“The great teaching of the monastery is attention instantly, to what is eternal in us” | The USA Print

"La gran enseñanza del monasterio es la atención al instante, a lo que hay en nosotros de eterno"

Although he warns of the decline of Western civilization and investigates its causes, Armando Pego Puigbó cannot be related to one of those ashes who dedicate their lives to lamentation. He is aware that human history has gone awry, that in fact it already began crooked―forgetting original sin, he says, is one of the great evils of modernity― , but he affirms that even today, when everything seems to be on its way of dissolution, there are reasons to preserve hope. What are such reasons and how to cultivate that virtue is what his latest book, Poetics of the Monastery (Encuentro, 2022), is about in part.

Ask. Why did she start writing Poetics of the Monastery

Answer. Its origins are in a blog where I started writing ten years ago under the pseudonym Cavalcanti, as if I were Dante’s poet friend. Those entries gave rise to what I call The Orphan Trilogy , three practically unfindable volumes ―a whim, if one can say― in which I explored my own aesthetic. After many years at the university, many years suffocated by his bureaucratic filth, I concluded that it was time to return to my first vocation: reading.

Q. What is your own aesthetic?

A. What I call Stilnovist-Claravalan aesthetics; an attempt to synthesize the origins of modernity as a pressing problem of our time, of our time. Stilnovista because Dante, Cavalcanti, the Florentines had revolutionized the way of thinking, feeling, looking at love and conceiving themselves in the city; and Claavalan because it was the memory of the monastery, the memory of a type of spiritual culture that had been lost. 

Q. What does this spiritual culture consist of? How would I synthesize it?

R. With the title of the book by Jean Leclercq: The love of letters and the desire for God . Monastic thought tries fundamentally to articulate a grammar. In that it differs from scholasticism, whose objective is scientific: to seek the truth through reason. Monastic thought seeks the truth through the heart. In my book this is substantiated in a Pascalian desire to combine the demands of reason with the reality of affections without incurring in either the excess of rationalism or sentimentality. 

Q. Because, of course, reaching the truth through the heart does not imply sentimentality, right?

A. No, on the contrary. Everything that reaches the head reaches through the heart, which is – I use a biblical image – the center of the human person, the integrating center in which everything that happens to us is reflected, meditated on, ruminated over. The latter ―”ruminated”― is a word that monastic authors liked a lot: it is about going back on words, gradually discovering a meaning that is not secret or encrypted, but one that must be meditated on. The idea of ​​meditation is fundamental in Poetics of the monastery .

Q. What do you mean when you talk about “monastery” in the book? Because it’s not just the place where monks live.

R. If you allow me, there are two sentences that are the core of the book. One is from Henri de Lubac: “The Church witnesses the perpetual defeat of good, but it is not discouraged for that.” The other is from Louis Bouyer, a theologian of the same period: “The vocation of the monk is that of any Christian taken to the utmost urgency.” It is about rediscovering the meaning of “monastery”. In the exegetical tradition, since Origen , there were four senses: the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the anagogical or eschatological. By “monastery” I don’t just mean the literal sense. We live in a time that tends to identify the truth with the literal reference, but there are other meanings that, rather than overlapping, enrich the literal meaning. 

In the moral sense, the monastery is a place of encounter with oneself, of healing, of purification; in the eschatological, it is a place open to hope, to the hope that we are not locked in by the demands of this world. 

Q. Speaking of this era and its conception of reality… Today reality is identified with the quantifiable. 

A. Indeed. Since we have lost the sense of truth, since we don’t know what it is, we come to affirm that it is simply a construct. But we need a limit, and we have decided that it be the Excel boxes, that is what gives us security. Enter a formula and it will allow you, at least, to have a slight certainty that you are not more disoriented than you already are. 

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Faced with this idea that what is quantifiable is what is real, I propose that what is real is what is qualitative and that, therefore, it requires reflection and also an acceptance of uncertainty.

Q. Assuming uncertainty, on the one hand, but affirming that something can be known, on the other, right?

R. That it may not be possible to know everything in an instantaneous, full, total way, but that we can get closer to the truth, glimpse it and, above all, delve into it. Because the truth is uncertain means that, deep down, it is inexhaustible.

