I recently had the privilege of going on pilgrimage to France to visit the places holy to the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Our first stop was in Annecy, where we stayed in the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Originally this convent had belonged to the Sisters of the Visitation, a cloistered order founded in 1612. It was a wonderful old building, complete with a cloistered walk. Was it because this house had begun as a monastery that it had a cloistered walk, or was that the way all religious houses were built at that time? I don’t know. But whatever its origin, this cloistered walk had a profound effect on me. Something stirred within my soul as I walked its sacred space. I felt solitude and silence and a sense of being one with God and my surroundings.
Reflecting on that experience has led me to the conclusion that the cloister is a rich symbol for the spiritual life. Its four walls represent the four pillars of the Monastic Rule: prayer, work, community, and rest. It also speaks to me of simplicity, order, silence, contemplation, solitude, interiority—all of which have a place in the spiritual life of today’s Christian.
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, “… I have come that [you] may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10, NIV). This fullness of life is the unity Jesus shares with his Father; it is the loving intimacy between Father and Son to which Jesus invites his followers. Each individual responds to that invitation in a unique and personal way, and it is this response, this growing to fullness of life, that is encompassed by the term spirituality. Obviously, there are many different spiritualities and a broad range of ways to classify them. One traditional division distinguishes between monastic and apostolic spirituality. The term monastic conjures up an image of withdrawal from active society, with its many distractions, to spend one’s life for God alone. Apostolic, on the other hand, brings to mind a life involved with doing good works for and with other people. Although the way of living these spiritualities differs, monasticism has great wisdom to hand on to busy people today who will take the time to listen with the heart.
To explore some of those gifts, let us examine the four “walls” of the cloister and the way they represent the four pillars of monastic life, considering how this might be woven into what Robert Wicks calls “a little rule” of life for contemporary Christians.1
Thousands of books have been written about prayer—how to pray, forms of prayer, and methods of prayer—to name but a few topics. It is not within the scope of this article to examine any of these topics, but simply to point out helpful hints from monasticism for incorporation into a “little rule.”
Using the cloister walls as our motif, we can look upon prayer as the wall that keeps us in right relationship with the God who loved us into being.
Years ago I came across a banner stating, “If your day is hemmed with prayer, it is less likely to come unraveled.” This statement sums up very well what monastics have always known: prayer is necessary not only at the beginning and end of the day but all through it as well. Prayer is not simply the saying of prayers or even talking to God. It is an attitude of finding God in all persons, things, and events in one’s life. It is the conscious awareness of God in each moment of the day and night.
In order to assist them to find God in everyday events, monastic communities set aside specific times during each day for communal and private prayer. The times of communal prayer became known as the Liturgy of the Hours, which many Christians today pray in community when possible and in private when necessary. These Hours are composed of psalms, prayers, petitions, and readings that enable people to focus on both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. In her book Engaging Benedict Laura Swan points out that
[the] Liturgy of the Hours and lectio divina are the two cornerstones of prayer most closely identified with Benedictine spirituality and the monastic way of life. The Liturgy of the Hours is an ancient form of communal prayer received from the Jewish community. Early Christians, many of whom were Jewish, prayed the psalms throughout the day (usually seven different times). These “offices,” as they were soon called, marked the rhythm of the day from dawn to deepest night. This was a way of remembering one’s utter dependence upon God. The Liturgy of the Hours continues to frame the day so we never drift far from the source of Life.2
Private prayer often took the form of lectio divina, which is a meditative way of reading sacred material and allowing it to touch and move our hearts. It “grew out of the desert ascetics’ experience of praying the Divine Office. They ruminated on the Word of God in a slow and prayerful way; this led them into quiet and heart-felt prayer.”3
Moving into quiet, simply being with God, is the essence of prayer. It allows us to find God in everything, and ourselves in God. However, in today’s reality in which noise is so much a constant companion, we need to look very deliberately for exterior times and places of quiet so that our interior may expand and fall into the awareness of God constantly present within and around us. During my retreat this year I was introduced to a beautiful description of prayer in a poem written by Edwina Gately. The poem is called “Let Your God Love You.”4
Before your God.
Let your God
Look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God—
The poem reminds us that God understands our concerns, our fears, and all the other things we bring to prayer. So all we need to do is be silent, be still, and be empty before our God and allow God to look upon us with love. This is a great comfort to me.
