Friday, August 31, 2012

The Monastic Workday

I was once under the impression that contemplatives in monasteries spent every moment in adoration, reading holy books, kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament with hands upraised, weeping with joy at the nearness of God.

Not exactly. 

The truth is: once breakfast has been finished, in most monastic communities it's time for work.  The world behind enclosure walls needs as much maintenance as the world inside a ranch house.  And of course it needs more, for a monastery is usually much larger .. thankfully there are more hands to do the work!  

Just think of what you might do in a given day.  Plan and prepare and serve and clean up from meals.  Dust furniture and floors.  Scrub sinks and toilets.  Care for laundry.   Tend to lawns and gardens.  Pay bills.  Do some honest labor to earn money TO pay bills (think monastery cheese, coffee, fruit cake, vestments, icons, crafts...).  Read and answer mail.  Ideally, a monastery also has postulants and novices, who most be guided through formation and study... homeschooled students taught by stay-at-home nuns.  

"Every day lived for God is a rare adventure," wrote Mother Mary Francis PCC in her classic book A Right to be Merry.  "and a Poor Clare nun feels this strongly when she leaves the refectory each morning, in soul refreshed with many blessings, and in body fortified with hot coffee and homemade bread."

Mother goes on:  "Now the big monastery stretches its long cloisters like arms, the windows yawn wide with sunlight, and sounds and smells awaken everywhere.  Soon the fragrant odor of cooking apples and baking bread comes spiralling out of the kitchen.  Typewriters begin their tap dance..... the sacristan goes to see about the Lord's accessories for His next public appearance..."

We will talk more about work as "our monastic day" continues.  We will, God willing, talk more about everything.  For prayer has not ceased with the baking of apples (during which many aspirational prayers are surely offered).  Meals come in cycles.  There is chant to be sung; there are books to be meditiated upon and savored.

And now an aside:  One book that we might savor as we continue through this "exercise of a monastic day" is A RIGHT TO BE MERRY by Mother Mary Francis PCC... the book I quoted above.  Because I am strongly recommending it, I hope the late author's Community will forgive my ample use of quotes as these posts go on!  The book is available from Ignatius Press (click here to view), where it is currently a sale item.  It's also on Amazon... and I've just learned it's "on sale" there as well.  I could write pages of my own love for this poetic and real and wonderfully humorous book, but one of the people going through our "monastic day" with us probably said it best, in an e-mail that I received yesterday: 

"Your blog right on top of reading A Right To Be Merry is absolutely stunning.  I think the combination is the most energizing thing to happen to my own heart in quite a long time."

I'm now reopening my own dog-eared copy.  I expect to again be stunned.    

Text not in quotes

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

All I Must Do is Accept

I have been privileged to spend time in monasteries of nuns on several occasions.  As a retreatant, I've been able to live inside the enclosure for a few days at a time... praying with the Sisters, joining them for Mass, taking meals with them, sleeping in a cell.

One of the (many) things that struck me during such experiences was the simplicity of monastic life, and I probably noticed this most during mealtimes.  The monastic meal stands in stark contrast to meals in the world.  The food is nourishing but simple, adequate but not overly abundant.  Normally, meals are taken in silence.

In one monastery I have visited, breakfast is eaten while one is standing.  The nuns file into the "refectory" (dining room) after Mass, pour themselves coffee or juice, take a piece of toast or fruit, and move to their assigned places at table.  Each Sister goes quietly about the business of eating.  She accepts the food necessary for her to move forward into this day.  It is all very efficient, basic, and starkly simple.

Nourishment of the spirit has come first, nourishment of the body follows immediately after.  Both are important, but priorities are in their proper order.  There is work to be done:  spirit and body must be ready to do it.

For me, there is work to be done - no matter what shape that may take.  I need the nourishment of spirit and body to meet whatever the day ahead shall bring.   I may see, as I look forward with "morning eyes," some of the things awaiting me.  Others will be surprises.

God, however, knows what lies ahead.  Nothing that happens today will surprise Him.  Because He knows, He has already made preparations.  He has provided nourishment for me ahead of time.  All I must do is accept it.

It is all very efficient, basic, and starkly simple.  All I must do is accept. 