Q. If you understand it, if you encompass it, it’s not God, is it?

A. If you embrace it, then you become God. But you end up realizing that you are not and you feel cheated.

Q. Despite the fact that you go back to the past, that you take Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Dante as a reference, you are not a traditionalist like those who want to reproduce the past, or some aspects of the past, in the present.

R. I define myself as a traditionalist, but not in a modern sense. The modern traditionalist is the one who believes that he can freeze the past and that the only thing we can do is reproduce that museum past because, by living it, we will experience the Presence, a presence that in our world has disappeared. As long as this traditionalism clings to something quantifiable, I believe that the tradition is enriched, that the tradition grows, and that the tradition itself is creative. It expands, it develops. No need to experiment with tradition; tradition experiences for itself. You have to be faithful to that continuity. 

Q. In the book you define tradition as solidarity between the past and the future lived in the present. 

A. I believe that the moment one breaks with tradition, one denies the future the possibility of becoming. The mission of the present is to guard, to keep, to make the future possible while remaining alert to the past. The future is already contained in the past, as Eliot said. And the future does everything that the past glimpsed but could not do.

The moment one breaks with tradition, one denies the future the possibility of becoming

Q. You relate the decline of Western civilization to the decline of three figures: that of the father, that of the teacher and that of the monk. Let’s start with the father’s. In what does this decadence consist? Why has it happened?

A. The figure of the father has been separated from the reality of the home. If God is dead, the father is dead, and with him everything that the father is: the author, the subject, the one who is a reference and, by being so, sets a limit. The father has been mistreated. 

Q. Why?

A. This does not mean that men are being mistreated; it means, rather, that the symbolic figure of man has been rejected. He has suffered intolerable oppression for years. When the father becomes an equal, he ceases to be a father.

Q. In other words, mistreatment consists in the loss of authority.

A. That is. In the loss of authority, not in the loss of power. Of the auctoritas , not of the potestas . You can have authority and yet lack effective power. 

Q. And vice versa. 

A. Also. Obviously, authority requires power. I am not proposing a separation between auctoritas and potestas ; I am only saying that power without authority becomes tyranny and the father is replaced by the authority of the State.

Q. Because authority is legitimacy, right?

R. Legitimacy to exercise power. 

Q. What is the reason for this loss of legitimacy?

A. I think one of the reasons is the Enlightenment ideal of autonomy: one creates oneself and is therefore not indebted to one’s past. In fact, you have to let go of it to be free. The autonomous man does not recognize the debt. Debt is a very tricky subject. One must get rid of the father figure in order to become an autonomous and sovereign man. But, by asserting his sovereignty and autonomy from him, he feels threatened by his children. He sees in them a threat from Saturn, a threat from Cronos, to his own control.

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Q. Does disdain for the past have to do with a reluctance to feel indebted?

A. Indeed. Being in debt means, among other things, not speculating, not using the past as a bargaining chip. Guard it, keep it, without petrifying it. Make the tradition grow, make it flourish. Offer him the possibility of reaching his fullness, his maturity. 

Q. And the figure of the teacher? You write about the technological invasion and about the degradation of the teacher to the role of teaching agent. 

R. If the child is no longer a child, but rather an autonomous being that creates its own sovereignty, it cannot be expected – even less! – that someone teach another person something. You simply have to accompany him, let him grow on his own, fulfill a bureaucratic function, at the service of a system that you don’t want people to know about, but rather to do.

Q. In the end that it develops in the market and that it responds to the demands of the market. 

A. And the role of the teacher implies a personal relationship. It means a bond that is also the recognition of a difference. We live in a time that, while claiming the right to difference, dissolves all differences and tries to include everything in an Excel sheet. 

P. It blurs the hierarchies. 

R. It blurs them because they mean that someone has something that the other does not have. 

Q. In this case, the teacher has something, knowledge, that the disciple does not have. 

A. Indeed. But he does not use knowledge for mastery, as in biopolitics, but rather to offer the student the possibility of discovering his own path through example, through testimony. 

Q. It says in the book that the teacher does not fill the gap, but rather preserves it.

A. Even more! It generates it. The teacher instills in the disciple the desire to know. The teacher makes the disciple aware of the lack of him. 

