For many readers the concept of ‘Chaos Monasticism’ may seem like an oxymoron. Trying to imagine the archetypally black clad, multiply pierced purveyors of anarchic sorcery seeking quiet and discipline, feels somewhat improbable, and yet this is the strange territory into which I want to take you! As with any spiritual tradition that is undergoing an ongoing process of evolution and maturation, Chaos Magic (now over 30 years old) has sought to balance its punk rock tendencies with more considered, skilful application of quietist technologies from a broad range of magical approaches.
While the concept of monastic endeavour may initially feel somewhat alien to those of us raised in cultures largely influenced by Protestantism, the longing for shaped discipline is often not that far below the surface. The dissolution of the monasteries that occurred during the Reformation, suppressed the monastic impulse within large parts of Western Europe. When however we look at the history of occult Orders such as the Rosicrucians or the Freemasons we could postulate that their emergence from the collective unconscious may have resulted from such suppression. As with St. Anthony fleeing to the desert in the 4th century C.E. in order to experience the full rigours of spiritual intent, so those entering occult groups were often seeking a deeper, more focused path.
Many Occult or Magical groups require that the neophyte undertake a piece of quantified spiritual activity so as to both prepare them for life within the group and to test their motivation. The shape of my own magical and monastic work within the Chaos current has been significantly shaped by my involvement in the Illuminates of Thanateros. The IOT in many ways represents a more organised manifestation of the Chaos tradition in that it seeks to focus on the process of initiatory development that can be experienced in group magical practice. For a person aspiring to join the Order, they must have first completed a minimum of six months of unbroken, diarised magico-spiritual activity (Liber MMM as described in Pete Carroll’s Liber Null). In many ways the focus on stillness practices and routine described in MMM has many resonances with a monastic approach.
Pete Carroll in Liber Kaos describes a Chaos Monasticism as a period of focused observance in order to “renew and strengthen one’s dedication to the Great Work of Magic” (pg. 187). The ultimate length of the monasticism and its intensity are determined by the monk or nun of chaos undertaking the work, but he advises “they should be ended at some later point in a definite way rather than falling into gradual disuse.” In so doing he is acknowledging the likelihood that entering such a state of focus and intent is a temporary rather than permanent state of being. While someone may experience a sense of calling that necessitates a prolonged immersion into such a state of being, this would be fairly exceptional. A more typical pattern might be that the aspirant would determine the period of observance before making their vow/statement of intent.
A recent example of a monasticism that I undertook involved a fifteen day intensive working that I dedicated to the Goddess Eris. During this decidedly Discordian enterprise, I chose to follow the ‘Greater Observance’ level of intensity that demands hourly remembrance of the object of focus as well as daily performance of two pieces of magical work dedicated to one’s chosen goal. In addition the monastic is required to carry an object (often a staff) as a means of triggering focus; in this case I carried a golden apple inscribed with “kallisti” (“for the beautiful one”).
Looking at my magical diary from this period I recollect that pujas were undertaken, sigils constructed and trance dances dedicated to her name. Apart from provoking some odd looks from work colleagues (“Why has he got a golden apple on his desk?”) it’s fair to ask what all this actually accomplished. In my own mind, the intensity and dedication demanded for such an undertaking often opens up aspects of our beings that may have previously lain dormant. For me this work with Eris allowed me to bring a new sense of playfulness to my work as a psychotherapist and it deepened my own dedication to offering priestly service to my spiritual community.
In many ways this adoption of monasticism as a temporary focus may have some similarities to the journey of those exploring play in a BDSM context. In the initial stages of exploring this sexual style, the participants may negotiate adopting their preferred role for a set period of time. Once a ‘scene’ has concluded the players symbolically ‘de-role’ and largely resume their lives as they were prior to it. Over time, a minority of players may want to adopt some or all aspects of this play into a more permanent or ‘24/7’ form of interaction. Similarly those of us who respond well to the shape and discipline provided by our monastic work, may seek a more long-term arrangement that has the firmer boundaries offered by a contract or rule.
The impulse to engage with the monastic current runs strongly in my veins. As a Christian in my early 20’s I came very close to joining a Franciscan community. While I no longer hold that faith position, I have continued to monitor with interest the birth of ‘New Monasticism’ that occurred within the Christian community during late 1990’s. The desire for both devotion and structure are powerful drivers within the human psyche and the monastic path provides a time-tested means for channelling them. In many ways I still feel at the beginning of my monastic journey as I seek to work out what it might mean to pursue this path while having a partner, two teenage children and a full-time job. It maybe that for now I will largely continue to walk the path of an itinerant monastic abroad in the world (what Tau Palamas calls the gyrovagi), but the aspiration for a simpler, quieter more disciplined expression of my path keeps drawing me back to an image of the desert, of space and St. Anthony beckoning me into the wilderness.