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THE e'M'pire


An interview with Father William McNamara
by Carter Phipps
 

interview

Father William
McNamara

WIE: Father McNamara, you are a Carmelite monk, a contemplative in one of the most respected monastic traditions in the world. What inspired you to renounce worldly life and set your feet to the path of asceticism and solitude?

FR. WILLIAM MCNAMARA: The original motive, affirmed and reconfirmed more passionately and intensely over the years, was and is a desire for the fullness of life. In order to be prepared for and receptive to that onslaught of life and love that the Creator provides for us in himself and through everything that is connected with him (because God is not a separate God, he is distinct and transcendental but not separate) one has to become pure, one has to become empty, one has to become responsive, one has to become alive and alert to all the possibilities of living. I wanted that fullness of life and I didn't want to become halfhearted. I didn't want to get caught in half-truths. I didn't want to be stymied or seduced by mediocrity, by pseudo-events rather than events. I wanted the whole thing. I wanted utter reality. I wanted the ultimate. So I had to renounce whatever seemed to me to be less than real.

WIE: What did you see as being less than real?

WM: I found most communication an impediment to communion. We communicate so much—a veritable Vesuvius of verbiage—that we don't hear the Word itself. The truth escapes us. I think that one of the worst pollutions in the world is verbal pollution.

So I didn't want to be choked by verbal pollution, by a shallow, empty, febrile kind of talk. I wanted a life that was dominated by and permeated by silence. And then, out of that matrix of silence, I hoped that the deeper words would come, the primordial words. But the only words that would be worthwhile would be those which are connected with the original Word, the Word of God, the Word that became flesh.

Another thing would be the way reality escapes us, precisely because we are in such a hurry. We are in a stampede almost constantly. There's no time to think, there's no time to love, there's no time to be. We're driven to do, do, do at a rather shallow, superficial level, and that prevents us from being, which is most important. As Lao Tzu said, "The most important thing to do is to be."

So that would be another aspect of the search for truth, the search for the Ultimate. Again, it's communion rather than communication. If communication sets the stage for communion, that's wonderful communication. If it doesn't, it's useless. The big thing that every human being is striving for is communion. And if that is not experienced on all levels—communion with God, communion with human beings, communion with animals, vegetables, minerals, the earth—then we experience the terrible affliction of loneliness and isolation. That's what is dominating this modern society. Everyone's lonely, everyone's isolated. So we need time to be, we need enough silence to be, we need enough solitude to be, we need enough good communion with others to be.

WIE: Could you explain exactly how you define "the world" on the spiritual path?

WM: I find it necessary to distinguish between the world and what I call the "Mpire"—the world of the three M's: mediocrity, mendacity, and manipulation. The world that is the earth, the gift God has given us—I would never renounce that. All I want to do is embrace that and love it and become more and more a part of it—that objective, wonderful world.

But the Mpire is that aspect of the world that has been used and twisted out of shape in order to provide the power, pleasure, and prestige of human beings. The net result of that, down through the centuries, has been an unreal world. The Mpire is an unreal world. It's made up of a network of mediocrity, manipulation, and mendacity.

The whole sociopolitical world we live in is dominated by mendacity—the big lie. The big lie is coming through television, through magazines (not enlightenment magazines but through many magazines) through propaganda, ideologies. There is some truth in it, but it's the big lie because it doesn't reveal the ultimate. And it doesn't evaluate contemporary situations in terms of the ultimate. Therefore it goes askew.

Then there's mediocrity. Everything is worked out into a system so that there are no surprises. And God is surprise. God is beyond our conceptions, our images, our big to-dos. If we are not being surprised constantly, it means we are out of touch with the real, and we've worked things out simply to be manageable, to provide us with more power, more convenience, more comfort.

The third aspect is manipulation. I think the biggest problem of society today is that we let too many things happen to us. We've allowed ourselves to become usable items for government, for church, for whatever the big power structures may be. That's manipulation. It happens in respectable, subtle ways. First we allow television into the home. Then we allow computers, and then because there is pornography on the Internet, we get used to pornography in the home. It just becomes absurd, but we've gotten used to it. We are shrinking humanly. We're not being divinized; we're not being transformed. It happens little by little as we let too many dehumanizing things happen to us, so that we can no longer take a stand against it.

The term I like to use to describe that whole phenomenon is "pretty poison." It's not a spectacular kind of evil. Pretty poison is the kind of evil that killed Christ. It was not the bad men of that age, not the state, not the church. It wasn't the notoriously evil men but the pretty poison that seeped into the best institutions and the best people. Pretty poison is that kind of evil that seeps unnoticeably, imperceptibly into our nicest people and our best institutions and just disorients them, derails them. It's a respectable kind of evil.

WIE: How have the very specific external changes that you made—for example, stepping away from the world completely and becoming a monk—helped you to remove yourself from what you call the "Mpire" and go deeper into the spiritual dimension?

WM: When I entered the Carmelite order at eighteen, I took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. When I started a new branch of the Carmelite order in 1960, I added another vow, and that is the vow of holy leisure—refusing to be driven into stampedes of work, busyness, and fuss.

Poverty means no fuss. We fuss about so many things that we have no energy left to be focused and concentrated on the one thing necessary: God, union with God, enlightenment, purity of heart. So we take the vow of poverty, and that means that nothing short of ultimate union is worth fussing about. It's not worth it unless it's connected to that. So poverty really means getting rid of all of the excess baggage. We don't need watches, radios, and hi-fi sets—we need God. We need a good earth, we need good relationships, and we need a rich kind of life where there is a variety and balance of human activities that lead to the one thing necessary, the pure act, which is the act of enlightened love.

Chastity means no lust. It means not lusting after anything, not only human beings but anything. It means getting rid of all forms of craving. All of the great religions have said that—get rid of craving and you're free. So we take the vow of chastity to get rid of craving, and then we focus on real intimacy—with God, with human beings, animals, vegetables, minerals. One responds to people as they are, with no designs on them, with no greed, with no lust. Then one becomes full of awe, wonder, and radical amazement, because as this brand-new kind of beauty emerges before us, we don't want to use it, we want to celebrate it, and offer it to God and thank God for it. So that's chastity. It also means renouncing some good things, like the good aspects of the sexual life with one's beloved. We renounce that, not because it's bad but because we want the quickest, shortest route into the ultimate. Therefore we store up those sexual energies and, by the help of God, subsume them within eros itself. Eros is that deep, profound desire in every human being to be united with everyone and everything.

And then obedience means no rust, that is, not allowing our mind to become rusty. So, no fuss, no lust, and no rust. Obedience comes from the Latin oboedire and it means "to listen." How many people really listen? To be obedient means that we are so free of self-will, self-interest, and self-importance that we really listen to all those messengers that God sends to tell us the truth. In obedience we renounce a lot of the self-preoccupation and look to the other, listen to the other. It's other-centered rather than self-centered.

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This article is from
Our "In the World But Not Of It" Issue