Saturday, September 22, 2012


This past week I’ve been reading an outline of a screenplay for a proposed fictional film based loosely on the story of the monks of Newark Abbey and our school. The Bongiornos, who wrote it, know us quite well and have already completed a very accurate 90-minute documentary about us that will appear next summer. So reading their proposed fictional outline has been fascinating and very enjoyable. 

Most of the time they "get it right" in their portrayal of how monks might act. But now and then in the course of going over the outline I’ve found myself objecting to certain actions or utterances attributed to various monks: “Never happen!" I grumble to myself, "A monk wouldn’t do that” or “A monk just wouldn’t think that way.” Since I’ll have to justify my objections to the writers, I’ve had to try to put my finger on what it is that I’m picking up on and objecting to in these instances. What are the screenwriters missing here? 

I believe that one useful way of looking at the problem is to make a distinction between “temperament” and “disposition.”  I’ll borrow from page 32 of a lovely little book ToLove as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church” in which professor Roberta Bondi puts this distinction nicely:

We are more or less born with our temperament, and it persists as we grow up from childhood to adulthood pretty much on its own, though parents, teachers and friends may try to modify it. The word “temperament” here describes the underlying characteristic and apparently natural attitude a person has toward the world: cheerful, violent, loving, thoughtful, grudging and so forth. But temperament is not the same as disposition, for disposition has to do with a chosen and cultivated long-term attitude of heart. Even having a loving temperament is not the same as having a loving disposition, for one can have a loving temperament and still be quite thoughtless, even irresponsible toward others.

Bondi holds that the only way that the gospel command to love makes sense is if it refers not to a temperament but rather to a chosen attitude of heart, a deliberately cultivated way of being and seeing, i.e. a "disposition." I've found the distinction useful as well in the monastery.

For example, during the past few months I have been sitting each day with our novice, Brother Thomas. (Thanks for your prayers for us, by the way -- I think they’re working!). I have no desire or intention to try to change anything about his temperament, his “underlying characteristic and apparently natural attitude toward the world.” Most of my job, as I see it, is to help him to consciously form a monastic disposition, that is, “a chosen and cultivated long-term attitude of heart” that would characterize him as a monk. This "monastic attitude of heart" may show itself in a monk’s actions, but most of the time, I think, it lies hidden, like the bulk of an iceberg, under the surface.  

So when something in the screenplay about a monk seems “off” to me, sometimes it’s because while the action or the spoken line fits well with the monk’s temperament (timidity, say, or impatience), it flies in the face of some “long-cultivated attitude of heart” that any monk works on his whole life and that becomes second nature (e.g. an emotional attachment to the place, or the central importance of praying in common with his brothers). That’s sometimes “what’s wrong with this picture” in the screenplay, and I have to help the writers to see that while it may match the character’s temperament, it doesn’t fit his monastic disposition.   

Our novice doesn’t have the monastic disposition yet because he hasn’t been at it long enough; but with God’s grace, the help of the community, and his own considerable determination, one day I hope that he’ll find himself automatically thinking and feeling like a monk.

Meanwhile, as I keep reading the screenplay and watching for monastic dispositions I’m also being challenged to look at my own heart and renew my commitment to my own "chosen and cultivated long-term attitude of heart."

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