Q. What difference is there between that and self-learning, so criticized by you in the book?

A. In this case, someone gives the student the opportunity to discover what is missing. The father or the teacher have the mission of offering the son, the disciple, the awareness that something is missing and that it is something that he needs, something that is essential. The awareness, moreover, that he has to walk that path alone, which does not mean, of course, that he cooks it and he eats it. This discovery of one’s own intimacy is always dialogical.

Q. And what you need is knowledge, knowledge. 

A. Man by nature wants to know and needs someone to tell him where to look. He needs an indication. More than someone to give you instructions—”you have to believe this; this is the knowledge you need”—you need someone to tell you: “Go this way; see what you find.” What he can find is unpredictable and unthinkable for the teacher. 

P. Indoctrination is bad, therefore. 

A. Indoctrination consists of saying: “Look. You have this void; I will fill it with this knowledge.” It’s a mistake. The teacher-disciple dialogic relationship is different. In it, the teacher makes the disciple see that he has a lack and invites him to fill it with the example of his ancestors. 

Q. You are more of an Augustinian than a Thomist. 

A. Completely. 

Q. Let’s talk about the monk. You say in the book that we all have something of the monk, that all piety has something of the monastic. 

R. The monks are those who, as I said, try to develop the vocation of the baptized as urgently as possible. It is not that they are better, it is not that they have fled from the world, it is not that they have despised it, it is not that they have withdrawn. Obviously, throughout history there have been various interpretations of monasticism and some errors have been accentuated, but what the monk is really looking for is to find God. Finding God is the only thing necessary. The only thing necessary is to pray without rest, which can be done in a monastery or in daily life. The monk challenges – not because he wants to, but because it is so – the idea that there is nothing but this world, the idea that this world is at our disposal and that it is the only thing we can hope for, that it is the only thing that can fill our desires. It is a fence against nihilism. 

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Q. Every Catholic has something of a monk, but today it is especially difficult – because of the daily bustle, because of the vertigo – to live that something that we all have as a monk. 

A. On the contrary! I believe that it is the propitious moment to live it. The monks were trying to find themselves. Where? In the desert, which is not exactly a pleasant place. When you think of monasteries and say “oh, how nice, a secluded and quiet place” you are rather wrong. Deserts are very harsh places! Physically, spiritually and symbolically. People went after the monks because they saw that they had a teaching, something to pass on. I believe —I say it in the book— that the desert is in the center of the cities. Those noises, that bustle, those constant efforts, that daily distraction require attention from the Catholic. How many times has it happened to us that, going down the street, we stop and say: “There is no noise!” One is so imbued with the noises that he carries inside that he hardly realizes that he is passing through a silent street. The great teaching of the monastery is attention to the moment, attention to details, attention to what is eternal in us. 

Q. We talk a lot about carpe diem , but we don’t really live in the moment. We are distracted. 

R. It is said that you have to get all the juice out of it instantly and, nevertheless, we are so distracted, so worried about getting the juice out of it, that the moment flees. As Virgil said, tempus fugit irreparabile . We try to capture the moment without realizing that we are part of another: that of eternity. 

Q. How should the Catholic live today?

R. I don’t dare to go that far… I think you should live with hope. The news gives the impression that there is no reason for hope and that everything is hanging by a thread: the economy, the nation, politics, the Church… The impression that everything is collapsing and that the only thing that is can do is clench our fists, as if we were caressing the apocalypse. I believe that the Catholic must distance himself from all this and live with hope. 

Q. You speak in the book about sabbatical solitude. 

R. Yes. Living with patience, which has never been easy, but today is especially difficult. Live patiently and waiting. 

Q. And we have to learn that from monasticism. 

R. Perhaps monastic life is not a model to follow for all Catholics, it may not exhaust piety, but it does have something to teach us. I often repeat an anecdote from the fathers of the desert. A young man visits an old man and talks to him for a long time. When they finish, the young man apologizes to the old man for wasting his time and breaking the rule, to which the old man replies: “My rule is to receive you hospitably and send you off peacefully.” It is not simply the fulfillment of predetermined norms, but, above all, that openness of the spirit to share in solidarity our path towards God.