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Rhythm and Redemption: Lessons from the Monastics about Life in Confinement

Thomas Kimber —

From the outside, the monastery may seem like a prison.

The thought of such a life of routine and austere adherence to rituals and liturgy seems an oppressive, confining life without freedom. But a deeper understanding and experience of monastic life reveals that “the intent of the monastery is to set the person free.”[1] Free from what? No doubt, there are many today who view our imposed life of isolation and social distancing as constraining and imprisoning. But the monastics would help us to see this season as an opportunity for freedom from the tyranny of time and the imposed values of culture and society.

It has often been said of the academy that the life of study, the formation of ideas, and the testing of thought is not the “real world.”The same is sometimes said of the monastery. But Kathleen Norris dares to observe,

I have often had the odd feeling that the monastery is the real world, while the dog-eat-dog world that most people call ‘real’ is in fact an artifice, an illusion that we cling to because it seems in our best interest to do so.[2]

It is likely that this season of isolation and forced changes to our regular lives will invite us to look at life and the “real world” in a very different way. I would suggest that the ancient institution of the monastery offers wisdom for us to consider how we live in these days of imposed solitude and isolation. I will focus on four lessons we discover from the monastics about living life in confinement. First, we learn about a life of submission as we discover how to release control. Second, from their perspective on time, we discover the importance of rhythm and how to reclaim our true purpose. Third, we look at the emphasis on love and how to express the greatest commandments. And finally, we briefly consider the monastic emphasis on attentiveness and the importance of looking for God’s purpose in all things.

A Life of Submission: Learning to Release Control

The first act of entering the monastery is an act of submission—laying down one’s life and one’s freedoms for a much greater good. Certainly, there is an emphasis on one’s own spiritual formation, but there is also the greater good of the community. One enters the monastic life as an “oblate” or a dedicated religious person. An oblation, in the biblical sense, is an offering consecrated to God. At the heart of the monastic experience is a desire to imitate Christ in his perfect submission to the Father’s will. As an act of submission, the novice put him or herself under the authority of a spiritual guide. Indeed, “the opening of one’s mind and heart to the influence of a spiritual parent was the first crucial demand of the would-be monk or nun.”[3] This signifies one’s relinquishments of personal rights and freedoms for something much greater.

Life in confinement may seem draconian and excessive, particularly for those who are raised to value personal freedoms and self-expression. The monastic life, with its emphasis on community and concern for others, is radically different from the way many of us have been taught to think. This is a life that does not come naturally to most of us. St. Benedict saw the monastic life “as warfare, soldiering under a rule and an abbot.”[4] In the same way, we are urged to submit to authorities who impose restrictions on us, not only for our personal benefit but also for the common good. Attitudes of submission must precede acts of submission and cooperation. Submission necessarily takes us out of the realm of thinking what is best for me and into the realm of thinking what is best for us.

A Life of Rhythm: Reclaiming Our True Purpose

In our culture, time seems like such an enemy. We are often at the mercy of the tyranny of the urgent, with too much to do and too little time in which to do it. We are, too frequently, victims of the deadline and the demands of an overfull schedule. These weeks in isolation have given many of us a very different perspective on time and forced us to rethink our use of time.

Genesis 1 recounts the work of God in bringing all of creation into existence. But the opening words, “In the beginning,” remind us that God’s first work was in creating time. All of earth, the objects of the universe, both seen and unseen, exist within our understanding of time.“In the beginning” suddenly introduces us to the concepts of past, present, and future. Within the creation story, we discover the rhythmic repetition of “there was evening and there was morning”, a first day, and a second day, and so on. Days are then collected into years and seasons. Later in the Old Testament, God commanded not only the creation of festivals and memorials within time but stressed the importance of Sabbath for rest and worship. Creation exists within a realm of time and space. Like all of creation, time as God created it was good, but it also suffers from aspects of fallenness, which is most apparent in the way we think about and utilize time.

From their earliest days, monasteries emphasized a daily, weekly, and annual rhythm based on a biblical understanding of time, rather than the prevailing cultural understanding of time.

