William Claassen will read from his book, Alone in Community: Journeys into Monastic Life Around the World, and discuss his associated photography exhibition “Pilgrimage: India, Thailand, and Turkey,” at PS:Gallery this Sunday, September 25, from 2:00-3:30, as a special Feed your Soul Sunday event.
William Claassen’s photos of holy men from around the world have graced the PS: hallery for some weeks now. I have seen people wander out of the space after a long while, mystified expressions on their faces. I understand. The images portray lifestyles that are utterly foreign and yet attractive to even non-religious Americans.
Claassen captured the images while researching Alone in Community, which tells the story of his global pilgrimage to monasteries of varied traditions, from Buddhist to Sufi to Christian. But I was curious about the story behind his extraordinary experience. Who does that? I wondered. Claassen graciously agreed to help me answer that question. At Uprise Bakery, he filled in some of his backstory for me.
He was a young activist working on civil rights and tenants’ rights issues with a Vista program in Louisville, Kentucky when he first became interested in monastic life. Louisville is near the Abbey of Gethsamane, the Trappist (Catholic) monastery where the famed theologian Thomas Merton was once abbot. Claassen was not initially attracted by the spiritual aspect of the place, but by how the brothers survived communally on their cottage industries. In 1973, he made his first monastic retreat over the winter holidays, in order to learn first-hand about the lifestyle and economics of the monastery. While he was there, he found himself attracted to the order’s purposeful silence. This first experience was so meaningful that he made monastic retreats regularly thereafter.
It was the beginning of his complex love affair with monastic silence—the freedom from judgment, and the opportunity to reflect. However, for a man who loves silence, he had no shortage of profound words when he told his story. Monastic retreats have served as contemplative punctuation in his life of great activity. He was candid in relating his varied experiences.
After his years with Vista, he finished his undergraduate degree in political science at Rutgers. There followed a few ventures into graduate work, interspersed with international adventures. He worked on a Kibbutz in Israel, near the Lebanese border, and then worked with Amnesty International in New York City, before trying his hand at acting. After five years of that, he switched gears and moved to Oregon to plant trees. For a while, he went to Kenya with the Peace Corps, but he returned to Oregon to work for several years at the public defender’s office, as he considered the possibility of law school. (Though he ultimately decided it was not for him.) In Oregon, he got involved with solidarity work with Latin America, relating to the underground railroad for political refugees there. So, after spending a yearlong interlude living in community with Quakers in Pennsylvania, he went to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace. He followed up his on-location activism in Latin America with activism in Washington DC, focusing on rights for immigrants. In his early forties, he returned to graduate school for journalism at the University of Missouri, focusing on international news. It was there that he did his first writing about monastic life, compiling notes about Assumption Abbey in the foothills of Missouri, which would become the basis for, Another World: A Retreat in the Ozarks, his follow-up to Alone in Community.
It’s okay if you have trouble following all of that. He said he needs an outline himself sometimes, and that he was still leaving out some important parts of the story. Unsurprisingly, he felt he had enough fodder to make his third book a memoir. I will let him tell the story in his own words from here.
Claassen: I just finished my third book, called Journeyman: A Worldwide Odyssey. It’s a memoir and adventure book. It covers three decades, starting on the Kibbutz in 1974, and it concludes with me participating in an all-night Native American peyote ceremony on a reservation on the West Coast, in 2006. There are twelve chapters in the book, and twelve locations—journeys of different kinds: my hitch-hiking trek from New York to Alaska, my journey into character as an actor, my journey into revolution in Nicaragua, my experience with the Mayan cosmos in Guatemala… The first six chapters deal with the plane we live on; the last six chapters really deal with the spiritual plane. It’s divided in two. It was a chance for me to tell new stories, and to share the experiences I have had, on a more personal level than in my other books.
Interviewer (that’s me): Your story is one of perpetual reinvention.
C: Perpetual discovery. My politics haven’t changed. In fact, the older I get, the further left my politics go. I feel almost compelled to say that, because I so often hear the other way.
I: People who tell young liberals, “You think that now, but…”
C: “But just wait till you get older, and know better!” Ha! That hasn’t been the case for me. I have been blessed to do what I have done, and I never became jaded. I was able to do it because thousands of people have helped me along the way. The more I see, the broader the picture seems to me. Things become less and less black and white.
I: What enabled you to navigate all of the change and perpetual transition that your experience required?
C: Probably dropping out of school early on and getting a broader perspective with Vista, and learning to live on a very tight budget, was an advantage to the kind of life I have had. I learned to live collectively, and I learned about labor politics, and I got to know people who considered themselves revolutionaries, and met people who spent time in prison for it because of the House of Un-American Activities Committee in the McCarthy Era. It opened my eyes, and made me braver. I had grown up in a very Republican, conservative family—but they were also very compassionate and open to dialogue. Then I moved into this Vista situation, where my assumptions were turned upside down. That was a good experience. It gave me a support group, and basic income during that awakening. I had two and a half years to maneuver my way through my changing politics…
Nonetheless there have been difficult periods. It was very dark for a while. I wasn’t sure what was next. I have been good at navigating cultures, and novel situations, and dealing with change—but there have been times that I felt stuck, too.
I: Sometimes the path is clearer retrospectively than it is looking forward?
