PLANNING A CONTEMPLATIVE APPROACH TO PRACTICE

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:

  • Know the purpose of life
  • Know what you purpose of life is within that purpose
  • Have a scope of reaity that takes all dimensions into account (visitle and invisible)
  • Know how all reality fits together
  • Know how to love fiercely
  • You know you are going to die, now what?

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.

  • Take up your cross daily and follow Christ.
  • Do God’s will each day and adapt it to your own situation.
  • Practice Lectio Divina for 30 minutes (minimum) each day.
  • Attend Eucharist each day, as practical.
  • Recite the Rosary and Meditate on the Mystery of Faith daily.
  • Recite Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict every day.
  • Recite the Liturgy of the Hours each day (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, Comopline) in common, if possible, if not in private.
  • Read and Study Scripture daily.
  • Read Cistercian Authors and Classics every week.
  • Start your day with dedication to God’s will and seeking God where you find Him.

IV. SUSTAINING A CONTEMPLATIVE APPROACH TO SPIRITUALITY

  • Have a spiritual schedule for each day and follow it.
  • Examine your heart against the heart of Christ each day and make all things new once more
  • Be persistent and consistent in the practice of contemplative practice
  • Don’t be a fanatic about religion; balance work with prayer, treasures of the heart and richness of the mind, how to seek God in all you do without going off the deep end.
  • Be loved-centered and not sin-centered.
  • Refrain from guilt practices and the temptation to mortify the body by practices of praying as much as possible. Praying too much is like drinking too much water.
  • As much as you can, use Faith informed by Reason to approach the Sacred Mystery of Faith.
  • Realize that what you know is a fraction of what there is to know.
  • Try to love fiercely with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Don’t beat yourself up because you are not perfect. Only two of us made it to prefection while we lived, everyone else struggles with tempation, having a yo-yo time of it while we try to do God’s will.
  • You can’t be a Lay Cistercian without interacting with other Lay Cistercians in community. That is why part of what we promise to do is attend the monthly Gathering Day at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery, the first Sunday of each month. We yearn to be in the presence of Christ and in the company of each other so that we can experience the Holy Spirit in a special way.
  • Just as the Holy Spirit is most effective in each of our hearts, so too our desire to sit next to Christ on a park bench and just be in His presence is most effective when we allow God to be his nature and we be our nature.

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

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