Monastic rhythm strikes a balance between two activities—prayer and work—which constitute the basic purpose for which humans were created.God calls us to seek his face in prayer and to do his work in the world.[5]

Monastic life is structured according to two of the primary activities for which we were created: work and prayer. The day is shaped by these two events, and over time, there is a blurring of the lines as one moves seamlessly between them, taking work into prayer and prayer into work.

Time in isolation takes on new dimensions. Many of the structures we once relied on have been removed. Schedules have been greatly altered, even completely removed. We now exist within God’s time and a reordering of the hours and the days, within an unknown duration of this unsettling season. It is a unique time of creation, redemption, and anticipation of the coming of the Lord in his timing. The structure of monastic time is built around the carefully ordered times of prayer, rather than our more frequent perspective of attempting to add prayer to an already too full schedule. It is built on the belief that in each day there is enough time for prayer, work, solitude, and community with others.

Liturgical time is essentially poetic time, oriented towards process rather than productivity, willing to wait attentively in stillness rather than always pushing to get the job done.”[6]

Perhaps more than any other thing, time in isolation is reorienting our understanding of time. The monastics invite us to ask questions about how we view time Our capitalistic, consumer culture teaches us that “time is money” and ought not to be wasted. Efficiency and productivity are values that shape our calendars and our businesses. And we wonder when this virus will be done so we can get back to normal life. But as we face these severe limits, we live between the unchangeable past and the uncontrollable future.We have only this one moment.

The rhythm of prayer and work will enable us to relish the present moment as a gift from God, give ourselves completely to the one thing at hand and surrender our work to God through prayer.[7]

Life in isolation has highlighted for many of us just how out of balance our lives have become. By removing activities and clearing our calendars, time has taken new meaning. The Rule of Benedict is a masterpiece of both spiritual and practical wisdom.

From beginning to end, one finds in this rule an admirable balance between prayer and work, submission and personal conscience, solitude with God and communal life, renunciation and the use of anything necessary to live cheerfully, generosity and prudence in austerity, silence and charity in interpersonal relations, the authority of the abbot and the right of the brothers to give their opinions.[8]

Perhaps more than any other gift, monastic life helps us to understand the chaos of submitting to a fallen understanding of time, and how to regain a life of balance and intentionality in living in the natural order of God’s time.

A Life of Love: Expressing the Greatest Commandments

Inconvenience, difficulty, and suffering often turn us inward. Silence and solitude are frequently thought of as introspective disciplines, too often criticized as being self-focused and even selfish. Properly understood, though, these disciplines have a much different purpose. Basil insisted on “the great law of love—love of God and love of neighbor—as the context for the whole monastic enterprise.”[9] Augustine intentionally placed his monasteries in cities rather than in remote locations, thus strengthening the community aspects of the monastery. John Cassian insists that “the goal of life is love. Everything else is secondary to this one good.”[10] Every act of submission, abandonment of rights, prayer, work and communal life is a fulfillment of this call of Christ to a life of love.

Basil warned against over-emphasising some of the more extreme forms of spiritual disciplines and self-denial; instead, he emphasised

Christian love, which ought to be practiced by conscientious work, caring for the sick and the poor, and a prayerful, sober contemplation of God’s revelation in the history of salvation through his sanctifying presence.[11]

Monasteries had a responsibility to serve the community and to contribute to the good of society.There is no more basic expression of love than to care for the needy, feed the hungry, clothe the naked.

Consequently, Basil started hostels, soup kitchens, hospitals for those who suffered from infectious diseases and other ministries to the poor, and he used his pulpit to preach against exploitation, conspicuous consumption, profiteering and avarice.[12]

In Basil’s mind, prayer for others was an expression of love, and it assumed that prayer would lead to acts of care for others.

In light of these times, the obvious question is this, what is the appropriate expression of love in these conditions? How does our love for God find expression in our love for our neighbour? The monastics help us to see how love can be expressed in such simple, practical, and tangible ways through food, clothing, medical care, and shelter. In many cases, monasteries influenced entire societies by these practical demonstrations of love, bringing stability in the midst of chaos and change, and a model of God’s love to the world.

