The Common Good
December 2011

Monasteries of the Heart

by Joan Chittister | December 2011

A vibrant spirituality for our troubled times grows out of a centuries-old tradition.

"All journeys have secret destinations," Martin Buber wrote, "of which the traveler is unaware." The insight is a striking one. The fact is that ours is an entire culture on a journey. We are all on our way to somewhere without a clue of where we're going or how to get there.

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Only one thing is clear: Everywhere we go, there's a rending sound in the air around us. Something, we're afraid, is being torn apart behind our backs, under our feet, in the very center of our national soul. Ask what it is and the pundits will tell you that it's the economy or the political climate or global entanglements and free trade. And, at one level at least, they're right. But they stop short, I think, of the real problem. They'll tell you that it's everything except what people fear it is, down deep inside themselves, but are afraid to whisper for fear they might just be right.

The truth is that something is, indeed, being sundered in our time. But it's not any particular national initiative that's at fault. It is far more serious than that. It is the very fabric of the society itself that is being torn apart: What we knew ourselves to be—the way we went about our lives, our businesses, our educations, our relationships—is fading. Even the dispositions we commonly brought to the solution of issues have changed. We can discuss the pros and cons of torture in the public arena now and never even have the grace to blush. We can plan to slice food stamps for the children of the poor and, in the same breath, refuse to tax the rich. We can simply refuse to negotiate politically and still call ourselves virtuous.

Worse, maybe this concern for the social climate of our lives is not local. Perhaps it's universal. Perhaps the Japanese and the Europeans feel the same—their sense of national identity gone, their feeling of national control gone, their sense of historical confidence gone, their national consensus on national values gone.

What's worse, however serious the situation, it did not descend on us without warning. We knew it was coming. We simply ignored it. The old head-in-the-sand trick, it turns out, has been no more successful than usual.

Echoes of the warnings that preceded the present debacle are still vibrating. Like the prophets of another age, voices rose regularly to tell us that someday the military budget would swamp us. Or, the U.S. penchant for supremacy would come down like Gulliver in a storm of resistance from small societies that have become our low- paid labor force for our high-class goods. Or, that rampant financial negligence and mismanagement would paralyze the kind of economic growth to which we had become accustomed.

And they were right. An economy built on consumption, institutionalized greed, and a culture of debt is withering. Our gods of power and wealth have failed us.

But, despite the warnings, a system sedated by its addiction to excess rather than sufficiency and fracturing at the center of itself lumbered on undeterred. As a culture, we became Cyclops in a sea of things, unknowing or uncaring—or both.

More than that, churches have not been much better than the state in naming the problem and responding to the needs of the time. Fixated on single issues of sexuality or evolution or the nature of female discipleship, their concerns have become increasingly dogmatized and considerably less concentrated on the problems of the poor. Their focus slipped away from past concerns for spiritual development and social justice to new emphases on religious structures and internal problems. Churches themselves began to polarize and split and drift into ritual for its own sake—when ritual itself was not the problem.

CLEARLY, OUR REAL problems are not economic or political; our real problems are spiritual. They are of the soul. They came out of sated appetites and desiccated spirits.

What is the average person in search of a spiritual base, a platform for personal action in such a muddled world, supposed to do then? Where does someone in search of a spiritual life go when the anchors upon which, until this time, they have based their security and no small amount of their faith rust out and disappear in a reservoir of irrelevancies?

Some stop going to church entirely. Figures on church attendance record the steady decline in church affiliation over the years. In fact, new studies report a surprising shift. Now more than ever before, people with high school or college degrees attend church more often than people without the benefit of an education. Churches, once accused of being the refuge of the poor and uneducated, the heralds of social ill, were suddenly the home of the more conservative, more traditional churchgoing population, of people whose social theology was already formed in the theology of prosperity, a society that is no longer the advocate for and home to the poor of the country.

Others drift away from religion completely or move into practices that stress spiritual self-development or personal serenity over social concern.

Many, on the other hand, maintain their affiliation with churches of their tradition but go beyond them. Small intentional spiritual communities or book discussion groups or social action groups began to fill the spiritual crevasses left unplumbed by the church itself.

One way or another, churches either avoid the questions raised by contemporary society or concentrate only on the isolated ones that threatened theology as they knew it. Then, religion becomes a private devotion rather than a public obligation as well.

CLEARLY, IT IS a crossover moment in time. Where can we go to find a model of what it means to live a spiritually serious, socially impacting life of the Spirit in a time such as this, when public policy is in tatters and spiritual traditions are turning in on themselves? And if there is such a model, how do we empower individuals who are seeking it to become part of it?

