Day 7 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.
When I visit the Trappist monasteries near Dubuque or the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford, England, I’m taken aback each time by the grill between the guest area in the chapel and the monastic area. The boundary seems unwelcoming. However, I realize that the grill is a reminder that boundaries nurture their life together.
I love the times when the grill is opened and I am welcomed in–at Compline at New Melleray, at Monday night Mass at Our Lady of Mississippi convent, and at meals with the Oxford sisters. It makes it all the more special.
For life in the Contemplative Cottage to flourish, boundaries are necessary to cultivate sanctuary.
A quote that captures this so beautifully is from Elizabeth Goudge, The Middle Window.* Goudge describes a conversation about the boundaries necessary for beauty to flourish:
“That’s the monastic ideal,” said Judy, “and I’ve always thought it rather selfish—a creeping away from life.”
“Then you have misunderstood it,” Ian said. “The monastic ideal is a core of sanity in a loathsome world, a core of sanity that spreads. Again and again men [and women] have gone into solitude to create beauty, and the beauty, created, has revolutionized a whole country.”
Judy was still unconvinced. “But if nothing can get through the mountains to contaminate your Utopia, how can the beauty you create get out into the world?”
“If you light a bonfire in a sheltered valley the protection makes such a huge blaze of it that those outside see the whole sky lit up.”
Often, I hear monasticism and monastic communities critiqued for “leaving the world behind.” While there are examples of this perspective, there is a much more prevalent life-giving monasticism that offers men and women in the communities a boundaried space to deepen their love of God and their calling to a particular way of life. Historically, many monasteries became centers of learning, the arts, and culture.
In our own time, the Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos created a world-wide musical phenomenon by recording an album of Gregorian Chant. Chant sold over 1 million albums in 1994– its first year. In 2004, the oldest Cistercian monastery Stift Heiligenkreuz, a continuous monastery since the 12th century, released a chant album and has enjoyed a similar popularity. The highly acclaimed documentary, Into Great Silence, gave its viewers over 2 hours of nearly silent video, showing the simple daily lives of Carthusian monks in the Grand Chartreuse monastery.
My professor-monk at St John’s, Fr. Columba, often commented that the boundaries of the horarium and the monastic enclosure allowed for monks to focus on the arts, giving them time and space to grow from amateur to expert over the years. He also talked about how even the monastic boundaries were challenged by workaholism, the 24/7 culture, and pervasive connectivity. It required discipline and vision to maintain the life-giving boundaries.
Monastic communities model what it means to prioritize a vocation and make the choices necessary to see it flourish. And I learned from them that protected sanctuary space is just as necessary for people outside the monastery. Whether a person is called to marriage and family, singleness connected to community, life in a religious community, or other integrations of family, work, and community, each calling has it’s own need for boundaries to flourish.
What are life-giving boundaries that help you flourish in your vocation, art, discipleship, work, or relationships?
When medieval monks copied texts, there were often left over scraps of vellum available for the monks to record quotes from scripture or other texts on which they wanted to meditate personally. These scraps were often bound together into a florilegium, Latin from flos (flowers), legere (to gather): a bouquet of literary flowers.
*Disclaimer: While I love Elizabeth Goudge’s later books, The Middle Window is a earlier effort, uneven in story and writing. If you are interested in reading a beautiful book by her, start with The Scent of Water.