February 2013


Some things lie too deep for tears. The sadness they embody is beyond easy explanation and defies neat solutions. The media news love these things – tragedies like Newtown or 9-11 - as they are rare and have an unforgettable impact.

 Seeing them on a screen however is never the same as being there in person. When you are in the physical presence of this kind of human sadness – which often seems to tremble paradoxically, shamelessly, on the brink of hope and renewal – you are not a watcher. You participate. It is not pity you feel – the luxury of the safe and well-fed – but compassion – the realization that you share in the experience of others simply because you too are human.

In a Buddhist monastery outside Bangkok many of the monks are graduates of the drug rehabilitation program that has operated there for forty years. It claims a success rate (non-relapse for twelve months) of sixty per cent in contrast to the four percent of most western attempts to lead people out of the ultimate sadness of a soul-destroying addiction. You can recognise these monks because they have plentiful tattoos, a certain jaunty walk, and don’t seem to have kicked the smoking habit with the other drugs that were ruining them.

The monastery grounds are not the ordered and manicured spaces visitors expect to find in a Christian cloister. But a succession of gifted abbots, as in many western monasteries, left their mark through building sprees, although here there seems to have been a marked lack of town planning. The dense, elevated circle of Buddha statues has a palpable energy and is said to be on a lay line connecting directly to Stonehenge, though the monks give a Thai smile when they tell you this.

The monastic life here is less rigid than in the west and less self-consciously protective against the world’s pollution. There are no signs saying “Cloister: Monks only”. Perhaps it is more like the Celtic model of monasticism, or the original Benedictine model, which allowed for spheres of overlapping kinds of membership and age groupings. Here it is more like a village in which the monks follow their rules and routines alongside people who sincerely respect them but follow their own. You can’t imagine their community meetings having arguments about ‘are we monastic enough?’ or ‘we’ve got to be more monastic’. Each monk is as monastic as he wants or can be. The common life and authority, I sensed, both protects and challenges this.

Yet the westerners who occupy the Hay, the rehab centre in the middle of the complex feel the monastic influence and inspiration deeply. It was in meeting some of them that I felt this indefinable sadness. At a certain stage of theistic belief it would call your idea of God into question – how could a loving God allow such young people to be led into such dark despair and helplessness? Where was God when, unaware of the consequences, they said ‘yes’ to some substance that offered them the perfect escape. At a later stage of belief there might evolve a more subtle sense that the light of God stayed with them in their darkest hour, perhaps through a friend or a counselor who did not give up on them as they had given up on themselves.

In the eyes of one young red-headed Irishman one could see this strange combination of despair and the kind of raw hope that despair alone can give birth too. Wearing his red prison-like uniform, that makes it difficult for the patients to run away, he viewed the world with a look both of wonder and anxious appeal. He had been clean for a year and then while on holiday had relapsed. He checked in immediately to this place of extreme physical simplicity and discipline and of extreme humane realism and kindness. He asked the monks if they could help him and they replied no. He could only help himself, but they could help create the conditions where this might happen.

A rehab centre in the west would typically charge a thousand or more a week. Here it is free. The monks are not ‘professional’, but they are experienced and wise and detached. They live their own life around the rhythm of the rehab centre – detox, counseling, meditation, work, music, art. One monk paints, another rescues broken knife blades and mindfully makes them useful again but discards them when finished, another builds, another welcomes guests and for some, as in all monasteries, only God knows what they do. This calm and self-confident life weaves what one must call a spiritual dimension around their desperate transient guests. It opens them to this dimension in themselves and there they may find, rather than their awful sadness, a joy that lies too deep for tears.


Laurence Freeman OSB

The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)