When I was in my mid-teens, I had a very good friend who was a bit of an intellectual. He was shy, quiet and somewhat of an outcast, like me. We were bookworms, and in our reading and discussions, we moved through a fairly impressive range of topics. Spirituality, the occult, politics, literature, advertising and feminism were a few of the debates I remember having with Steve.
One topic that took up a lot of time, and turned into a jointly-authored school project, was the design of a social utopia that incorporated aspects of socialism, Christianity and libertarianism. We called it Social Democratic Anarchy. I don’t remember much about our perfect society, except that we spent long hours on weekends discussing its features — and no, unlike more typical teenage boys, it didn’t include unlimited money, cars, alcohol and beautiful women. We were far too serious about this. I remember our social studies teacher asking us a few bemused questions about our utopia, and he gave us a decent mark. But I remember feeling disappointed that he appeared to be less than impressed with our ideal society.
When I started my novel, I was interested in the concept of the Benedictine (or Cistercian or Dominican or Augustinian) monastery as an attempt to design a utopian community for religious observation and contemplation. The simplicity and purity of life in a monastery, isolated from the noise and distraction of the city and society, greatly appealed to me, and still does. I am not a Catholic or even religious, but I am a spiritual person and living a life devoted solely to Spirit or meditation is most attractive. This may be another reason why the monks have chosen me to tell their story.
In university, I think, I read Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which describes the social and political structure of a fictional city called Amaurote on a fictional island, Utopia. The society is described as an inclusive, tolerant community where private property does not exist. In essence, More was describing a form of monastic communalism, while at the same time proclaiming that there were no monasteries on the island at all.
There are still people who are interested in building utopias. I found a recent article in Forbes magazine, of all places, that describes a number of modern ecological utopias, including the Findhorn Community in northern Scotland, which has been in existence since 1962.
It is interesting to consider who the Utopia author really was: a politician and ally of Henry VIII, who was once Lord Chancellor of England. Thomas More was also a vigorous scholar and a passionate prosecutor of religious heretics, including the burning at the stake of a Benedictine monk for distributing copies of the New Testament. He ended the lives of many other heretics in the same manner. More’s own life ended when he broke with Henry over his decision not to support the annulment of the royal marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Nor did he attend the subsequent marriage ceremony with Anne Boleyn. He was beheaded on July 6, 1535.
Well, that’s what happens with utopias, apparently. Things go awry, as the monks in my novel know all to well. The corruptibility of human nature makes utopia only an ideal, not a reality. The monks have learned to accept some compromises, but this time, the Abbott has just gone too far!