If I were to formulate my ideal for my life and spiritual life it would be to be “a Contemplative in the World.”
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Most monastic life is based on the Rule of St. Benedict. A day held sleep, prayer and study, and manual labour in roughly equal balance.
During their waking hours, they balanced prayer, study and manual labour. It’s amazing that Benedict stumbled upon this perfect balance of mind, spirit and body.
The one weakness of monastic life is relationships–it does not allow for marital relationships, parent-child relationships or one on one friendships. I would be so lonely without these–which is why I would like to be ” a contemplative in the world.”
However the monks and nuns did live together in community, which is a stabilizing influence, and a safeguard against nuttiness, extreme selfishness or against undisciplined excesses in food, sleep, prayer or study. The anonymity of the monastic life also provided a safeguard against the drudgery of ambition.
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I find I need the manual labour which was part of monasticism for mental, psychological and spiritual health, leave alone physical health and strength. It rounds out and completes what can be a very cerebral, intense, edgy and often highly-strung personality. I do my best thinking and praying while working in the garden, or pottering in the house, though I do have a cleaner, since I don’t potter particularly regularly.
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I committed my life to the lovely Jesus when I was 17, and then and now being ardent, asked, “What should I do?” So momentous a decision had to express itself in action I felt.And so, being a novice Christian, and not realizing the importance of the seeking the whole counsel of God, I picked up a bit of the jigsaw.
Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.” And so I decided to serve the least of these. I lived near Calcutta, and so at 17 and a half, went off to become a nun and work with Mother Teresa.
It was a temperamental mismatch. I had spent my childhood in an exclusive dreamy boarding school in the Himalayas, run by Irish, English and German IBMV nuns, and where I read, and read, and read. I was reading Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Galsworthy, Shaw, James Joyce “the Portrait,” not Ulysses), Joyce Cary…
Suddenly, I joined a community where many people were just learning English, literacy was basic , there was no reading except spiritual reading. I had been so used to living in my mind, in books, in language, and I felt bereft of that. In fact, I took an old Bible which had both Latin and English and patiently taught myself some Latin by matching the words.
The hardest part was living in community. This was community in extreme–25 women sharing a single room, which with a constant moving of furniture became a dormitory, refectory, class-room, living room. No privacy, except at times of prayer and meditation–and then, it was your mind and thoughts which were at rest, your body was with 400 others.
Phew. I loved God, loved thinking of Him, talking to Him, learning about Him. Still do. Loved Scripture. Still do. But I just needed a lot more solitude and quiet than I could get in a service-oriented community.
After 14 months there, I realized it was not for me. Mother had another order, called Sisters of the Word, devoted to a contemplative life. They spent their mornings in prayer and reading Scripture, and their afternoons in proclaiming the Word to the poor, the” spiritually poor,” on the streets, wherever. I fancied it would be just the thing for me.
Mother Teresa had her doors open all day. I asked if I could either leave and go home or if I could transfer to her contemplative branch from her active branch. She thought I was too young–at 18–for a contemplative life which is generally considered psychologically, spiritually and emotionally more difficult than an active religious life, and asked me to apply to that order when I was 21.
When I was 21, of course, English in Oxford absorbed all my thoughts. My faith was virtually non-existent. And that was that!!
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But now, in a quiet season of my life, I am getting increasingly fascinated with trying to figure out how to incorporate contemplative rhythms into my daily life.
This Saturday, Roy and I are going to a conference on incorporating monastic rhythms into daily life.
We are also exploring a Christian community in Oxford, http://maybe.org.uk/ which seeks to incorporate some monastic values into daily life, me with more enthusiasm, Roy, who would happily travel all day in his garden, with less. Will report on our progress.