"My God, I give You this day.  I offer You, now, all of the good I shall do - and I promise to accept, for love of You, all of the difficulty that I shall meet.  Help me to conduct myself during this day in a manner pleasing to You."  (St. Francis de Sales, Direction of Intention)

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Embracing the Mass

"They recounted what had happened to them on the road, and how they had come to know Him in the breaking of the bread."  (Luke 24:35)

Mass is the highlight of the monastic day.  The other prayers prepare for it, revolve around it, highlight and underscore it... and carry its themes into every other part of the afternoon and evening.  This is reasonable, logical, for "The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life...  In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith."  (Catechism of the Catholic Church #s 1324 and 1327)

Before the great Wonder of the Eucharist, of Jesus with us in Flesh and Blood, I am, frankly, speechless.  So I look to one more eloquent than I as I pass along these words: 

"We must continually remind ourselves that the greatest need in the world today is to centre our lives more and more in the oblational aspect of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; for today, when the whole world is galloping away from the very shadow of the Cross, we must embrace it and cling to it ever more firmly, in union with Jesus Christ.... We should never come to Holy Mass without preparation, and it is for this reason that, in Religious Houses, the Community Mass is celebrated after the Spiritual Exercises of the morning.  Of all the works of the Sacred Heart here below, Holy Mass together with Holy Communion is the Masterpiece."  (from The Living Pyx of Jesus by 'A Religious,' Pelligrini, 1941, p. 443)

Can I get to Mass today?  If so, I ask for the grace of opened eyes.  Eyes that can truly see Him in the breaking of the Bread. 

But perhaps I am limited - maybe by familly needs, illness, work, disability.  What then?   I can at least make a spiritual communion, perhaps using words like these: 

"My Jesus, I believe You are truly present in the most Blessed Sacrament.  I love You above all things, and I desire to possess You within my soul.  Since I am unable now to receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.  I embrace You as if You were already there, and I unite myself wholly to You; never permit me to be separated from You."  (St. Alphonsus)

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The Monastic Morning

In a monastery, Morning Prayer is usually prayed soon after the nuns or monks have awakened, dressed, and prepared to begin their day.  I realize that in many Orders, the "day" has begun in the middle of the night, but for the sake of our purposes here, I'm taking my comparisons from a Community whose routine is a bit more useful for the sake of our analogies.

Residents are up and on their feet inside the monastery, they've dressed and had a speedy morning wash-up; now they file silently into the chapel. One by one they slip into their seats.  The world outside is dark and hushed.

In some monasteries, private meditation and the Office of Morning Prayer and then Mass flow smoothly together.  They weave one into another, forming one long strong unit of prayer.  Overnight silence is broken with the Morning Office, and "broken" is perhaps too sharp a word for what happens.  I think of the Sisters as easing out of quiet, sliding their voices into it like whisperings of early-rising birds.  Melodies are chanted.  Praises are sung.

Our lives in the world are not like this.  It helps me to remember that our lives in the world are NOT SUPPOSED to be like this. "Make your devotion pleasing, especially to your husband," advised gloriously practical St. Francis de Sales.  Husbands and children would not be pleased with silent wives and mothers; employers wouldn't long employ those who showed up late day after day... even if they reeked of incense and their faces gently glowed. 

So - what aspects of the monastic morning CAN be applied to OUR lives, here and now?   The answer will be different for every one of us.  Unlike nuns in a monastery, we do not have the same circumstances in our lives.  We don't gather together in a chapel, pray the Office at the same times or at all, hear the same homily.  We rush off to offices, drive carpool, homeschool, change diapers, jam into subways, deal with traffic.

The important thing, for me, is to at least have SOME time of prayer.  Dedicated time, when I can have a few minutes for a visit with God.

What do I do in this time?  It varies.  I often pray parts of the Office, although I rarely never pray every bit of it.  But I do like knowing I'm praying with the whole Church as I pray a psalm for the day, or read the Office of Readings.  I often pray with Scripture, where I listen for the still voice of God dealing with my situations.  Where do I get the scriptures I use?  The Divine Office is a good source, and the Mass readings of the day as well. 

Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim your praise.  

God, come to my assistance.  Lord, make haste to help me. 

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.  Amen.  

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Monday, August 27, 2012

It Starts With a Bell

Morning in the monastery:  it starts with a bell.  

