John Tettemer was born in Missouri in 1876 of devout Catholic parents, and as a boy was a good athlete and a good student – well-rounded, it sounds like. Early in his teens he decided he wanted to be a monk in the Passionist order, which he chose because it was strict and laid stress both on contemplation and on communal prayer. He intended to be a lay brother, rather than a priest, but when his superiors chose him for the priesthood, he obeyed willingly. In September, 1901, after the usual years of study, at age 25, he became Father Ildefonso.
In his posthumously published book I Was a Monk, he writes lovingly and with knowledge and wisdom of various aspects of his years in the monastic order. He must have had a winning personality, as well as an incisive intellect and leadership ability, for he rose extremely rapidly in the order, despite his own doubts as to his ability to perform the tasks he was assigned. At age 30, he was named director of the International College in Rome. By age 38, he was named to the order’s second-highest position. He lived in Rome, was on almost filial terms with the Pope, was considered to be the obvious choice to succeed the head of his order, was offered (but declined) the position of Bishop of Bulgaria, and was made to understand that he could look forward to being made a Cardinal. In all, a success story. A man happy and fulfilled in his chosen profession, recognized and apparently cherished by his superiors, colleagues and charges alike, a man with an assured future.
Then – and it must have come to the church hierarchy as a clap of thunder out of a cloudless sky – he asked to be relieved of his monastic and priestly vows, because he had lost his faith. In the rest of his life – that is, the years from mid-World War I to his death in 1949 – he married, fathered children, and made his way in an economic and social world that he had to learn from scratch at an age when most men have already found their niche and perhaps have already worn it into a rut.
The reason why he left is particularly relevant to today’s consciousness pioneers. He states clearly that he had no quarrel with the Church or with any individual within the Church, nor was the decision to leave motivated by the lure of another way of life. Indeed, “I had everything to lose and nothing temporal to gain in leaving my order and, in natural consequence, the church.” Nor was it anything he consciously intended. Nonetheless, something had happened that made it impossible for him to continue in the path that he had thought would last him his lifetime.
Tettemer – Father Ildefonso – had been a diligent student and teacher, and was well versed in philosophy and theology and such subjects. But, as he says:
“It was a fact that, up to the age of forty, I was never once to bring any question nakedly before my native mind, asking myself what I really thought about it. I accepted unquestioningly the traditions of the past, the beliefs of my forefathers and my teachers, and the philosophy best suited to ready-made, accepted traditions. Naturally I imagined I was thinking profoundly, going to the very foundations of human knowledge. Actually I was interpreting life and my experience, not in my own idiom, but in the terms of the thought and belief of others.”
This is not unusual, in any walk of life, in any branch of study, but it had consequences.
“I have often found wisdom in the unlearned, often missed it in the scholar. It is a thing of the soul, not of the mind. With it a man is alive and grows; without it he is still in the womb of nature waiting to be born. Like the fruit of the tree, I think it comes from the abundant flow of life through us. Opening ourselves fully to the life and the joy and the sorrows of today brings that unfolding which makes it possible for God to reveal himself the more, day by day. Closing our minds and hearts to life, to truth, beauty, and love, cuts off the sunshine and the growth and fruition of our being.”
Apparently, as long as he was leading a busy life, he did not suspect that his beliefs – shall we call them surface beliefs? – were the reflections of what he had been taught, rather than truths welling up from within. But unbeknown to him, his years of teaching – contending with students as well as with books – were sowing “seeds of doubt in the power of our minds to know ultimate truth, and doubt in the validity of all known systems of philosophy.”
Specifically, it was the doctrinal and philosophical clash between monism and dualism, a conflict of views as old as Aristotle and Plato, and probably a good deal older. The Church’s position is based in Aristotle, yet Father Ildefonso found himself drawn more toward the Platonist position. I am not going to try to reproduce his summary of the conflict: Such questions raise in me only a sort of impatience. Tettemer himself ultimately said:
“I came to look with insistent suspicion on cleverly fabricated systems of philosophy so neatly explaining the universe. The feeling grew in me that Aristotle, that giant of pure reason, and all his followers among the Scholastics, were building up their beautiful and intricate systems on the imperfect and insufficient basis of native human experience and much vaunted `common sense.’ Was not some other dimensional factor that eluded common sense being left out?”
