Yet these monastics (mainly women but also men) were not living in some ivy-covered tower. They were not exempt from any of the pressures familiar to us: they were handling huge problems of down-sizing, of money-raising, of international enterprise, of pastoral demands of every sort. What is their secret and can it - if not be followed - at least shared? Have we anything to learn from them?
My own life has been shaped and strengthened by my encounter with the Rule of St Benedict. ...I did not find in the Rule the answers to specific questions, nor solutions to particular situations. That is not the way of Benedict. Instead his purpose is to shape our attitude, to suggest the approach we should take, or, to put it in more religious terms, he addresses “the disposition of the heart”.
The demands of being over-busy are nothing new. They are only too familiar, indeed frequently addictive. Here is a letter from St Bernard written in 1150 to his protégé Eugenius III who had just become Pope:
Where shall I begin? Let me begin with the pressure of business. If you hate it, I sympathise with you. If you don't, I mourn all the more, because the unconscious patient is in the greater danger.... See where all this damnable business is leading you. You are wasting your time! What fruit is there in these things? They can only create cobwebs.TIME
How do you handle time?
Do you see it as a gift?
Do you treat it with reverence and respect? And with gentleness?
...The monastic horarium established an enviable framework in which to live like this, providing a context which made it easier than for most of us. Nevertheless, it contains an underlying wisdom and it is worth thinking how it might still apply today.
That underlying wisdom is summed up in the word balance: no one thing is to absorb one’s life to the exclusion of any other. Life has different dimensions, or facets. Only by bringing them into a harmonious relationship can they together form a satisfying and balanced whole. And balance and harmony cannot be separated from order.
SPACE - THE CLOISTER
...Picture the daily pattern as the monks moved between the dormitory and the church, the refectory, the library (for study, and for the illumination of magnificent manuscripts), the chapter house (for administration and decision making, and for the allocation of jobs) and manual work further afield, from which they returned before meals to wash their hands and feet at the lavatorium situated in the cloisters.
...Thus what might easily have become an over-busy, complex and probably fragmented life is given a framework, a structure and a rhythm, because everything is anchored in the times of prayer. The church to which the monastics go seven times a day for the saying of the daily offices provides the metaphorical baseline of the cloister. Everything flows in and out of prayer. There are huge implications here; we are being shown something of the most profound significance. And it is even more powerful to see it presented visually before our eyes than to be told about it in words, however wise and helpful!
Now we come to the heart of it all: the cloister and the cloister garden are an image of our own selves.
...We must do what was common in monastic thinking: establish a relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. The cloister garden becomes a metaphor for my own interior, innermost self.
For each of us the daily life which goes on all around is busy, sometimes frenetic. What can we learn by looking at the cloister garth about keeping a still centre, a heart of tranquillity, sensitive to the times and the seasons, kept green by a spring of living water?
...Experience of applying these images to my own inner self convinces me that we all need to discover ancient roots, ancient sources of wisdom. If we are to survive we need to go deeper than the words that are around today.
...Flow, structure, and framework are gentle words. They are an encouragement and not a restriction, as those who truly understand the monastic life express it. "Strict rules which orchestrate the day” reveal a profound wisdom: a structure which conserves energy, and makes the best use of time. It is in contrast to dissipated energies going off in all directions, with disastrous consequences of either depression or overwork or both. Instead I am given an image for a movement which unifies and strengthens.
...Time and change, light and dark, death and life. One of the immediate impressions of the cloister is the patterns of light and shadow cast on the ground. In southern Europe the extreme light and heat dictate the actual pattern of each arch. The sun moves daily, changing its position throughout the year. This movement of time, and of the changing seasons, is written in the cloister - and that dramatic pattern of bright sun and dark shadow is also of course a reminder of the pattern of light and dark, of death and resurrection, and not least the way in which they are inseparably inter-connected.
Do we have to find the right connection? The way of coming & going? Going out & returning? "
Esther de Waal is an Anglican theologian and writer. The full text of this talk, given in London in 2007, is here.