I recently started reading The Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions), Thomas Merton's collected and translated stories, parables and sayings of fourth-century Christian Fathers who left their societies to live the solitary, contemplative life in the deserts of the Near East. Few of the stories have jumped out at me as much as this one:
A monk ran into a party of handmaids of the Lord on a certain journey. Seeing them he left the road and gave them a wide berth. But the Abbess said to him: If you were a perfect monk, you would not even have looked close enough to see that we were women.
Readers could interpret that occurrence in many ways. Perhaps the monk would have performed more righteously by leaving the road when he saw a large group of people, giving the party room without regard to the gender of its members. The Abbess, therefore, could have been calling out his rudeness.
Or maybe the parable means the Abbess thought the monk would have stepped aside much earlier for a group of men, and she was shaming his sexism.
The difference between those two interpretations is subtle but important. In the first case, the monk has bad manners but treats everyone equally, even if it's equally bad. In the second scenario, he shows he believes women are inferior to men. They are less important. There is a group of people coming towards him in frocks, but he can't tell if veils or hoods cover their heads. He must get closer, because if they wear veils, they are women. Like him, they have shunned their corrupt societies and have opted for a life of poverty, prayer, contemplation, solitude and service, but they are women, so he doesn't have to move out of their way right away.
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Which is more noble -- to be indiscriminately rude, or to be sexist?
I’m sure current news and events color my interpretation of the parable. Last week, Hillary Clinton secured enough delegates to claim the Democratic Party's nomination for president, making her the first woman to win a major party’s nomination. Of her victory, Mo Elleithee, director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, said, "It is worth pausing to reflect that last night, we bent the arc of history." It’s worth getting close enough to see that Clinton is a woman.
Last week, Muhammad Ali was buried in his and my hometown of Louisville, Ky. As he was mourned around the world, the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets wasted no time declaring that the activist, athlete and humanitarian "transcended race," a term routinely used to sanitize, whitewash and make more palatable the posthumous legacies of leaders and celebrities who were outspoken in their identity politics and solidarity with the causes of their people.
To transcend race is an involuntary act for which such leaders and celebrities are to be commended. It's as if the monk in the parable were posthumously rewarded for transcending gender with his rudeness or for being "gender-blind."
The perfect monk would be neither rude nor sexist nor racist nor otherwise prejudiced. If the monk were living in 2016, he wouldn’t be blind to Clinton’s gender. He would see she is a woman, understand that her gender has shaped her life experiences, reflect on the historic significance of her campaign and not let her gender dissuade him from voting for her.
If the monk were writing Ali's obituary for a major news outlet, he would understand that Ali's global humanitarianism was rooted in his experience as a black man and black Muslim in the U.S. Ali could relate to the struggles of other people of color because he understood they, too, were fighting against white supremacy. That's not transcendence; that's grounding oneself in what is right and never letting go of it.
Let's recognize that if we don't see someone's gender, race, nationality, religion or other identity that very much has shaped who they are, we don't see them at all. But let's not hate or discriminate against them based on who they are. Let's be perfect monks.