With those two questions in mind—the need for a social model as well as a way to empower individuals to meet their desire for a genuinely spiritual life—the Benedictine Sisters of Erie set out to create a new form of Benedictine monastic life for our time. Titled "Monasteries of the Heart," its impetus is based on the sixth century Rule of Benedict and the organizational principles and spiritual values upon which it structured a way of life. A spirituality that is tried and true, it has been the lifestyle of thousands of monastics for centuries.

Monasteries of the Heart provides both creativity and stability. It enables community groups to form through both an online website (monasteriesoftheheart.org) and by the formation of small on-site communities of like-minded followers.

It gives both structure and freedom by enabling groups to be self-initiating and immersed in the Rule, as groups online or on-site, or, also in the spirit of the tradition, alone, as hermits who go to the website for spiritual sustenance and personal growth. It forms the person in centuries-old spiritual depth and contemporary commitment by guiding them through discussions of the meaning of the Rule for them and the practice of prayer as well as through commitment to the needs of the human community.

It calls for both immersion in personal spiritual development and consciousness of the obligation of their communities for the upbuilding of the public domain through the support or participation in public ministries. It requires fidelity to a lifestyle, which, if a person desires, may be confirmed by private promises to the monastic life but gears the commitment to a spiritual life practiced in private homes in the public arena.

Monasteries of the Heart is a new movement that in four months has drawn more than 2,500 members and now has 24 registered online or on-site communities. It is a spirituality for the 21st century.

Monasteries of the Heart is a kind of guide for those seekers who stand in the midst of a seething, simmering world of options—spiritual as well as secular—overwhelmed by choices and looking for the rhythm of a better life. It is a model upon which to build their own lives, a template to take them through the maze of empty promises, seductive dead ends, and useless panaceas a spiritless world has to offer.

EACH AGE HAS answered the questions of the spiritual dimensions of life in ways peculiar to itself, in language and symbols and lifestyles it could understand. For some, the search to unite with the One, with the Energy, with the Life of life took the form of desert asceticism. For others, it lay in communal worship. For many, it has been in an attempt to withdraw from the business of this world in order to be better attuned to the next.

But for Benedict of Nursia, the spiritual life lay in simply living this life well. All of it. Every simple, single action of it. The proof of the power of such a life to turn the ordinary into an experience of extraordinary union with the God of the Universe here and now is a matter of history. Benedictine spirituality, the legacy of this sixth century founder of cenobitic monasticism to our own times, is proof of its enduring value.

Benedictine spirituality is more than 1,500 years old. It developed at a time when Europe lay in political, economic, communal, and spiritual disarray. Benedictine spirituality helped draw Europe out of the quagmire of decline left by the fall of the Roman Empire. It became a model for social stability during centuries of the increasing erosion of Western civilization as a result of the political vacuum that followed it.

But instead of setting out to reform the decadence around him, Benedict simply ignored the cheap and chaotic superficiality of it all to live according to different standards, to walk a different path, to live the same life everyone else lived, but differently. Through the ages, from one century to another, thousands of others, following this model, have done the same.

In our own time, in this time of cataclysmic social upheavals, of global transition, of technological breakthroughs of unimagined proportions, we must do the same. Old forms are breaking down; small groups everywhere are seeking to shape new ways of living for themselves in the shell of the old. The empowerment of individuals during a time of social breakdown comes from the capacity of groups to enable individuals to function beyond their own strength. In order to achieve the vision our hearts seek, we join groups in order to do together what we cannot possibly do alone.

Monasteries of the Heart brings the Rule of Benedict, the person, and the community together to do again in our own time what is needed to revive our spiritual energy, our recognition of common values, and a sense of vibrant and effective human community.

Based on the pillars on which the ancient Rule itself stands—prayer, work, community, humility, hospitality, and peace—Monasteries of the Heart brings spiritual depth to the ordinary, brings daily life alive with new spiritual energy, brings community support to personal growth. It teaches the seeker to listen for the voice of God wherever it may be heard, to be open to changes that stretch the soul to where the Spirit waits for it now, to remain in the monastery "all the days of their lives" so that finally, using the Rule of Benedict, they may grow into full spiritual stature.

Indeed, "all journeys have secret destinations," as Buber said, "of which the traveler is unaware." May the individuals, the families, and the small intentional communities who seek by using the Rule of Benedict to create within themselves a Monastery of the Heart find there the God who all along our journey through life is forever seeking us.

 

Joan Chittister, OSB, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision and the author of many books, including The Monastery of the Heart (Bluebridge, 2011). For more, visit monasteriesoftheheart.org.

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