Many people with whom I speak about contemplation think that is is all about keeping your mouth shut for extended periods of time. It can be that. As a Lay Cistercian, I can vouch that I don’t practice silence just by keeping my mouth shut, but at the same time, I can have a spirit of silence and solitude appropriate for each situation I find myself in.
THE DESOLATION OF THE WORLD Early monks went into the desert to get away from the hustle and bustle of life. John the Baptist was one such person. He didn’t reject people but wanted to be able to spend time in silence and solitude to allow God to speak to him. When Christ was tempted in the desert, he went to a place where he could experience God. The Devil tempted him three times with things only a God would find tempting, an alternative to being who you really are. Christ’s humanity was under siege, not his divinity. He came through the period of trial giving glory to the Father. Early accounts of monks leaving their vocations to follow Christ were common. In fact, there were so many rogue monks and vagabond monks in the time of St. Benedict that he wrote his rule to try to stop some of the abuse and to center monks around Christ in the context of community.
Hit fast foward to our time and the rise of Lay Cistercians (Benedictine Oblates have been around for awhile) a rather recent Lay movement that had its early beginnings at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery, Conyers, Georgia (Trappist). Lay Cistercians do not exist apart from a sponsoring abbey with an abbot or an abbess. This is intentional and is part of the reason we stress community and being present to each other so we can experience the Holy Spirit in real time. It occurred to me that Lay Cistercians seek silence and solitude but not like the early monks who sought these charisms in the wilderness. In one of my recent Lectio Divina (Phil 2:5) inspirations, I thought about silence and solitude as the world see it (the absence of noise and complete isolation). I then applied one of my three rules of the spiritual universe to this silence and solitude and found out an interesting contradiction, the spiritual wilderness of modern Lay Cistercians is the world, a vast wasteland of dried up, broken promises and failed attempts at meaning in life. What the world gives will never be enough to sustain us as Lay Cistercians in the desert of the world. There is no water in the world that gives spiritual life, no food that nourishes the body to receive the heart of Jesus next to our own, no energy to sustain us against the temptations of the Devil in this new desert, where people think they are god and scoff at those who try to love others as Christ loved us.
One thing stands out for me when I look at the men and women who gave up all to follow Christ. They received the Faith of adoption as sons and daughters of the Father not because they chose Christ, but because He first chose them. They know how to love because they discovered that Christ loved them first. They followed the call to love one another as Christ loved them. Given the great pull of Original Sin (what the world says is meaningful), how do Lay Cistercians sustain themselves in a world of imperfection and sinfulnessm the answer might be atonishingly simple, i.e., to put the love of Christ where before there was the love of the world. It is the transformation of time and space to a deeper reality, one invisible yet one most real. Another way of saying that is to seek the conversion of our false selt to our new self. Doing what it takes to make that change happen is actually the struggle to take up your cross daily and follow Him, no matter what wilderness you inhabit. Lay Cistercians follow Cistercian spirituality or the Cistercian Way, a contemplative approach to loving God. That stresses five elements: silence, solitude, work, prayer, and community. Cistercians have adapted the Rule of St. Benedict to their approach to contemplative living, using it as a framework for their statues and constitutions. Lay Cistercians adapt the Trappist approach to spirituality to their vocation in the context of community. What follows are my reflections on how to set up a contemplative approach to spirituality for your parish community. I will use the Lay Cistercian one because that is what I practice. Other spiritual approaches for the Laity which use contemplation are Dominican, Franciscan, Augustinian, Ignatian, Carmelite, and many other rich traditions of sustaining Christ in your heart.
FOUR ELEMENTS TO START A CONTEMPLATIVE APPROACH Before I continue, I am compelled (probably not by humility) to make a disclaimer. I represent no Lay Cistercian group or the views of any Cistercian Monastery, or even the Church Universal. What you read come straight from my Lectio Divina (Phil 2:5). I do respresent that I am a broken-down, old Lay Cistercian who has turned on the faucet of the Holy Spirit and do not know how to turn it off.
I. HAVE IN YOU THE MIND OF CHRIST JESUS — This is not only my personal purpose in life but the reason why I try to convert my heart and mind to being more like Christ. It is the North on my compass, the finish line of my race of life, my Hope in days to come, my home. To make room for Christ and to have less of me with my penchant for worldly allures, I do the following. This is what I convert my life to be, having in me the mind of Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5). Here are some items contained in this first element:
II. THE CONTEMPLATIVE APPROACH TO SPIRITUALITY — Cistercians have taught me that there is a place where no one wants to look that contains the assistance I need to convert my life to that of Christ. I can access it by silence, solitude, work, prayer and community. Cistercian monks and nuns, in particular, follow the teaching of St. Bernard and other Cistercian writers in this contemplative approach to loving Christ as He loved us. Lay Cistercians have taken the Cistercian practices and adapted them to living in the wilderness of the world, with all its distractions and false prophets who make false promises.
III. THE CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICES — The following practices are those I have learned from the Cistercian monks of Our Lady of Holy Spirit Monastery, Conyers, Georgia. They are the same practices and charisms that the monks use but adapted by each Lay Cistercian to their unique vocation or situation. These practices are used to create more space for God and my true self and less space for me and my false self.
IV. SUSTAINING A CONTEMPLATIVE APPROACH TO SPIRITUALITY
In my life experiences, contemplation for a Lay Cistercian has come to mean my priority is having in me the mind of Christ Jesus through contemplative prayer and Cistercian practices and charisms of humility, obedience to God’s will, treasuring simplicity in thought, mind and actions, finding the Holy Spirit in and with the community of Lay Cistercians and my other faith groups who share one Faith, one Lord, one Baptism, seeking God everywhere. As St. Benedict says, “that in all things, God be glorified.” –St. Benedict