Alice Waters, a chef renowned for her natural and seasonal cuisine, recently visited Central Park and, though it was the dead of winter, harvested a bounty of wild foods. Our lives are like that--ripe with wisdom and beauty, even in the places that seem cold and barren--if we only look.
Today, the monastic way life is helping growing numbers of people discover the extraordinary in their ordinary lives. Paul Wilkes, author of "Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life," took time out of a life hectic with responsibilities of husband and father, teacher and writer to spend time at Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, South Carolina.
Monks set aside certain periods of their day for work, for prayer, for eating, for sleeping, explains Wilkes. "We have great difficulty today because we don't segment our days, so they become a flurry of activity and anxiety. We need to take a moment--I don't care if it's 10 minutes or 10 seconds--and seize the day before it seizes us."
The Rule of Benedict, one of the primary foundations of contemporary Christian monasticism, is proving valuable to contemporary men and women. Begun in the sixth century as a lay movement for people seeking a more meaningful life, the Rule offers spiritual direction more in keeping with its Latin root regula
--"guide"--than the word's modern connotation that implies a strict control or law.
The aim of monasticism--and the Rule--is union with God. Monastic principles such as hospitality, stability, prayer, silence, and community help individuals stay attuned to this union in every moment of their lives. Prayer and work come together when we take just five minutes at our desks to remember God, or when we infuse our job-related activities with prayerful attention. Leisure and silence intertwine to restore us so that we can return to our relationships with something to give.
But can monastic practices thrive outside the cloister? Absolutely, says Norvene Vest, an oblate of a Benedictine abbey in Valyermo, California, and author of many books on the subject. In the monastery, Vest explains, everyday situations and perplexities that crop up are seen as occasions to see God in a different way. "What the monastery permits is simply intentionality," she says, "the time to take at moment and turn it over in our mind and see how there is an opportunity in it."
Oblates like Vest are individuals or families who promise to lead their lives according to the gospel as reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule, based upon the New Testament and grounded in centuries of experience, offers them practical suggestions about regular times of prayer, ways of ordering and simplifying their lives, and advice on family and relationships.
"We are lay members of the community with one foot in the monastery and one in the world," explains Ron Berges, who, with his wife Jody, is an oblate of St. Andrews Abbey in California. "We went through a year's novitiate, and then we signed on the altar and made vows to stability to a place and community; ongoing conversion, that is, allowing the principles of the gospel, as lived out in practical ways, to change us; and obedience to Christ. For oblates, these vows are couched in terms of 'as much as our state of life permits.'"
|God's hand is always extended. We just need to reach for it.
Berges adds that he and Jody make time to go to the monastery at least twice a month for reflection and meetings. Oblates also come together apart from the monastery, and they have formed their own communities with other oblates.
Dorothy Remy, a college professor in Washington, D.C., has just completed her juniorate studies with the Fellowship of The Holy Trinity, an organization for lay people influenced by the Rule of Benedict, which is not affiliated with any church. "I started going to monasteries 20 years ago," Remy says. "I find the stability and hospitality there deeply nourishing." Remy's ideal is to order her life in such a way as to be mindful of the Benedictine triad of work, study, and prayer. "Work at its best is time spent with my hands in the dirt of the garden or in dishwater. Study for me has always been reading spiritual classics (rather than bible study). And prayer is centering prayer
daily with a weekly eucharist and communal prayer time at the church."
Other seekers do not take vows but are connected with religious orders that help them incorporate involving prayer and scriptural study into their daily lives. For example, All Saints Convent, an Episcopal community in Catonsville, Maryland, offers Associate affiliations to both men and women and Fellowship of All Saints for women living outside its walls. Together, they develop a personalized rule of life, something St. Benedict strongly advocated. "Somebody who has young children certainly is not going to keep the same type of rule as somebody who is retired," explains All Saint's Sister Christina. "If they try to do that, they will get discouraged and stop. We help guide them to what will work in their lives so that they can keep it."
Monastic practices are more about reframing what is already present in our lives than a matter of doing something new. Consciously setting time aside for friends, respecting store clerks, or returning phone calls are simple yet effective ways to deepen hospitality. If we make meals for family and friends with the intention of creating a time of community, quietness, and stability, the experience is cast in a new light. Through these humble practices, we can make the ordinary extraordinary and awaken to the wonder of everyday life.
"When you walk into McDonald's, and you're greeted by somebody who has an alert look on his face, and he says, 'Good morning, can I help you?'" Wilkes says, "there's a connection with the divine right there. We all have that opportunity in everything we do. We can do it any time--whether we're collecting garbage or surfing the Internet or serving as the CEO of a huge conglomerate. God's hand is always extended. We just need to reach for it."