A Life of Attentiveness: Discovering God’s Purpose in All Things

Attentiveness to God, of course, is the very heart of spiritual formation.One very common question that is asked during this crisis is when will it be over?How soon can life return to normal? The monastics help us to ask very different questions, such as, what is God doing in this present moment? Perhaps this is not a pause in life, but perhaps this is real life. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are founded on a principle that God is always present, always at work, creating and redeeming his world so that we might live in harmony with him and with one another. To that end, this present moment is all we have, and God is using this moment to perfect and grow me more into the image of Jesus. But it requires persistent attentiveness to God in this present moment.

While the early monastics were often idealistic in their desires for union with God and striving for perfection, they were brutally honest about the true conditions of people, their struggles, and their failures. There often arose the need to “encourage the neophytes in moments of darkness and despair, when the demon of despondency attacks.”[13] At such times, the need for community and encouragement is vital. The first step of the Ignatian exercises helps us to learn to view the world and one’s own life through the lens of God’s perspective. How can we discover, in looking at this crisis, how God is present and what he is doing here and now? The monastics help us to see the value and purpose in suffering and discover God’s deeper meaning in embracing the hard lessons that can only come through discomfort.

The early monastic movement came as a counter-movement to the growth of Christianity under Constantine in which membership was a “material advantage.”These early monks revolted against this “prevailing laxity; they chose the narrow way which, in the words of Jesus, leads to eternal life.”[14] In the seeming difficulties of silence and solitude, they were able to hear God’s voice. By depriving themselves materially they found freedom and consolation through the presence of God. Often, the way of purification is through pain and suffering.

The question is already being asked, what will life be like when we emerge from this season? How will we be different? The monastic rule may offer some clue to those questions, as we pay attention to the voice and the presence of God in the midst of this time.

It may indeed be said that the monastic rule, and the life of the monk regulated by it, is in the nature of an education, a spiritual formation, which gives a man a norm of conduct for life and a particular spiritual depth to any subsequent employment.”[15]

We all wonder, how soon will this be done? But perhaps that is not the right question at all. It may be better to ask, what kinds of people will we be when this is done? To what extent are we fighting against these times? And to what extent are we learning the lessons of the monastics, in allowing God to purify our hearts with his cleansing Spirit? This comes through a growing attentiveness to his presence in this moment.

It has often been said that these are extraordinary, unprecedented times. The truth of that is somewhat debatable. The same is sometimes said of the monastery—they were unusual and not at all representative of real life. In time, we may come to see things differently. A new look at monastic life suggests,

far from being extraordinary, life in the monastery, in light of the account in Acts, was ordinary Christian life, without all the complications, distractions, and compromises imposed by the situation in which fourth-century Christians found themselves.[16]

By considering the lessons of these ancient institutions, we may find transforming wisdom not only to endure these days, but to rediscover life as God intends it. We may discover a new rhythm, a more profound love, and an ability to listen and attend to God’s presence in every moment.

Dr. Thomas Kimber, is Dean of Faculty and Senior Lecturer in Missional and Pastoral Theology at Melbourne School of Theology. He has ministered for more than 30 years through teaching, preaching, writing and mentoring. Previously, Tom and his wife, Sue, served as missionaries in Asia for nearly nine years, before returning to the States where Tom taught at Biola University. Tom holds both M. Div. and PhD degrees from Talbot School of Theology. Tom's area of research interest includes the integration of spiritual formation in missiology and pastoral theology. 

[1] Gerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 98.

[2] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1996), 386.

[3] Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell, Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990), 58.

[4] David Knowles, Christian Monasticism (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), 228.

[5] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 97.

[6] Norris, The Cloister Walk, 13.

[7] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 116.

[8] Jean Leclercq, “Monasticism and Asceticism: Western Christianity,” in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, ed. Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorff, and Jean Leclercq (New York: Crossroads, 1985), 118.

[9] Maas and O’Donnell, Spiritual Traditions, 62.

[10] Maas and O’Donnell, Spiritual Traditions, 63.

[11] Jean Gribmont, “Monasticism and Ascetisim: Eastern Christianity,” in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, , 100.

[12] Sittser, Water from a Deep Well, 104.

[13] Gribmont, “Eastern Christianity,” 109.

[14] Knowles, Christian Monasticism, 12.

[15] Knowles, Christian Monasticism, 231.

[16] Maas & O’Donnell, Spiritual Traditions, 56.