Come to think of it, most activities in the monastery start with a bell.  Time to rise:  the bell rings.  Time to pray, eat, study, work, have recreation: the bell rings.

Anyone who has spent time in a monastery knows the bell as at least a background.  Monastics look upon it as the voice of God.

In the dark silence of our monastery morning, the bell calls.  It may not be all that welcome.  It shatters our darkness and our dreams.  If we don't live in a physical monastery, our bell might be a baby's cry.  Or the insistent bleep of an alarm clock.  And oh, our slumber has been so comfortable.  Go away, we think as we slap at the snooze button; give me just a few more minutes.  Let me have time with this enchanting dream.....

But the monastery is not a place for idle dreaming.  There is discipline in monastic life.  I, for one, am drawn to that idea - even while I run from it in terror.  Being by nature an undisciplined person, I long to have schedules imposed upon me.  And I balk whenever they are.  I don't want to be awakened by a bell; I want to indulge myself in dreams.

Monastics, whether nuns or monks, pop out of bed when the bell rings.  And:  they "pop" with a prayer.  Putting aside their dreams and throwing off their covers, they think of God immediately.  A sign of the cross, a mental aspiration, a word or two of praise for this new day - these are (ideally) the first things in their minds and hearts.  It helps me to realize that they probably didn't react like this in their first days of monastic life.  It took time and PRACTICE for this to happen, and after many years it may still be a struggle

I don't usually think of God the second I awaken.  I'm sorry to say that I don't automatically think to pray.  So I help myself out a little.  I use reminders.  I put holy pictures where I can see them, and in fact I move them around (because if I have something in the same spot for too long, I stop "seeing it").  I have even resorted to writing the word "PRAY!" on paper and sticking it to my door or mirror.

Now I'm at least at the point where I generally remember to utter a word of praise to God, and / or to make the Sign of the Cross before climbing out of bed (or as I do so).  It is often at that time when I make some kind of "morning offering," committing the day to God.  Sometimes, for me, this is a formal, verbal prayer.  At times it is more spontaneous.  But at least it's a commitment, a beginning.

My own "monastic day" has begun.

"To You I pray, O Lord; at dawn You hear my voice.."  (Psalm 5:4)

"O Lord my God, teach my heart this day where and how to see You, where and how to find You."  (St. Anselm)

What helps you turn to God as you awaken?  


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As we prepare to begin "our monastic day," I know I must start by dropping.  And to admit to you that this is what I'm doing. 

And so I hereby:

DROP my "internal editor," that little rambling train of thought that follows what I write,
      "asking me" if I could say this a little better or change that a bit.  With that, I also
DROP plans of my own, to give God room to do what He wants.  And I
DROP thoughts of normal blog schedules, thinking I can only post once a day, or that I
      must post at any given time.  May God set the schedule!  I have a feeling that some
      days might have more than one post.  I am not going to be concerned about that.  And
      some days may have none.  Now I am ready to begin this day in earnest.  Oh - and
      already there are rich comments over in our Parlor, so please
DROP in and join the conversation there when you can!  May God lead all we do. Now I'm
      ready to "begin our day," so
DROP back by here in a little while, okay?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Our Monastic Day

As we know, this blog is about living for God in the midst of the world.  It's about our ongoing efforts to cooperate with God's grace to live as completely for Him as if we lived in a physical monastery.

It's not easy.  We all know it's not easy.  But it is do-able.

To help us embrace aspects of such a life, I'd like to consider, over the next few weeks, one typical monastic day.  My hope is to look at what things are done in a physical monastery, have a look at the surroundings, and consider anew how we can live various parts of OUR days in the monastery of the heart. 

Prayer will hopefully be the main part of this "adventure." I trust God to provide the "tour," space for each of us to pray and consider, scriptures (yes, there will be those), and His holy guidance.  I offer these next days to Him, and am very much looking forward to what He will do.

As I write this, night is falling.  We must rest, for another monastic day will soon be dawning...

"Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake.  Watch over us as we sleep; that awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace........"  (from the Night Office)

(painting Weis Le Chateau de Clervaux, US public domain)

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Friday, August 24, 2012

A Wall in the Forefront

"With the sign of the living cross,
seal all your doings...
Don't go out the door of your house
till you have signed the cross.
Whether in eating or drinking,
whether in sleeping or in waking,
whether in your house or on the road,
or again in leisure hours,
don't neglect this sign -
for there is no guardian like it.
It will be for you like a wall
in the forefront of all you do."
                                            (St. Ephraem)

(painting of St.Paul of the Cross in public domain)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I Shall Praise Him Here

This image of St. Peter in chains touches me on a couple of levels. 

First, the bars remind me of monastery grillwork.  St. Peter would not have thought of any such thing, of course, but I do.  I think of seeing all circumstances, even what Peter was enduring here, through the "grillwork of the will of God."  I'm reminded that "God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28)

Second, my mind goes to others who have been imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel.  In Acts 16, we read of Paul and Silas thrown into jail after having been given "many lashes."  Their feet were chained to a stake.  Surely they were miserable.  Surely if I had been in their position, I would have been complaining and grumbling and feeling sorry for myself.

But were Paul and Silas whining, shouting with anger, weeping, groaning?  No.  They were praying and singing hymns to God.  The other prisoners heard them.  There was an earthquake.  Everyone's chains fell off.  The jailer was converted to Christ...

I have long thought that a truly cloistered heart would be like the hearts of Paul and Silas in prison.  A cloistered heart is, ideally, one on whose lips are songs of praise.  There are prisoners all around us, gloomy, sad-faced persons locked in misery and anger and despair.  They must be shown the joy of freedom, the joy to be had in God.  The prisoners must hear us.  A radiant heart cloistered in Christ will sing to them, is meant to sing to them, is meant to witness to the One Who can unlock all our chains.  (taken from The Cloistered Heart)

"Praised be the Lord, I exclaim, and I am safe from my enemies."  (Psalm18:4) 

Text not in quotes

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Charity the Measure

"'To do little things
 with great purity of intention and a strong will
to please God is to do them excellently, 
and then they greatly sanctify us.' 
 The more our works are motivated by the love of God,
the greater their value becomes.
    Some persons weigh the merit of their actions
 by their appearance or difficulty.
 They prize only showy virtues or gifts,
without considering
 that the use they make of God's gifts
derives value only from the motive and aim of their actions.
Charity must be the only measure."

(text from In the Midst of the World, Sister Joanna Marie Wenzel VHM using writings of Sr. Francis de Sales, Brooklyn Visitation, 1985, p. 9)

(painting 1893, in US public domain)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Martyred Heart

There are in fact two kinds of martyrdom.
  One takes place only in the heart,
the other in both heart and body.
 We too are capable of being martyrs,
even without having anyone slay us.
 To die from someone's enmity is martyrdom out in the open.

To bear insults, to love a person who hates us, is martyrdom in secret.
                                                                                                 St. Gregory the Great

Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't Leave Home Without It

Our friend Joy recently said something that, brief as it is, strikes me as worth an entire post of its own.  

Returning from a trip, Joy wrote "I had to laugh at all of the times I was reminded of the Cloistered Heart.  I never leave home without it."  

Hmm.  Enclosure in the protection of God's will.  The "grillwork" of Scripture through which I can relate to the world.   A refuge.  A place of prayer that I can carry with me wherever I go.

The Cloistered Heart.

May I never leave home without it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I Choose the Wall

Living within the will of God, making a specific choice to do so, can be a pleasant thing to talk about.  It's nice to write of, good to meditate upon, and the idea fits well in the pages of a "cloistered heart" blog.

It's just a bit different when it comes to the "doing" of it.  Oh, it's not so bad when God's will and mine are precisely the same.  But the funny thing is:  at some point(s), my will and God's are going to conflict.  

What happens then?

Tonight I'm looking at the "walls" of God's will - the boundaries in which I am "enclosed" if I genuinely want to live for Him.  I'm thinking about what the Church teaches on particular subjects.  I'm considering Scripture.  Wow - there are some tough things to live up to in Scripture!  Pray for my persecutors?  Love my neighbor as myself?   Do not judge?!

Sometimes I find myself picking and choosing.  I'll live this commandment, but not that other one.   I'll go right along with this chapter in the Catechism, but surely I'm not expected to take that one seriously.  I mean... c'mon!   Who does?

