During the past couple of weeks, many of us find ourselves living quieter lives as a gesture of social solidarity. In the midst of these new realities, I find myself turning to the wisdom of the monastic stream of Christianity for how to live with an open heart and in a spirit of hope and compassion.
Monasteries trace their roots to the earliest years of Christianity when some people chose to move to the desert because they understood that the path of Jesus was about a radical transformation of the human heart and way of life. Later, such people came together in monasteries and adopted intentional ways of living that were designed to support each person and the community as a whole in becoming like a stained glass window through which the light of Christ could shine.
One of these ways of living included setting up an intentional rhythm of the day, known as Ora et Labora. This way of life calls for stopping at set times of the day for prayer, quiet meditation, chant or sacred reading. Monastic days also involve some form of physical work that supports the community (such as cooking, or gardening, or cleaning), with the understanding that engaging the body physically and working on behalf of the community are effective tools for shifting one’s mental or emotional experience, especially when done mindfully. Monasteries are also often located away from busy human activity in places of nature, where it can be easier to feel connected to the presence of the sacred. In spite of what it may seem, this way of living is not about withdrawing from the world. It is an intentional way of engaging with it that is grounded in spiritual intention and energy.
For more than 15 years, I have attended retreats at New Camaldoli Hermitage on the Big Sur Coast and often bring what I learn there home and to the services that I lead at the Pescadero Community Church. These days, I am particularly focused on the wisdom of creating an intentional rhythm to my days because I notice that practicing such a rhythm shifts my inner life and improves the quality of my work. Specifically, I find it helpful to schedule time throughout my day to stop and practice gratitude, quiet meditation, yoga, walks in nature and praying for others. Of course, the specifics of each person’s life are different. And how one might choose to integrate a monastic rhythm will differ depending on one’s circumstances and abilities. But if we wish, this time can be an opportunity to practice an intentional rhythm as an experiment with monastic wisdom.
Another key dimension of monastic practice is the coming together as community. Of course, this can be tricky in this moment when physical social distancing is encouraged as a responsible and compassionate choice. It can be tempting to slip into isolation or to see others through the lens of fear. As an antidote, I suggest we see staying connected to community as an intentional practice right now and get creative about ways to do so. At Pescadero Community Church, we are experimenting with using digital tools for convening as a spiritual community. Our commitment is to continue to pray together, to support each other, and especially to stay attentive to those in our midst who might need extra support.
These are just a few of the spiritual technologies from the monastic way of life that we can use during this time of cultural quieting.
For further reading, I recommend Cynthia Bourgeault’s “Wisdom Way of Knowing” or Paula Huston’s “The Holy Way.”
Rose Feerick is one of the ministers at Pescadero Community Church.