As we go about setting up a little rule of life, we must first set aside times for prayer. These times need not be lengthy, but it is necessary to decide upon a time and place in which one can be attentive to God morning and evening. Little practices during the day can be reminders of God. As a novice I was taught to offer this little prayer at the beginning of each hour: “Let us remember the holy presence of God, and let us adore his divine majesty.” We called this practice the blessing of the hour. By offering this little prayer, we brought to our conscious awareness that God is with us in this and every hour. It also blessed the hour in the sense that we were offering adoration to God. Each of us needs to incorporate some ways of periodically taking a mini-prayer break during the day, just momentarily acknowledging God’s presence with us. It could be something as simple as looking out the window, smiling at someone, walking around your desk— anything that in some way reminds you of the God who looks on you with an enormous love.
Christianity was never meant to be a living out of an experience of “God and me.” Jesus said there are two great Commandments: to love God with our total beings and to love our neighbors as ourselves. To illustrate this point, he told the parable of the final judgment, when we will be judged upon how well we have lived out the commandments of love, how well we have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned (see Matt. 25:35-37). It is very easy to love our neighbors when we are far away from them! When we rub shoulders with others each day, it becomes much harder to live the commandment of love.
To go back to our initial image of the walls of the cloister, community is that wall which protects us from ourselves. Community keeps us from becoming the center of our own universe. It thus helps us to overcome that very human temptation to think of ourselves as little gods. Individualism runs rampant in contemporary Western society. We have become isolated individuals responsible only for and to ourselves. Community curbs this affliction and calls us to accountability for our actions.
Community is a mark of our following of Jesus. How we interact with our sisters and brothers is the measuring rod of our Christianity. As he celebrated his last meal with his disciples, Jesus “rose from supper and laid aside his garments, took a towel and girded himself. After that he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded” (John 13:4-5, NKJV). After this extraordinary event, Jesus told those present that he had given them an example of how they should act. It is in our experience of community with one another that we come to understand this washing of the feet. In spite of the shortcomings and sinfulness of his disciples, Jesus loved them with an all-encompassing love. He loved enough to give up his life for his friends, these very disciples (and ourselves) who could be so stubborn, who could misunderstand, be moved to anger and resistance. Yet Jesus saw in them (and us) the wonderful reflection of the face of God and loved outrageously. Community holds up a mirror for us to glimpse ourselves with greater clarity and to see the face of God not only in ourselves but also in those around us.
Community is also a safeguard as we discern God’s desires for us. We cannot truly discern without the confirmation of the community—whether that is the community of our family or the larger community of church. All our decisions affect not only ourselves but also all other people—even people on the other side of the world. We cannot trust ourselves to have the clarity and the freedom to discern on our own. Community enables us to hear “the voice of God in the voice of the other, (to) see the face of God in the face of the other, (to) serve the heart of God by addressing the wounds, answering the call of the other.”5
Work is the “cloister wall” that allows us to share in the creativity of God.
The book of Genesis gives us a framework in which to understand the concept of work. God “worked” at creating the sun, moon and stars, the earth and all creatures. And God saw it all as good. God created the world, and on the seventh day God rested from the work God had done. One gets the sense that God rejoiced and delighted in the work of creation. God created out of the largess of love. In Genesis chapter two, God, after completing the work of creation, gave to Adam and Eve the task of tilling the garden and keeping it. God graciously included humanity in the work of creation.
However, sin, which also enters the picture in the book of Genesis, changed the experience of work. Melannie Svoboda suggests that “perhaps Genesis is saying that, because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, work suffered too. From that moment on, all work—whether it was cultivating a garden or giving birth to a child—would now involve frustration and fatigue (sweat) and pain (the pain of childbirth).”6
Our present-day understanding of work is often simply that we must work in order to live. We must earn enough to pay for food, housing, and all the necessities of life. This is true. But people also work to prove themselves worthy of love, worthwhile, needed by their families and employers. They use work as an antidote against the feeling of lovelessness. The truth, of course, is that we do not need to prove ourselves. We do not need to earn God’s love. We do not need to redeem ourselves. All of this has already been done. God’s love is freely given and cannot be earned. Jesus has already redeemed us.