If I intend to live cloistered in heart, then I "does."  I don't just go grabbing stones out of my enclosure wall.  For if I do, it won't be long before that wall - that high, beloved wall built by Our Lord Himself to protect me - comes swiftly tumbling down.   And I am left unprotected, unshielded, vulnerable to attacks on my life, my spirit, my immortal soul.  

God's will and mine are going to conflict.  At various points, this is going to happen.  In order for me to choose God's will for Him and not just for my own self-interest, this HAS to happen.  

For if God's will and mine are always the same, however could I make a truly free choice for His?  

"Don't lose heart, I entreat you; gradually train your will to follow God's will wherever it leads."  (St. Francis de Sales)


Monday, August 13, 2012

A Perpetual Hymn

"We cannot go to Jesus in the Tabernacle at every moment of the day, but we can turn inward to the Triune God at any moment, even in the midst of our day's worst difficulties.  Indeed, for the soul that has attained to intimacy with Jesus, whose endeavour it is to identify herself with her heart's permanent Guest... her entire life is no more than a perpetual recourse to her Beloved.  At each moment of the day, implicitly or explicitly, she makes herself one with the inclinations of His Blessed Will.  She mingles her own weak voice with those Infinitely Pure Tones that, from the Soul of Jesus, ascend without ceasing to the Eternal Father.  Her love is a perpetual hymn with Jesus to the Glory of God" 
(The Living Pyx of Jesus. Pelligrini, 1941, p. 27)

(St. Cecilia painting in public domain)

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Habit of Armor

Several times in recent months, we have talked about habits.  What is the habit of a cloistered heart, we've asked ourselves.  What are its pieces, how are we clothed in it, how does it affect us, is it visible to others?

We've said that habits (in our case) are actions acquired, over time, with repetition.  Our habits are made up of virtues: "pieces" that we don't just throw on over our old vices - we must cooperate with God to get rid of bad habits so the growing virtues will fit.  

Recently I realized that, in addition to virtues large and small, there are additional parts of our habit which we have not yet described. We need these pieces desperately; in fact, we cannot truly be "cloistered" without them. 

There is a reason for this need.  

"Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil.  Our battle is not against human forces but against the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits in regions above.  You must put on the armor of God if you are to resist on the evil day; do all that your duty requires, and hold your ground."  (Ephesians 6:2-13)

"Stand fast, with the 
truth as the belt around your waist, 
justice as your breastplate, and 
zeal to propagate the gospel of peace as your footgear.  
In all circumstances, hold 
faith up before you as your shield,
it will help you extinguish the fiery darts of the evil one.  Take the
helmet of salvation and the
sword of the spirit, the word of God."  (Ephesians 6:14-17)

Thus clad, we can go forward to encounter the world.

(painting: August Wilhelm Musk im Kloster, now in US public domain)


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

His Undivided Property

"In the home we prepare for Our Lord,
 it must be His own undivided property,
 consecrated and set apart for Him.
He must be our ALL - 
not merely a guest, a stranger, a passing visitor.  
Dearest Jesus!  Take full possession of me
 and live Your Own Life within me.
  Decide, arrange and settle everything in my life Yourself,
so that You will secure that I love You so tenderly,
so intensely, as to make up for all the years lost.
  Only You can do this, my loving God."

                            (from THE LIVING PYX OF JESUS, Pelligrini, Australia, 1941, pp. 209-210)

Friday, August 3, 2012

Interior Glances

"When you are physically or mentally occupied, 
while fulfilling the duties of your state in life, 
renew as far as possible, again and again,
your 'yes' to the will of God.
Cast frequent interior glances
on the divine goodness."
                                                                   St.Francis de Sales 

(painting Jules Breton,US public domain) 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Enlighten the Dark Corners

"O Holy Spirit... descend into my heart!
Enlighten the dark corners 
of this neglected dwelling.
Dwell in that soul
that longs to be Your temple!
Water that barren soil,
overrun with weeds and briars 
and lost to fruitfulness
for want of cultivating.
Make it fruitful 
with Your gracious beams,
Your dew from heaven. 
O come, Refreshment of those
who languish and faint;
You only Haven
of the tossed and the shipwrecked!
Come, Holy Spirit, in much mercy!
Make me fit to receive you."
                                                           (St. Augustine)