenges of living an authentic monastic life and the turmoil in the Orders from Vatican Council II. Surprisingly candid about the challenges of monastic life, Merton wrote of monastic superiors who exercised ruthless authority and peer power struggles. Common characteristics, apparently, of those who live in spiritual communities.

Civil War: A Narrative, 3 Volume Set by Shelby Foote

Finding the Leader Within You by John C. Maxwell

The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara

[More to come when I recall or when a monastic buddy reminds me of others]

The “black market” books I read in secret during my mid-to-late monastic profession. While the sanitized, Monks’ Library books I read during my early-to-middle monastic career. Contrary to the Rules of the Order noted above, “black market” books did not confuse me. The underground, uncensored texts challenged and clarified my thinking (and kept me sane in the cloister). If I had consumed only the approved, whitewashed Monk’s Library books my intellect would have remained stunted and my emotions kept blunted. The breakthrough realizations occurred as I ventured outside the sanctified texts of the Monks’ Council and studied in the underground library.

Question for readers: Is it disingenuous or dangerous for clergy to read materials that may be considered subversive to official doctrine?

Leave a Reply

22 Comments

  1. Any doctrine that can’t stand being exposed to more light is highly suspect. Any person or group that does not encourage openness and discourages getting a variety of viewpoint is a person or group you should avoid, and even protect others from. There are cults that are groups, and there are cults that are individuals.

  2. It’s most definitely not unethical or dangerous to read something which the prevailing authority deems “wrong”. I would go deeper and ask, what is it that the organization is trying to protect itself from by being so rigid? I know that SRF outwardly professes to wanting to keep the teachings pure in order to further the work, etc, etc, and therefore needs to stick to the Guru’s teachings as closely as possible. On the surface, that sounds correct and right. That is SRF’s official role. However, the public face and the inner private life of an organization (or individual) can be in stark contrast. This conflict causes a host of ills and seemingly unending dysfunction.

    To get right to the point, I’m beginning to wonder if religious practices, even basic spiritual disciplines, can be used to hide from unresolved inner trauma, trauma which was either experienced recently or as far back as childhood. An abused child, in an act of psychic self-preservation, can learn very quickly how to suppress his feelings of anger and rage. This unresolved childhood abuse can ultimately create the most rigid and cruel personalities. As he grows into an adult, the adult-child unconsciously acts out this suppressed childhood rage on innocent people. I know this to be a very real thing, as I’ve seen myself do it.

    A religious organization can be a perfect place to prop up the denial of childhood abuse and perpetuate cruelty, even condone and foster it under the disguise of “smashing the ego” (usually someone else’s “ego”…). Unconsciously, instead of trying to listen to the abused child within, the spiritual aspirant becomes “the parent” and blinds himself to his own very real history. This usually proves unsuccessful in the long run, because the human psyche and body never forgets what was done it. If it does succeed in squelching all recollection and feeling, you simply end up with a devitalized (highly disciplined) perpetrator of cruel, inhumane behavior. Another result at the opposite end is a “bliss bunny”, a devotee without a coherent thought in the head and devoid of any real human contact.

    I will concede that I may be overstating my case, but I believe there is very real kernel of truth in what I’m trying to say.

    In the end, we’re all in the same boat, but religious organizations/spiritual communities very often don’t want to acknowledge this fact, lest they lose face and become just one of the many. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_narcissism

  3. *the human psyche and body never forgets what was done to it.

  4. @charles: I agree. The challenge is baked into being a human. We all want to protect our ideas that we are deeply identified with. That is our “cult”. Thanks for your comments

  5. @uwsboi14: I agree with much of what you stated. I’d add though that organizations, tribes, or groups are the inevitable extension of individuals–imperfect, gullible humans.

    My own upbringing/indoctrination lead me to the notion that humans (or even more incredulously, that souls) could be or are perfect. There’s not any objective evidence for perfection or souls. These are human ideals, wishful thinking. Hence, the need for people to create spiritual training, religious doctrines that grant our wishes for supernatural, divine grace. There is a deep contradiction in these “natural” intuitive ways of thinking– namely, that there is some absolute perfection to be perceived or attained. I don’t fault people, but blame our biased and lazy thinking processes.

    Trauma or abuse may be a factor. But whose childhood or life trajectory has been perfect or without adversity? Again, I don’t feel the need to pathologize human nature or faulty thinking. Seems to me that gullibility, wishful thinking, and hosts of cognitive biases are natural to the human condition–that we all ought to be on guard of and will never fully escape.

    I’m glad to get the input and critique of deep and compassionate thinkers like yourself and others who comment.