The specific issue that led him, for the first time, to make up his own mind on a subject rather than accept the official Church position, had to do with what we would call psychic phenomena. The Church admitted the phenomena as genuine, but (in accord with its dualistic thinking) maintained that they had to be produced by supernatural agency; that is, they were either of God or of the Devil. Father Ildefonso, though, studied the evidence closely, and concluded “that diabolical agencies had nothing to do with them and that, on the contrary, they were the result of natural laws of which we knew little or nothing.” (As an example of his reasoning, he cited the fact that people placing their hands lightly on a table’s surface were able to lift a wooden table, even a heavy one, but never an iron table, however light.) This was important in that he here formed his own conclusions even though they were at variance with the judgment of the Church. This initial step led to others, for the authority of the Church depended upon “the supernatural character of the visions, the prophecies, and the miracles of the saints and even of Jesus himself,” and if that went –.
Which is not to join forces with those who attack the Catholic Church as superstitious or fraudulent or (of all charges!) intellectually shallow. I know that is a common assessment here, but America, which was colonized and founded as a Protestant outpost during the era of Europe’s religious wars, has rarely been able to see Catholicism clearly. Tettemer says: “If the human mind must accept some form of doctrinal belief or creed concerning Jesus Christ and his message to humanity, I think I should prefer the Catholic tradition as the most logical and consistent.” I agree, but the most important word in that sentence is the word “if.”
Sometime during the war, Father Ildefonso was overtaken by illness and the effects of overwork. He was ordered to go to a Swiss sanitarium to recuperate. Specifically, his doctor ordered him to give himself rest from brainwork. “Obeying his rules, I put aside practically all reading and study, spending most of the daylight hours in a chrysalis-like state in a sheepskin sleeping bag on the balcony couch.”
His monastic life had been filled with activity and responsibilities, “impeding the realization in my consciousness of that real and eternal world which I saw as my true home. In my hours of prayer I glimpsed that world sufficiently to attest to its beautiful reality, but it seemed always just out of my reach. I must devote myself to the duties of the nearer, active world….” But now he was free to follow his inclination to live his day in contemplation. There followed a period of perhaps six months in which he let his mind wander where it would.
“I no longer directed my thoughts as before, to prepare lectures or prove theses. I was wholly relaxed, and my mind in a dreamlike state between thought and contemplation. I am not able to give a clear and orderly account of the ideas that passed to and fro through my mind, any more than we are able to recapture the dreams that pass through the mind if we lie looking up into the skies during an afternoon of relaxation in the country.
“My own native mind had had little opportunity to assert itself in the preceding years, as it had been too occupied with studying and teaching the ideas of others. One may inquire whether this is not one characteristic of our conception and method of education. We call thinking the passing of other men’s thoughts through our mind, thus rarely presenting to the growing mind the matchless opportunity to be found in sensing the nature of the problem itself, and in tracking down the answer with our own native powers.
“During my `quiet time,’ realizing this, I allowed my mind total freedom to open to the riddle of the mystery of existence, which had marked the birth of my philosophic mind at the age of twenty or thereabouts and always had held a fascination for me in the years between. This opening of the mind did not entail an effort to solve the riddle, but rather to let it find its foothold in my soul, to the end that I might the more fully realize it. It is a process similar to the stage of contemplation in prayer, where the faculties of intellect, sense, and imagination are quieted, and one contemplates, without mental movement or flexing, the object under consideration.”
Father Ildefonso had studied and taught philosophy for years; for nearly 25 years, he had spent at least two hours a day in prayer. As he says, this had given him “a facility in quieting the life of the senses of the discursive mind, and a capacity for fixing my attention with a quiet, steady regard on the subject of consideration.” So now, in the quiet of the Swiss mountains, he spent hours brooding over the mystery of life, “not trying to solve it, but striving to lose myself in its depths, allowing its inexplicableness to flow over me.” Being interested in all of biology, “I tried deliberately to focus my consciousness in the life principle of growing things, in order to know it directly from within, not simply from without, as is our usual form of knowing.”
And in this period of contemplation came the great change.
“Such contemplation in time stretches one’s consciousness to the utmost, bringing in its train a sense of perspective that makes us see not so much the smallness or unimportance of man as the smallness and inadequacy of man’s conception of the universe.
“This was the effect of my contemplation upon me. A new faculty of knowing seemed to be born in me, in the quiet stillness yet intense activity of consciousness within me. I seemed to touch the heart of reality, the very essence of existence, with a directness, an immediacy, rendering all my former knowledge false and illusory. As it were, I seemed to sense another dimension; or perhaps I should express it better were I to say that all dimensions seemed to go, leaving me conscious of a presence, a reality having no form that the senses could comprehend, yet not abstract and lifeless, as were the ideas of the mind, but concrete, vital, palpitating with realness.”
Tettemer wisely makes no attempt to classify or justify what he experienced. Anybody who has fallen into the temptation to justify or explain knows what happens: The person on the other end assumes the right to judge what s/he has not experienced, and often enough concludes that the experience was “nothing but” something familiar. What is at least equally important, he did not permit himself to conclude that he was now in the direct presence of God, as he would have done (and in fact did do) as a novice. Instead, he thought of it in a way that is of great usefulness to consciousness pioneers:
“But whether in truth it represented a direct union of the soul with God, or the merging of the soul in the consciousness of a being larger than oneself, or the attainment of a higher participation in the consciousness of one’s own larger nature, it came, it seemed to me, to the same thing, an overbelief that was in the right direction. I had the definite impression of the loss of my own personality in that of a larger consciousness, to be called either God or at the least on the way to God. Nothing can be gained for the cause of religion by jumping to conclusions beyond those warranted by the facts. If a cell in my body could merge its tiny consciousness with mine, it would be an overbelief to call it anything but a belief in the right direction toward union with God. The point is, if, as I am inclined to believe, all consciousness is ultimately one, that losing one’s own personality in that of a larger consciousness, which we may call God, or on the way to God, is in the right direction.”
I like that very much: He experienced, and did not insist upon any one interpretation of what he had experienced. He had come to see his experience as natural, whereas Catholicism is a supernatural religion. It is, as much as anything, a matter of definition, or a matter of how you choose to interpret the world. His long contemplative experience had changed his definitions. (He admits that if he had experienced this change in the context of church life, he would have taken it for the presence of God. But as it happened in a natural setting, it seemed to him a purely natural, rather than supernatural, phenomenon.)
“It was a growing state, becoming more distinct as time went on, and, gradually, my normal habitation.”
And the point for us is that Catholic theology was not the only thing he had lost faith in.
And, speaking of faith, I have no faith that I can adequately summarize his lucid explanation, so, with apologies, these scans of pages 227-242. I think they will be quite readable, printed out, and I think that it is only when you print them out that you will be able to resist the temptation to skim:
In what he calls the darkest time of his life, he was beset by doubt. “Doubt whether faith might not, as the Church taught, be a gift of God. Doubt whether I had not lost it by infidelity to my duties as a monk, losing the spirit of my calling in the distractions of study and eternal work in the last few years. Doubt if my doubting were an evil or a good thing. And yet, strange to say, the days did not bring me unhappiness along with the darkness.”
Time passed. His body recovered its health; his mind deferred making a decision as to whether he could continue the life he had been leading. His religious order sent representatives to reason with him. “They were sad at my state and pleaded with me to forget my silly ideas and return home to the monastery…. But it was not in my power to change the course of life within my own soul. How small and weak are our little philosophies in the presence of real life itself!”
He found that he could not explain himself, as he and they no longer spoke the same language. “I tried to explain to them that for me the mental world in which they lived had now become unreal, had lost its meaning; but I could not rightly expect them to understand, for they still lived unquestioningly in a world of Aristotle and abstract thought; and the new world of reality that I thought I glimpsed could have no meaning for them.”
He and they did try to find common ground, but when he said he had lost his faith even in philosophy, he saw that this seemed like madness to them. Sadly they left him, and sadly he watched them leave. “Dear brothers! How I loved them, for the men they were, and for their efforts to understand me, who only repaid them with pain, however unwillingly! I watched them leave, feeling a twinge of homesickness as I visualized their return to their safe haven, their beautiful and lasting monastic home.” He requested release from his vows, and received it.
So what does this have to do with us, we who are not monks? Why have I been prodded into making the effort to bring one small part of this remarkable book to the consciousness of those who stumble upon this blog entry? Here is what I think:
- His life gives us a window into a way of thinking and believing that few of us will have encountered today. The monastic world today may not much resemble the world John Tettemer knew. Novices entering a monastery today were shaped in a world unrecognizably different from the peaceful prewar years of the 1880s and 1890s. Different raw material must result in different finished products, surely.
- He possessed the gift of leaving behind, without needing to condemn, his life as a monk, and his thought as a religious, and his acquired philosophical learning. He didn’t feel a need to burn the scaffolding he had transcended.
- His lucid description of his thought processes, beliefs, and awakening should go far to reassure some whose journey is similar to his. It disrupted his life; it was accompanied by doubt; it caused him, unwillingly, to give great pain to those he loved, and who loved him.
- Perhaps most relevant to us is his way of thinking about the meaning of his insights: rather than certainty, a belief that his experience was “in the right direction.”
May our own explorations be as daring and clear-sighted as those of Father Ildefonso. May we live as well and as honestly as fearlessly as John Tettemer.