Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Creativity and Benedictine life

A common concern about monastic life is that it stifles creativity; we worry that the call for obedience, silence, and humility, the subjection of one's self to the authority of another, and the many rules of monastic life will end up turning monks into robots without any creativity. This concern, however, is wrong in two ways: first, it misunderstands how we become truly creative and, second, it is clearly false empirically once one gets to know a few monks.

Starting with the second of the two mistakes, monks have always been and continue to be enormously creative. The creativity is not restricted to academic and church life -- though that has been their greatest gift -- but extends to all areas of life. One of the late monks here was a painter and also collected art from around the world, I have this recipe book for soups from one monk, and you've already seen how mechanically creative Brother Kevin is. Monastic life often unlocks creativity rather than restricts it.

This is because we often misconceive of how creativity happens -- we think it is the result of working without rules, but that is only true inasmuch as the rules have first been mastered. Before Picasso helped create Cubism, his early portraiture represented technical mastery; before Pele was able to do magical things with a soccer ball, he first mastered the basic skills of controlling the ball; some of the world's best classical musicians still practice their scales. Unfortunately what passes for groundbreaking creativity in today's world is actually the product of people who are too lazy or too untalented to have first mastered the basic skills of their craft.

Malcolm Gladwell gives an excellent description of this in his discussion of improvisational comedians in his bestseller, Blink. He points out that improv only works if certain rules are followed; improv groups meet regularly to discuss the rules and plan for how to implement them. We think we see comedy that is created on-the-spot, but it is actually the result of a specific set of conventions that enable the creativity to flow.

Likewise, the Rule of Benedict and the shape of Benedictine life provides a structure within which creativity can flourish. By limiting choices and decisions, the monk becomes free to make the effort to master a set of skills in a way that allows creativity to break forth. Creativity is demanding and difficult task -- even God had to take a day off from it -- and Benedictine life provides the structure that allows the monk to participate in God's creative bounty in the monks own life using the abilities given him by God.

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