    Thanks.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I will admit I painted with a huge brush and co-opted some ideas from a well-known psychoanalyst whom I admire. It may be that human nature works in such a way as to naturally protect itself from pain by using wishful thinking and colorful imagination. Maybe it is mental laziness, but I’m not entirely sure it’s just that.

    I’ve noticed, though, from my own experience, that when I remember my horrible childhood experiences and can connect them to my present mental condition, there is a sense of relief and understanding. It’s as if I had blinded myself to my own truth. Any depression or anxiety that I may have been suffering from vanishes and I feel alive again. It’s a curious paradox of man, that the very thing he is afraid of, (pain, anger, all those so-called negative emotions) are the very things that help him to become a fully humane, compassionate person.

    You’re probably wondering what this has to do with so-called spirituality and religious organizations. I really think that religion and spiritual practices, if used as an escape from one’s own history, can cause more harm than good. The individual divorces himself from his own real feelings. Without feelings, there can be no compassion for oneself. Without compassion for oneself, how one begin to understand another person’s suffering?

    (end of soap-box moment)

  7. I agree uwsboi14. Reality of life and the universe as it is can be harsh, even brutal. Desire to escape seems natural, even healthy at times. I joined up with SRF at a vulnerable time in my life partly to “escape” my reality–to get out of the house, to avoid getting an ordinary job, to avoid living what I thought was an “ordinary” life, of death and the unknown, escape from searching for my own meaning in life and having to grapple with unanswerable questions…

    Thanks

  8. On your other comment “I’ve noticed, though, from my own experience, that when I remember my horrible childhood experiences and can connect them to my present mental condition, there is a sense of relief and understanding.” (there was no reply box below it)

    I am not sure if that may be accepted by “Skeptics” but someone came with an explanation for that. And even used it as a tool of “personal liberation”. He was a psychologist and a Jesuit. He became famous in the eighties. he died suddenly. His name : Anthony de Mello. I hope the author of this blog will pardon me for suggesting you to read his book ” Awareness”. No need to be a Catholic.. or a skeptic lol. Many people from different backgrounds have benefited from his insight. He is the only “teacher” I know who gives the keys. Just like that, for free, and never asked anyone to become a disciple as he showed the uselessness of such paths. Like, we, ourselves, have all we need.

    Your comment on getting conscious of your own injuries actually healing those injuries made think of his message.

  9. on “It’s most definitely not unethical or dangerous to read something which the prevailing authority deems “wrong”. I would go deeper and ask, what is it that the organization is trying to protect itself from by being so rigid ?”

    Well, the organisation is protecting its own existence, its own utility. “The organisation” may seem totalitarian, and yes it is. It can only survive if it uses certain tools.
    I am talking from my own experience, in a catholic monastery. You are supposed to read from a selection of books (a library) but when you become an official novitiate, the selection narrows drastically and you have compulsory reading/studies.
    I prolonged my candidacy term and eventually never made it to wearing the monk robe. One of the reasons is that I had free access to the monastery’s library at that time. My natural curiosity led me to check all sorts of stuff. I told my spiritual director, because I suddenly discovered the scope of interpretations and ways and it made me challenge my own beliefs. he warned me against “curiosity” stating that one ends up believing in nothing… That was quite clear !

    That it is, in my opinion, the main reason why there is a strong censorship in such places. Monks are supposed to adopt the local ideology = to be formatted = indoctrination (see: doctrine). You are supposed to find a balance in that secluded/controlled environment. Doubts, questions, research lead the monk astray: It stops the deepening of that particular monastic path/ideology.
    In Catholic monasteries Obedience is one of the three vows. And certainly the most important for “the organisation”. Without it there wouldn’t be an organisation. Being in a monastery is somehow like being in the army. You don’t choose the enemy. It is designated. And you better shoot otherwise you are a traitor.
    Is that clear enough ?
    – YES, SIR !

  10. Onyour list of books. I was happy to see good old Frère Laurent. He was my favourite, before I entered religious life and all my life of prayer was destroyed by psalmody and (…).
    Frère Laurent is not very respected by the Fathers. He is like Anthony de Mello (see my other comments), he gives the key for free without conditions: Fathers loose their superb superiority and their “unique role”.
    Frère laurent de la Résurrection is one of the only representative of “popular French mystique” of that time to have made it into official church literature. All the rest like Quietism/Madame Guyon was condemned. Fr. Laurent is only tolerated “on the upper shelves”.

  11. That is the simplest and most cogent explanation. Thank you!

  12. On another note: guilt and shame are such powerful tools. If we are dependent on using it to motivate ourselves in life, it will be very easy to fall prey to it and join religious organizations or any other group which uses toxic emotions to control its members. If we don’t guilt and shame ourselves, we won’t feel any need to join such groups to begin with.

  13. “You don’t choose the enemy. It is designated. And you better shoot otherwise you are a traitor.” Perfectly said. I have heard that the current president of SRF, in her heydays, was a “sharp shooter”, that whenever she was out and about, she could detect immediately any negative emotions that were present in the minds of fellow monastics and then “shoot on sight”. Personally, I find that frightening and something I wouldn’t ever want to be around. I don’t believe that negative emotions and feelings can be simply killed or dismissed. They have something important to tell us. But, that’s for another conversation….

  14. More on ” getting conscious of your own injuries actually heals those injuries “.
    It seems we, our psychology, our brain, has its own healing apparatus.
    From my understanding: repressing anger only displaces it. Somewhere in the flesh/in the nervous system. Where it continues to act as a poison. Wihtout the knowledge of the victim. Who therefore is unable to u derstand some unexpected reactions to everyday life situations. Of course, it also depends on the personality. Some may just suffer internally, without being aware of the source. Some others may ” spit their poison ” onto others.
    I believe that “deep inside ” we are fine. “The source of life ” is flowing through us. This source is always available but we are usually separeted from it by our intellect and its endless discourse , “clever explanations”, insatiable needs. We get lost into our own labyrinth that hides and breeds all sorts of troubles till its remotest corners.
    But if we stop the discourse and JUST WATCH, WITHOUT JUDGING *** JUD-GING *** I insist, our own ” mysterious ” healing capacity will do the job, in its own unspoilt way. We do have something ready at hand called “consciousness”. It is included in the human biology package. Regardless of your personnal culture (beliefs, education, personality, history and so on).
    Religious leaders, spiritual teachers, and even psychologists, never refer to it because like most of us they are unaware of it, plus, and most importantly, it would, as I said earlier, render ” their art ” / their business / their role, useless, avoidable, obsolete, counterproductive (…)

  15. I would dare saying that any doctrine can’t stand being exposed to ( more ) light. It is in the essence of “doctrine” that it is
    – a limited explanation
    – it will disappear, or evolve /being reformed in the future if it is to survive.
    Doctrine breeds totalitarianism.

    It hasn’t to be avoided if you seek a position in such organisations lol . Some people obviously profit from it !

  16. @2bidule22: Your comments made me smile and nod in agreement. Sounds like we both gained deeper understanding of the nature of organizations and doctrines.
    I enjoyed especially your comment:
    “I told my spiritual director, because I suddenly discovered the scope of interpretations and ways and it made me challenge my own beliefs. he warned me against “curiosity” stating that one ends up believing in nothing… That was quite clear !”

    As if lack of belief is a bad thing. That is the essence of liberation–no belief.

  17. @2bidule22: Thanks for your insights into Father Lawerence, author of Practicing the Presence of God. Yes, while I was a monk we called it PPG for short. In India they call it Japa Yoga. As devotee monks we’d practice the presence of our make believe friend, companion, or god. I can do it now and feel the same feelings. Some call it mystical communion. Nowadays, I interpret these experiences as imagination and natural human feelings.

  18. @uwsboi14: You nailed it. I still suffer from my catholicity. Or, is it human nature to feel guilt and shame? Or, man-made? I think its mostly taught: guilt and shame.

  19. @2bidule22: Sometimes, for some people, “watching” the thoughts heals their psychological challenges. For others, meditation does no such thing and could even be harmful. I’ve written numerous posts on the adverse effects of meditation and mindfulness: Adverse Side Effects of Meditation

    Yes, meditation has benefits. But, not always for all people. Glad it’s helped you.

  20. @2bidule22: Thanks for your comments. I ditch one doctrine and embrace another. Like escaping outside one cardboard box only to be inside another maybe a little larger box that limits. Seems like it has to be this way. Liberation is letting go of the belief.

Webmentions

  • A Monks’ Ashram Weekly Routine | Skeptic Meditations August 3, 2015

    […] Over the decades I was in SRF and was a monk I’d read most of the same books and lessons numerous times. Of course, I often learned something new each time I reread the same books. However, there was much more I could’ve (and eventually secretly) learned by reading non-SRF approved books. [Read my post Secret, Underground Library of Monks]. […]

  • Ashram Silence | Skeptic Meditations August 3, 2015

    […] time: If I had no work or duties, I had more free time to relax and read […]