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April 13, 2016

Retiring in my Retirement

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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When I took early retirement a decade ago, I planned to do a lot more traveling and writing, which I've done. But I've also discovered how difficult it is to enact the original concept of retiring; that is, being in solitude for contemplation and prayer.

Living this 24/7 as monks, hermits and recluses of many faiths have done over centuries, is hard for me to even imagine. Just accomplishing “retirement” for only a few hours a week often seems next to impossible.

I have always been impressed by the lives, both past and present, of Egypt’s Sufi masters and Christian monks; today, I often visit them for inspiration.

They, along with prophets, apostles, pioneers of knowledge, philosophers and creative artists down through history, all pay tribute to the virtues of retreating or retiring from everyday life, whether temporarily or permanently.

The founders of the world’s great religions, including Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, all practiced retiring, especially in isolated desert or wilderness places.

Retiring in this sense involves the intellectual care of body, mind and soul: the ancient truth still holds that a sound mind needs a sound body, and a healthy soul needs mind and body to be in the same state. In this context, I understand Mind as being the amalgam of our thoughts, memories, feelings, reasoning and faith.

Most people of faith believe in an eternal, non-physical soul, which is traditionally given the most attention during the discipline of retirement.

Depending on one’s culture or spiritual heritage, the retirement or retreat process may follow a prescribed program that can include any or all of fasting, prayer, study, guided meditation, ritual, silence, etc. for varying periods ranging from a few days, to weeks, months, or even years.

Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) a renowned neurophysiologist who won the 1932 Nobel Prize for Medicine, argued that “…the brain is the bodily organ of the mind [which] we have to accept as an established fact,” adding that “the physical basis of mind encroaches more and more upon the study of mind, but there remain mental events which seem to lie beyond any physiology of the brain.”

Because of this encounter between physiology and the unknown, Dr. Sherrington concluded that humans are inclined “to divide the world of our experience into two sorts, a material and a spiritual.”

In La Vie Intellectuelle the great French Dominican A.G. Sertillanges (1863-1948) wrote these words on the importance of practicing retirement: “The composite nature of man forbids us to dissociate spiritual functions from even those corporal functions that are apparently least connected with pure thought … [but] to a good bodily constitution corresponds the nobility of the soul.”

Furthermore, he continued; “Solitude enables you to make contact with yourself, a necessity if you want to realize yourself – not to repeat like a parrot a few acquired formulas, but to be the prophet of the God within you who speaks a unique language to each man.”

Thus, retiring “maintains the balance of the soul; it brings about interior unity. Along with the love of God, which regulates the hierarchy of values, it brings our powers into subordination, and the soul becomes stable.”

If these thoughts seem somewhat familiar, it’s because Sertillanges’ La Vie Intellectuelle was translated into English as The Intellectual Life, Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, which became a best-seller.

Imam al-Ghazali (1058-1111) often wrote about retiring and how he practiced it. In one of his most important works, The Alchemy of Bliss, he called this practice a “hidden tradition.”

Al-Ghazali is an acknowledged Sufi giant – a philosopher, jurist, theologian – considered by some the academic founder of modern Western psychology. Both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars consider him to be the most influential Muslim after Prophet Muhammad. Many of his books have now been translated into English.

 Sadly, it is increasingly difficult for retirement to be taken seriously today; the problem I face in truly practicing this discipline is that the secularist Western intellectual outlook has spread throughout society.

God is now thought of as the great First Cause who initiated a cosmic process and then left it to unfold largely on its own devices.

Many people I know have lost any concept of a God who is active in their lives, who is continuously creative in the world, and who exercises any degree of control or guidance over the events of human history. Yet these are the very aspects of belief that are essential to practicing any form of retirement or retreat.

“The fundamental question,” writes Dr. William Montgomery Watt in Religious Truth for Our Time, “seems to be: Is this world … and all the things in it the result of [a] ‘fortuitous concourse of atoms’?”

He continues: “… when I look at the complexity of even a small creature like a fly, with a vast number of parts all contributing to enabling it to maintain its life and continue its species, I cannot believe that this has been brought about by pure chance. Somehow or other intelligent purpose has been involved in producing this result. The concourse of atoms has not been fortuitous, but has somehow been controlled. When one further considers how suitable the world is on the whole for humans to lead pleasant and meaningful lives, it seems incredible that this could come about by chance. There must be some intelligent and benevolent purpose behind it.”

Dr. Montgomery concludes on an inspirational note: “This line of thought is reinforced when we think how wonderful human beings are.”

So even though my official secular “retirement” has been a fact for ten years, I am hoping to achieve the regular practice of spiritual retirement as well.

I will begin with the modest commitment of setting aside one hour daily before dawn at home. And then I hope to continue for the month of Ramadan at my Canadian mosque, followed by a month at the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

But I should get going on this project right now; like all of us, my time for “retirement” is running out!

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