Cloister of the Heart

The other day I had a wonderful chat with a friend of mine who is a Lay Cistercian and who regularly makes retreats at the monastery where I work. As Lay Cistercians, we have a unique perspective on monastic spirituality and what it can mean for those of us who are not, and not called to be, monks. Lay Cistercians, incidentally, are like Benedictine Oblates, Secular Franciscans, or Third Order Carmelites: people who are not called to the consecrated religious life, but who are nonetheless drawn to it. As its name implies, Lay Cistercians are laypeople, most of us married with ordinary jobs and lives “in the world,” who nevertheless find that the culture and spirituality of monasticism has a real and significant role to play in our ongoing formation as Christians. We are not “monk wanna-bes” so much as we function as a kind of ambassador or translator, who interfaces with both the monastic community and the world at large, drinking deeply from the monastic well as a way to nourish the good life we have been called to live, outside the monastic cloister.

So Lay Cistercians, as much as we are able, try to integrate various elements of the monastic way of life into our own Christian journey. Practices such as lectio divina or the recitation of at least part of the Liturgy of the Hours anchor our daily spirituality. But perhaps even more important than the things we try to do are the charisms by which we hope the Holy Spirit will shape us into who we are. The Cistercian charisms include such qualities as the love of silence, solitude, stability and simplicity; living and praying in a contemplative manner; joyfully embracing the challenges of humility, obedience (to Christ), and continual repentance; and embracing the Holy Rule of St. Benedict as a guide for living — adapted, of course, for life outside the monastery; but part of the genius of the Rule is its very adaptability.

Of course, Cistercian spirituality and charisms are valuable only insofar as they are Christian values. Nevertheless, part of what makes the Cistercian way so beautiful is its emphasis on quiet, on simplicity, on rootedness and community: all qualities that are consistent with the Gospel, but deliciously subversive of the values that form our society’s mainstream. And this is where life as a Lay Cistercian sometimes gets tricky. Back to my conversation with my friend. She and I were pondering the unique challenges of the Lay Cistercian life, where we seek to embrace the charisms of the tradition, but lack the advantages of living in a community of others who are struggling to live those same charisms. This is how we got on the subject of the cloister. To non-monks, a cloister may seem to be nothing more than a barrier: a wall or a fence that divides the abode of monks from the rest of the world. And certainly, the enclosure is defined by its boundaries. But a more intimate look at monasticism reveals that a cloister is more than its boundaries, just as a nation is more than its borders. The real beauty of the cloister is not is periphery, but its center. The cloister is the place where community happens. It is the anchor of stability, the crucible where penance and humility are forged, the home where lovers of Christ — and of the brothers and the place — reside, hopefully joyfully, usually imperfectly, always with the help of God’s grace. My friend and I, while both clear that we are not called to live within a cloister ourselves, both can see the gifts that are available to those who are called to enter within.

“We are not called to live in the cloister,” my friend mused, “but we are called to embrace the charisms of the cloistered life. To me, this means we must find a ‘cloister of the heart,’ a place within ourselves where we can cultivate stability and silence and simplicity and all the other Cistercian charisms.”

Those words lit a fire within me, and almost a week later they continue to unfold a sense of deep resonance.  This is it: this is the call, not only of a Lay Cistercian, but indeed of all lay contemplatives, regardless of our tradition (or none), regardless of whether we are Catholic or Protestant or whatever. We are called, through silence, through our longing for deep prayer and for the slow transformation that repentance and humility can offer us, to enter into a cloister without walls: a cloister within, a cloister of the heart.

This does not mean that we simply withdraw into some sort of navel-gazing introversion. Far from it. Like the cloister itself, the heart is a center, not a boundary. The heart’s lifelong job is to receive blood, and then send the blood out again. If the blood stops moving through the heart, the heart — and the body it serves — quickly dies. What makes the heart a heart is its very dynamism, the power of its continual pumping, the sheer rhythm by which is serves the fullness of life. For a person who has embraced the cloister of the heart as a lay contemplative, this means we continually draw within ourselves the refreshing silence and solitude of contemplative prayer, only to then give it away, bringing the gifts of a life immersed in the love of God to all those whom we love and whom we meet in the course of our busy lives. God comes in to us through prayer and meditation and silence and solitude, and we give God away through love and service and acts of mercy and charity and justice. We pray and we work: ora et labora, which just happens to be the motto of Benedictine monasticism. Only for the lay contemplative, the “work” is more than just supporting the monastic life: it is engaging in all the challenges as well as joys of a life deeply and fully lived in the world, where, thanks to the cloister of the heart, the entire world can slowly become our “monastic enclosure” — our place of deep rest and of slowly learning what it means to be a Christian, in other words, what it means to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I found a confirmation of this line of thinking last night; I’m reading Edward Sellner’s wonderful book Finding the Monk Within (I’ll try to write a review of it once I finish it), and in his section on Benedictine stability, he writes about three dimensions of stability: the stability of living in one place, the stability of membership in one community, and, ultimately, the stability of the heart. This “stability of the heart” seems to me to be very akin to the idea of the cloister of heart: finding the resources within us, through prayer and devotion to God, that empower us to make choices that are not always going with the flow of the culture in which we live — but that, hopefully and with God’s grace, can be fruitful with the lavish flow of Divine Love, to us and through us to a world so desperately thirsty for it.

Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Talking about "Befriending Silence"
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • thegreeningspirit

    Thank you Carl, for this beautiful post which speaks so intensely to my own experience..and I am sure to the experiences of others who are called to take regular time out to find the door to The Cloister of the Heart…Veriditas and Gracias…Christine Phoenix-Green

  • cherie mustico

    well said – would like to pass this on to a few friends

  • Tess

    This is a great post on so many levels. I really liked your distinction at the beginning between being called to monastic life and drawn to it. As a (trainee!) Benedictine Oblate, I’ve often struggled how to describe it, and this is perfect.

    And “cloister of the heart”. That phrase is going to resonate for a long time.

    I’ve bookmarked this post and I know I’m going to read it again.

  • Bruce Evans

    I also bookmarked this site. I believe Henry David Thoreau understood this concept as well as John Muir who found solace in being surrounded by God’s natural creation as a means to communicate to our inner souls.

  • Joe Rawls

    Another great post! I too have read Sellner’s book and highly recommend it.