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Monastics are the least isolated and the most free. This may seem counterintuitive. Aren’t monks and nuns and the like the most isolated and the least free? They leave the “rest of the world” behind and quietly recede into seclusion, separation, and subjection to a rigorously regimented daily life. They do not enjoy the leisure and autonomy that adorns broader society. How then can they who are obscurely cloistered from the realm of free choice be touted as the least isolated and most free of humanity?
Only if “freedom” is not what we think it is. Reflecting on the final recollections of Father Zossima, a venerable and aged monastic in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Rowan Williams exposes the folly of our so-called “freedom” in this way: “Freedom has been redefined as the ability to create fresh demands and satisfy them, and the effect is that the wealthy are lonely and the depressed and the poor resentful and vengeful” (Dostoevsky, 166). Dostoevsky’s Zossima, with a remarkable foresight into our own day (Dostoevsky wrote over 130 years ago), advises that freedom is really enslavement if all it amounts to is our ability to endlessly assert ourselves through what we consume economically, socially, psychologically, or politically. To live in a world and culture where the supreme end is to assert oneself is to live in a world that is only made up of oneself; and such a world is lonely, is isolating.
“The monk,” asserts Williams, “who lives in solitude so as to break himself of the slavery of acquiring and consuming, is the least isolated of humans.” They are the least isolated because they have renounced the isolating enslavement of self-satisfaction. They are the most free because they are not subject to themselves. And from this liberation of self they can truly recognize the Other in their fellow human beings – most immediately with those in the community they live within, and then with those they encounter when they reenter “the world.” It is in monastic community that freedom, and hence solidarity with one another, is found.
We are not a monastic community like the one Zossima inhabited. We cannot claim complete freedom any more than they would have. But as those affiliated with what has been called “New Monasticism,” we have found that through our “leaving” the world of self-assertion by living a common life together – a “leaving” that never ends indeed – we have found the seeds of liberation.