Paul Andersen: A contemplative antidote to Aspen
The proximity of Aspen to St. Benedict’s Cistercian Monastery on Capitol Creek is a startling dichotomy. Aspen and the monastery are worlds apart, but less than 20 miles as the crow flies.
The irony is palpable as a cloister of monks practice centering prayer and contemplative thought in the glow of Sodom and Gomorrah. Hidden displays of devotion clash with conspicuous displays of consumption as the Old World stands off the New.
The monastery was established in 1956 on 3,000 acres in a bucolic setting that is one of the largest ranchlands in Pitkin County. The monastery stands humbly as an antidote to Aspen’s high life.
At an event last week at the Aspen Chapel, Ed Bastian, a professor of religious studies, Buddhism and meditation at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, California, said that meditative practices are gaining ground.
“People are stressed,” Bastian explained. “They want to find a way to center themselves, to become more calm, to become more effective, to be in deeper, heartfelt relationships with each other. They’re looking for an antidote to what’s going on.”
The Aspen Chapel, under the direction of ecumenical cleric/philosopher Nicholas Vesey, has become a spiritual haven within Aspen city limits. Its lofty spire at the roundabout points to a higher notion of the good life than the private jets flocking to Sardy Field.
In his new book, “Living the Life Force,” Vesey asks: “Why does the natural world seem so ordered, and yet our lives seem so chaotic?”
A likely answer is our separation from nature due to technological barriers. Having distanced ourselves from the source of our genesis, the balance of man and nature is skewed, as William Wordsworth described poetically.
“I heard a thousand blended notes while in a grove I sat reclined/In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts bring sad thoughts to mind/To her fair works did nature link the human soul that through me ran/And much it grieved my heart to think what man has made of man.”
God, according to Corinthians, is not to be found in a “tabernacle made by hands,” because walls cannot contain the divine.
The monastery gives spiritual credence to the rugged landscape surrounding it, as Exodus elucidates: “Thou wilt bring them in and plant them on Thy own mountain The place, 0 Lord, which Thou hast made for Thy abode The sanctuary, 0 Lord, which Thy hands have established.”
In “Come to the Mountains,” the monastery’s published story, Father Ron Rolheiser wrote: “You will find here a group of very unassuming monks whose lives, through their writings and personal contact, have deeply touches many lives. This is the place where I go to reground myself in faith and prayer, and to be fed, nurtured, and humored by a wonderful group of men who know the meaning of both spirituality and friendship.”
Where Aspen is aligned with material pleasures, the monastery seeks a far different alignment. “In a world of noise, confusion and conflict it is necessary that there be places of silence, inner discipline and peace: not the peace of mere relaxation but the peace of inner clarity and love based on ascetic renunciation.”
Where Aspen represents an elite bubble of high culture and prestige, “The monastery teaches men to take their own measure and to accept their ordinariness; in a word, it teaches them that truth about themselves which is known as ‘humility.’”
The Aspen Institute pursues this track through its many philosophical seminars, though without ascetic renunciation. Service is encouraged and even mandated, but sacrifice and humility go largely unspoken as a taboo in materialistic American culture.
The influences of theologian Thomas Merton and spiritual leader Thomas Keating co-created the monastery’s credo of contemplation and self-examination in the peace and quiet of a rural enclave.
That such high-minded and deeply spiritual practices take place within a half-hour drive of the thrumming pulse of Aspen is one of the more profound cultural contrasts in the US.
“To come face to face with the mystery of the monastic vocation and to grapple with it is a profound experience. To live as a monk is a great gift, not given to many.”
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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“If I was moving through the herd, the others would begin walking away, some of them at a jog, taking their calves with them, but the big brown ungulate would face me sideways, reluctant to move, not wanting to give any ground,” writes Tony Vagneur.