C: For sure. When I finished the traveling part of the Alone in Community project, and came back to the US to write, there were six months of darkness. I was overwhelmed by all this material, and by so many photographs. How was I going to put this together in a way other people would understand?
I: You hadn’t gotten the book deal before you went, so through this project you were acting on faith.
C: Completely. And I did that with my second and third books, too. I still haven’t found the publisher for the third.
I: So you were probably working other jobs, too, trying to piece all of this together.
C: Sure. I was on the West Coast before I came back to Missouri, and I was teaching part time and writing.
Also, during that time, I spent a long while trekking around Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. This experience speaks to the darkness: I was in Vietnam, in a small village, Hoi An. I had a hop-on, hop-off bus ticket heading across the country. I got to the village late at night, and was able to secure a room in a hostel. I woke up the next morning, and I was frozen. For some reason, I don’t know what had happened, but I thought I can’t do this anymore. I can’t get up and struggle with the language, and go out on the street… I was just blocked. And I had never, ever experienced that on the road. I can’t tell you why it happened when it did. But I was stuck in my bed. And I just took a couple of hours, and I talked myself out of it. The first step was to get out on the street. The next step was to get a cup of coffee. By the end of the day, I was fine.
I: It struck me as I was reading Alone in Community that even though you were participating briefly in the same lifestyles as the monks in these places, the fact that you are traveling is giving you the opposite experience from what the monks experience, being bounded to place.
C: That’s right, stability is such an important part of most monastic traditions. Not true with Hindus, because they are always on pilgrimage. But it’s true of Buddhists and Christians, Sufis, and Jain monks to an extent.
I: Did you find as you were traveling that the monastic framework gave you some stability, and enabled you to understand what was important to a culture more clearly?
C: Silence was part of life in these places, so they were ideal for sitting and observing, to write, and have intimate conversations—as opposed to some of my other experiences, being in a war situation where everything is chaotic. These monastic settings were ideal places to collect my thoughts, and to see how the communities interact within their larger communities.
I: From the outside, it is easy to focus on what one gives up to be a monk, and to wonder why someone would do it. I think the answer to that question may be inherently difficult to articulate—writing about it from the outside, or even talking about one’s own experience. Could that insufficiency of words be a reason for the silence?
C: What you say makes me think that I didn’t address the reasons for monastic life in the first book. I think I did in my second book on this subject. There are significant advantages to having community, knowing they are going to be there for you.
I: Do you think it is more stabile than having a family in the conventional sense?
C: If your order entails stability, you know this place is going to be here, always. Those basics—a roof, and food, and a daily schedule—are given. There are other things to deal with on top of that, but you have a foundation.
I: I think in the US, especially among young people, stability may be a lost value. It jumped out at me that in several of the orders stability was a vow. I am thinking that many of my peers’ response to that would be that, if you were really dynamically engaged with your life, you wouldn’t need to be focused on stability. Even though they would agree that monastic life is incredibly difficult, they would see it also as a cop out.
C: In this country, especially, I hear that a lot—that the lifestyle is escaping from the world. But in fact, all monastic communities relate to surrounding communities to survive. There is lots of give and take, even more so now that so many communities depend on income from people making retreat—outsiders coming in, and people writing about them, like me… I have never seen their lives as an escape, just as a choice.
I: Do you think it takes a special personality to successfully be a monk?
C: Oh, clearly. I think there are a lot of reasons for men or women to enter that life. I think it takes a lot of strength and capacity for self-searching, and a desire to be in community, but also to be able to be able to be alone in community. And that varies with the order. There is more balance of communication and silence now among the Trappists, for example, than there used to be. You know before the late ‘60’s they didn’t speak. They only used sign language. But regardless of tradition there is a lot of time to deal with self. And that is really hard. We see that, as things get noisier, and people are plugged in all of the time. I see constant attunement to “news” as an escape rather than an attempt to understand.
I: In the introduction to the book, you said that you briefly flirted with the idea of a monastic life for yourself. It’s probably a complicated and personal question, but why did you decide against it?
C: There are so many reasons! It is complicated and personal. But I heard somebody say, “As long as I keep moving, I know who I am,” and that has been part of my life.
I: I wondered about that—if the very thing that compelled you to see all of these monasteries would prevent you from committing to one.
C: I am very attracted to community, and I have lived in community before—though not as a monk. But for various reasons I haven’t been able to stay in that situation for an extended period. I have a pretty broad spiritual perspective. So dogmatic theology is a real block for me. Whether it’s Buddhist, Christian, Hindu… The more I saw, the broader my perspective became. That is important to me. I am most grateful to be able to enter these communities, and to make retreat, and to be silent.
But I like that these communities are radical, in a way. I see them as democratic, socialist communities–although the abbot has power. But they challenge the economics of the community around them. They are actually sharing their goods, and they all receive what they need and give what they can. So they manage to be radical communities within the umbrella of a dogmatic theology. It’s an interesting dynamic.
I: I can’t even think of another community of that type that has been successful in the long term.
C: For centuries! The Catholic Church touts monastic life as a higher calling. It is interesting that you have a church that is in general so conservative—more so now than ever before, in my opinion—that lives side by side with these communities that indirectly, by their existence, challenge conventional values. That is true in how they live, day to day, and it’s true in the fact that they usually embrace people of any tradition, or of no tradition, to share their lives for a time. Hospitality is so important to them. I am grateful for that.