I have returned many times to Philip Sheldrake’s book Spaces for the Sacred. It’s a fairly challenging read for me on a philosophical level. He explores the profound effect that places and landscapes can have on us and how they shape us as human beings. Of special interest to me is his chapter The Practice of Place: Monasteries as Utopias. In this chapter he looks at the desert origins of monasticism and how the physical and psychological adaptation needed to survive there laid the foundations for a theology of monastic living.
The desert in early monastic texts is both a paradise, where people live in harmony with wild animals, and at the same time a place of trial where ascetics encounter inner and outer demons.
In a strange way, to depart from the noise of the city to the great silences of rock and sand made space for the chattering voices of inner conflict to surface and be confronted.
And this experience of inner and outer conflict has held true for every monastic through the ages. Entering a monastery today you are unlikely to experience any of the privations of the physical desert, though some adjustment to the environment is needed. I think it’s fair to say that we Benedictines cultivate a rather moderate environment in our monasteries. Largely we don’t set out to make things more difficult than they need to be.
What is particular about the monastic environment is that it is intentional. Everything that happens within the monastery walls is for one purpose only: to seek God. The monastic enters a new physical world in order to encounter the kingdom of God.
Monasticism is concerned with changing places, literally and metaphorically. At the heart of Christian spirituality is an invitation to enter a new world, the Kingdom of God. We are drawn even now to become citizens of a place of the imagination, defined by the ‘place’ of Jesus, that reshapes our identities. From its origins, Christian monasticism has expressed this proleptic vision of the Kingdom in an intensive way. Its prophetic power is that it is a socially eccentric place where, paradoxically, the imaginative world of the kingdom is lived out in radical terms.
The chapter goes on to explore the idea that life in a monastery is life that is lived ‘as if’ the Kingdom were already a reality. The thinking is that if you live ‘as if’ then it may become a reality. The structure of the day, the physical space of the monastery, the principles of the Rule of St Benedict all contribute to living ‘as if.’ Of course, the inhabitants of monasteries are very human and we don’t float around feeling as if we are in paradise or a utopia. But what we do have is a very specific set of tools that can at help us to inch towards a sense of the Kingdom.
You might be reading this and longing for all that you imagine a monastery can provide in terms of space and silence, but feel that this is so far from your own reality. I’d like to suggest that in the events of everyday life there are some simple ways of sensing the sacred, even in the busiest of environments. I have personally been helped a great deal by the teaching and writing of Sr Meg Funk osb. She has taken the wisdom of the Desert Tradition and made it accessible for everyone. In a workshop for monastics she spoke about ‘bringing enclosure with you’ any time you leave the monastery. Enclosure, she explained, is not just the physical boundaries of the monastery, but also includes the ‘guarding of the heart.’ She suggested that if you guard your heart when you are on a journey, this opens you up to the divine. I have interpreted this as being open to the glimpses of God in the busiest and noisiest environments.
I lived in London before I entered the monastery and I feel at home in the busy and the bustle. There is something strangely reassuring for me knowing that a whole crowd of people are heading in a particular direction and I just need to keep up and follow. People often ask me if I find the noise of London difficult after the peace of the monastery. In truth, I don’t really. I have learnt to try to be open to the sacred wherever I am.
A very obvious glimpse of the Kingdom for me is the piano at St Pancras Station. It always draws me. I sense the sacred in the group that gathers and the connection that is made between the pianist and the group. The playing is always without music and this adds to the wonder for me. It’s extraordinary how the human brain can learn an instrument and play a piece from memory. Very often the group that gathers is silent, with some taking pictures and videoes. Together we are caught up in the moment. The Kingdom is close. In that moment we are united. As I head towards the underground I take some of that sense of the sacred with me. I might be standing on a platform four people deep, but I try to hold onto that sense of the Kingdom.
I have a sense that we can make space for the Kingdom wherever we are. All it needs is a little intention. There is a line from a sonnet entitled ‘St Benedict’, by poet and priest, Malcolm Guite, which captures this for me beautifully: to clear and keep for Love a sacred space that we might be beginners in God’s grace.
The whole sonnet is a beautiful weaving together of the key themes of Benedictine spirituality and reminds me that cultivating a space for love is a daily task, wherever I am.
You sought to start a simple school of prayer,
A modest, gentle, moderate attempt,
With nothing made too harsh or hard to bear,
No treating or retreating with contempt,
A little rule, a small obedience
That sets aside, and tills the chosen ground,
Fruitful humility, chosen innocence,
A binding by which freedom might be found
You call us all to live, and see good days,
Centre in Christ and enter in his peace,
To seek his Way amidst our many ways,
Find blessedness in blessing, peace in praise,
To clear and keep for Love a sacred space
That we might be beginners in God’s grace.
Which spaces have you cleared and kept for Love?
Where can you make space for the Kingdom?