The term workaholic is appropriately applied to many people today. Many are driven by the need to do more or earn more. Whatever they do is never enough. Perhaps if we could remember that work is participation in the joyful creativity of God, we could let go of the excessive need to achieve.
Christians also get caught in the trap of having to answer every need and do all manner of things just because they are good things to do. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “The poor you always have with you…” (John 12:8, ESV). There will always be good things that need to be done, but no one person can meet every need. The feeling that I must do everything leads to burnout. Sometimes I just have to remember that though something needs to be done, I might not be the one God is asking to fulfill that need. As noted above, community can help to discern this.
The monastics teach us that one must provide for human necessities while at the same time giving glory to God. Like Adam and Eve, they tilled the soil, and many still do. They also copied the scriptures so that more and more people could hear the word of God. Many monasteries sell their produce in the form of bread, honey, wine, medicines, or whatever else they can make that allows them to meet their own needs and those of their neighbors.
What is most important for us to note is the attitude with which monastics worked. They saw everything they did as God’s work, whether they were occupied in the scriptorium, the kitchen, the laundry, or the fields. Wherever they were and whatever they were doing, they were attentive to God. For our little rule of life we need to develop within us a holy attitude toward whatever work we do, seeing it as involvement in the creative work of God, bringing the world to wholeness. When we find ourselves overworked, we need to ask ourselves if our attitude toward work is skewed, if we have gotten caught in the need to prove ourselves in some way. Sometimes it is simply a sign that we have slipped into a “savior mentality.”
Life is about more than just work. We also need rest and leisure. Even God rested on the seventh day from all the work that God had done (Genesis 2:2). Attentiveness to and awareness of the need for rest keeps us truly human. It prevents us from becoming workaholics—worried and harried people.
Rest, recreation, leisure, and sleep are the “cloister wall” that keeps us humble in the true sense of the word. Humility is truth, and the truth is that we are not God; we cannot do the impossible. Our need for rest reminds us of our humanness.
When we look at the life of Jesus, we see that he knew how to balance rest and work. It is interesting to note that the first miracle Jesus performed was not on one of his preaching tours but at a wedding feast! He was there to enjoy the celebration, joining in the dancing and laughter. Scripture often records that Jesus was dining with friends or visiting with them. I think we sometimes interpret everything Jesus did as very serious business and forget that Jesus was human and had human needs, rest and leisure among them.
Monastics made room in their day for recreation, rest, and sleep. They respected the body and mind, knowing that constant work would destroy them. They knew the value of putting aside work to allow for a stretching of the soul. Recreation creates a Sabbath of the soul. It enables us to stop and reflect upon the purpose of our lives and work. “We need time to evaluate what we have done in the past. Like God, we must ask if what we spend our lives doing is really good for anyone. For me? For the people who will come after me? For the world in which I live right now?”7 If we are constantly busy, there is no time to play, and even as adults we need playtime.
Perhaps the image of children at play is a good one to keep before our minds as we pursue our little rule. We need to have the joy and abandonment from care that little children have. We need to see the glory of creation with the wondering eyes of a child. We need to remember how to dance in the rain and run with the wind. We need to imagine animals in the clouds and thrill at the sight of a rainbow. We need the simplicity to color outside the lines. Our little rule needs to include time for rest on a daily basis.
We have explored the four walls of the cloistered walk, walked around them, and seen where they have come together. To use this image as a motif for the spiritual life, we need to develop a simple plan of life, “a little rule” that will enable us to grow into the wonderful persons God has loved into being. Learning from the monastics, this little rule should be composed of the following elements:
- Daily Prayer
- Morning and evening, with little reminders of God during the day
- Some longer periods of quiet prayer whenever possible
- Involvement in some form of community where communal prayer and accountability occur
- Developing healthy attitudes toward work that allow one to see God in all persons and events
- Being attentive to the need for adequate rest and relaxation
One of the most important tools we can develop is balance. Our little rule will be useful only if we keep all the elements in balance. If one of the cloister walls sags, then the whole cloister will eventually collapse! Not all the walls need an equal amount of time in our day, but all need careful attention. We have already noted some of the dangers that can occur if we give too much attention to one wall to the detriment of the others. If we desire a strong, vibrant spiritual life, this little rule can keep us steady as we grow more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus.