I teach a course in World Religions. Part of the benefit of that is not only that it forces me to read and study these religions, it also gives me the opportunity occasionally to engage in some actual dialogue with them. During the years that I have been teaching this course, I have been in dialogue with a Hindu professor of theology. A gentle, saintly, and prayerful man, he is deeply appreciative of Christianity and, like Gandhi (who was also a Hindu), is seldom out of reach of his New Testament.
However one of the areas that he criticizes within Christianity is the fact that, in recent centuries, we do not have much in the way of a spirituality for the final stage of our lives. As he puts it, “you have no vocation for those who are retired, unless they are professional religious or monks.” He ties this criticism to something larger and he is worth hearing on this:
“Christianity is no longer visible in the marketplaces and part of this is that you have no SANNYASINS (holy persons) there. Your Sannyasins are all in monasteries, tucked away from the world. In Christian cultures all of your street people (those who do sit in the marketplaces and beg) have no religious witness value because they are not begging for religious reasons, but only because they have no other way to live. You do not have a vocation for your older people – where they can become sannyasins who sit in the marketplaces, beg, and by their very presence and appearance force everyone to think that there is a God.
Think what a witness it would be if very successful people, doctors, presidents of banks, athletes, journalists, teachers, business people, tradespeople, farmers, and married persons who had raised children successfully, people who had all kinds of other options in life (a home in the country, winters in the South, golf in the summers, travel to other countries) would instead be sitting, begging, in supermarkets, malls, street corners, and sporting arenas. Nobody could feel superior to them or treat them with pity, as we do with the street people who sit there now. These sit there because they have failed in life. But think … if you sat there, detached, with nothing, begging, because you had been a success in life. What a witness and vocation that would be! Christianity doesn’t have that, it has no such ideal for those who are moving out of active life.”
He’s right. We have no SANNYASINS, and very little in the way of a spiritual ideal for people who are moving out of active life.
In Hinduism, life is understood to have natural four stages:
Up until you get married and begin a family, you are considered a student. As a student, your primary focus is to enjoy your youthand to prepare for life. Then you become a householder which begins with marriage and ends when your last child is on his/her own and your mortgage is paid and you can retire from your job. As a Householder, your task is family, business, involvement with civic and church groups. These are your most active years, your duty years. The next stage is that of being a forest dweller. This is a period which should begin precisely when you are free from family and business duties. This is meant to be an extended period wherein you withdraw from active life and study and meditate your religion. (For example, you go back to school, perhaps do a theology degree, do some extensive retreats, and so on.) Then, at a point, you return to the world as a Sannyasin, as a person who owns nothing except faith and wisdom. You sit in marketplaces as a street person, as someone with no significance, property, attachments, or importance. You are available to others for a smile, a chat, an exchange of faith, or for concrete acts of charity. You are a street person, by choice, by vocation, for God, for others; not because you do not have other options (the golf course, winters down South, the cottage in the country) but because you have already made a success of your life. You are now readying yourself for death, to return to God as naked and possessionless as you were when you entered the earth.
Those are the stages of life as Hinduism understands them. My professor friend highlights how in Christian spirituality we are weak regarding the last one … and our witness in the marketplace is also weak because of that.
In the early centuries of Christianity, spirituality saw martyrdom as the fullest expression of Christian life, the ideal way to cap off a full life. Justin, Polycarp, Cyprian, and countless others “retired” into martyrdom. Later, Christians used to retire into monasteries and convents. What is offered to us to retire into? The country club? But does this prepare us for death and help make Christianity present in the marketplace?
I think my friend is right. We need a spirituality for Christian SANNYASINS.