In May, God willing and with the permission of my community, I will make my first simple promises as a Lay Cistercian. The Lay Cistercians are an association of laymen and laywomen who have chosen to live their vocation as Christians in accordance with the unique charisms of the Cistercian Order, adapted to the circumstances of life “in the world.” Lay Cistercians participate in communities associated with Cistercian monasteries; my Lay Cistercian Community is affiliated with the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.
I’ve been in the Lay Cistercian novitiate since Palm Sunday 2007. As my two-year novitiate draws to a close, I am invited to reflect on the following charisms which define Cistercian spirituality:
- Early Rising
- Encountering the Presence of God especially at the Divine Office
- Recitation of the Psalms as song and prayer
- Lectio Divina (“Sacred Reading,” or the meditative, prayerful reading of the Bible or other holy books)
- Contemplative Prayer
- Living by the Work of One’s Hands
- Obedience (for Lay Cistercians, not so much to an abbot as to Christ)
- Celibacy (or, for Lay Cistercians, fidelity to one’s state of life)
- Hospitality to Newcomers
- Conversion of Manners (i.e., ongoing conversion of life)
- Doing all the above for the Love of Christ
Even for monks, living into the charisms is a process; and certainly this is, if anything, even more true for laypersons who embrace these charisms as guidelines for our own spiritual life.
The actual promises of a Lay Cistercian include:
- Daily Eucharist, when possible
- Liturgy of the Hours
- Lectio Divina
- Devotion to the Blessed Mother
- Regular Participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
- Embracing of Silence and Solitude
- Regular attendance at the monthly Lay Cistercian gathering days
- Attendance at the Lay Cistercian Annual Retreat, if possible
- Acceptance of the Rule of Benedict as guide for living the Gospel
Obviously, there is much overlap between the promises and the charisms. But even though there are only nine promises, they look pretty overwhelming. The Lay Cistercian community acknowledges that everyone will live into these promises in a different way. For some people, daily Eucharist and Lectio Divina are easy, while embracing silence and solitude is a challenge; for others, it’s the other way around. I am woefully imperfect at each of these, but for now the key factor is that I have accepted each of these promises as an important principle for my spiritual life — even if at the present such principles are largely unrealized.
One of the questions I have been asked to reflect on as I discern whether or not the request permission to make my simple vows is this: “What changes in my life have I noticed since becoming a novice Lay Cistercian?” In other words, what difference has it made for me to participate in the Lay Cistercian community and way of life over the last two years? I can’t say that being a Lay Cistercian novice has made me more disciplined, or more committed to the Daily Office, or more holy in any kind of measurable way. But what it has done has been to make me more attentive: attentive to the sheer grace found in silence and solitude; attentive to the simple joys that can arise from participation in the Liturgy; attentive to the down-to-earth blessings that are available to me (and everyone) when I embrace such counter-cultural values as humility, patience, simplicity, and stability. Lay Cistercian spirituality is not glamorous or “sexy,” but it is deeply nourishing and quietly satisfying in the subtle ways it helps me to be more mindful of God’s loving presence in my life.
Assuming that both I and the community discern that I am to make my promises in May, it will be a time-specific commitment: I’ll promise to live the life of a Lay Cistercian for one year. I’ll need to do that at least three times before making the solemn promises that will make me a Lay Cistercian for life. During that at least three year period, I will continue to study, under the guidance of both monks and my elders in the Lay Cistercian community. With God’s help, I can grow not only in my experience of what it means to be a Lay Cistercian, but — most important of all — in my experience of what it means to be a Christian.
My friends, please pray for me. Thank you.