A Spirituality Smorgasbord of Styles
St. Benedict was concerned not so much with mysticism or denial as with how to make "here and now right and holy." As Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister describes a style she's followed most of her adult life, it "simply takes the dust and clay of every day and turns it into beauty." For that reason, Benedictines see the tools they use daily—spatula, shovel or computer—as being sacred as the altar vessels. Father Thomas Berry explains this stance: "reverence will be total or it will not be at all."
The architecture of medieval monasteries such as Canterbury reflected a life balanced among prayer, study and work. The spiritual self was nurtured in the church, the physical in dormitory and dining room, and the mind in the library. When our lives seem out of whack, we should see if one part has ballooned out of balance. Are we getting adequate sleep and healthy nutrition? Does overwork dominate our days?
Most important, the central core of the monastery was open space. The cloisters enclosed a garden, open to the sky, in which a fountain or well stood. Author Esther De Waal describes: "the audacity of a way of life that put uncluttered space, emptiness, at its heart." She points out that we too must keep an inner place free and open, watered and refreshed by God.
Given the chaos of contemporary life, this spirituality is firmly grounded in four anchors: the Rule, the Gospel, the wisdom of the community and the particular circumstances of a person's life. It is both steadying and flexible. Prayer is a regular part of the rhythm of each day—not only when it's convenient or comfortable, but because praising God is why we're here.
Those drawn to this style know that some things can be learned only in community or family. The social dimension of life corrects our craziness and helps us mature. People who have gone through crisis or tragedy attest that God is present through the kind eyes and tender touches of other people.
The preferred form of prayer for this style is liturgy, psalms or hymns sung together. Transcending our unique styles, one sentence from the Benedictine Rule speaks to all, sounding clear as a bell on a frosty morning: "Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ" (72:11).
Carmelite/Depths of Silence
While it may seem contradictory, placing community and solitude together here shows that the roomy house of Christian spirituality isn't a simplistic either/or, but a place for both/and. We need solos and we need a full chorus. The tradition has always emphasized the value of silence, entering into the stillness of our hearts to find God. If we fear silence, we risk becoming shallow or fickle, never quite sure what we believe or who we are.
The prayer of Trappist Thomas Merton perfectly expresses this style: "To be here with the silence of Sonship in my heart is to be a center in which all things converge upon you.... Therefore, Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time."
Note that we don't enter silence to escape the world, but to better embrace it. We listen long and hard for God's word in order to get it right when we speak to others. In a noisy world, with chatter, traffic and the constant blare of TV, radio and iPods, silence is the necessary antidote where we remember what matters. As Meister Eckhard wrote, "Nothing so much approximates the language of God as silence,"
Kathy Coffey is a national speaker, retreat leader, and the author of numerous articles in Catholic periodicals. On the web, find Kathy at: kathyjcoffey.wordpress.com