What would I find in my own heart if the noise of the world was silenced? – Kathleen Norris
Life is not divided into parts holy and mundane in the Rule of Benedict. All of life is sacred. All of life is holy. All of life is to be held in anointed hands. – Joan Chittister
In France I visited three ancient monasteries, all founded between the 8th and 12th centuries, yet still inhabited and worked today by Benedictine or Cistercian monks and nuns.
Of all the wonderful places we toured, these three monasteries, and in particular their peaceful cloisters and relatively bare chapels, left the most lasting impression upon me. I have been pondering why I keep returning, in my thoughts and in my pictures, to those simple, unadorned stone corridors.
Abbey of Saint Papoul
We visited the Benedictine Abbey of St. Papoul late one afternoon after a busy morning spent in the market in Mirepoix. The abbey and cathedral are located in the very small town of St. Papoul in the Languedoc Roussillon region of southern France. The abbey was founded in the 8th century, but became the seat of a bishop in 1317. The picturesque, medieval town that surrounded the abbey looked to be completely asleep in the shimmering hot sun of a late September day.
We paid 4 euro and entered the abbey. The cloisters were quiet and cool. The only sounds were the echoes of our soft footsteps as we walked the paths worn smooth by pilgrims and penitents of the middle ages. The intricate Romanesque stonework was still well preserved; a garden of well-tended flowers graced the courtyard between the cloisters.
I was enchanted. A sense of peace immediately descended on me. I wanted to stay longer and continue to walk the cloisters in private. The spiral of the cathedral could be seen from the courtyard. Birds were flitting in and out of the belfry in the bright blue, cloudless sky.
The cathedral was old, very old, and a bit dusty. My telephoto lens captured the multiple cobwebs in the upper windows; they looked like friendly ghosts floating through the panes. A life-sized statue of Christ on the cross nestled in a barrel-vaulted alcove to the side of the altar. A ray of sun came through a high window above to strike his face, dust motes shimmering about his head and shoulders.
Monastery of Saint Paul de Mausole
The monastery of Saint Paul de Mausole began as an 11th century Augustinian priory. It lies just outside the town of St. Remy de Provence, with the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Glanum adjoining the property. The mountains of the Alpilles range can be seen in the distance. The peaceful gardens and olive grove were made famous by the painter Van Gogh, who was hospitalized here after cutting off part of his ear in a brawl in Arles with Paul Gauguin. It still functions as a psychiatric clinic today, where art therapy is used in the healing process.
Although well-known for its cloister walk, the small chapel at Saint Paul was one of my favorites- absolutely stunning in its simplicity and beauty. A large marble altar stood in the center of the vaulted apse, completely unadorned except for a fresh sprig of lavender. The only thing that glittered was a beautiful byzantine mosaic cross standing vigil by the altar.
After a harrowing drive on a one lane road over the mountain from Gordes, we came down into the narrow valley that holds the famous Cistercian Senanque Abbey. Many photos have been taken of the abbey in the summer when the lavender is blooming. On the late September day we visited, the lavender had been harvested and the plants were cut back to their green stumps, but you could still smell the cleansing fresh scent of lavande.
After getting my fill of photographing the iconic front of the abbey, we visited the abbey’s church. The church, built in 1150, is rather plain and unadorned. It was built for the use of the monks and lay brothers only, not for the public. It is unique in having no grand main entrance door in its facade, driven by the Cistercian ideals of modesty and simplicity. Instead, you enter the church via two basic doors that open into the side aisles. The floor was covered by coarse rattan rugs, perhaps to capture the dirt from the feet of the monks coming in from their work in the lavender fields.
What was it about these cloisters and small chapels that seemed to call to me so strongly? I had visited much larger and more elaborate churches on my travels – great big French cathedrals and Italian duomos that dominated a town square, whose soaring ceilings seemed to reach up to heaven, whose walls were covered with rich murals, tapestries and mosaics of gold and azure.
Where those large cathedrals instilled awe – and most likely fear – into the hearts of the people of the time, these small and unassuming chapels and cloisters seemed to be places where the simple people came to live in community, to worship, and to work out their problems. They were places where I think God felt more close and reachable on a human level – a place where the spirit of the divine could be found, understood and allowed the space – and safety – to transform human hearts.
St. Benedict, the founder of these Benedictine monasteries, wrote his Rule for monastic living in the 6th century. The rule focuses on three principles- three main commitments – which the monks make to live in the Benedictine way. These three commitments are to the virtues of obedience, stability and conversion.
Christine Valtners Paintner, in her book The Artist’s Rule, Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom, describes these three commitments and how they can be applied to the lives of normal people, living outside the monastery walls. Each of them is countercultural and challenging to the status quo of how we usually go about our lives. And together, the three form a bit of a paradox, which takes some time to absorb.
Obedience: The very word gives me chills. The last thing I am, or have ever been, is obedient. It is definitely NOT in my nature. But here’s how Paintner describes it:
Obedience is about listening deeply to the ways God calls you in everyday life and how you respond. Listening is not an activity so much as an invitation to intimacy…. Obedience is a commitment to hearing the sacred whispers summoning you forward into your unique call each moment of the day and your full-hearted “yes” to that call.
The word ‘obedience” comes from the Latin root word audire, meaning “to hear”. The life of the monastery provided time for silence – blessed, sweet, healing silence. We need to make space for silence in our lives so that we can hear our call more clearly, and determine how we can ‘wholeheartedly’ respond to that call.
Stability: Monks in the Benedictine tradition make a commitment to live their entire lives in the monastery they join. It is similar to the marriage vow – “for better or worse”- a commitment to stay and work within the community, within the relationships, even when we may want to run away.
Stability in the larger, outside-the-monastery walls perspective can be viewed as an antidote to the constant restlessness that many people feel in today’s fast paced and sometimes shallow society. Stability can be thought of as the opposite of the ceaseless, sometimes frantic search for the new or exciting, which can make life and relationships feel much too superficial. In one of the paradoxes of the Benedictine rule, true freedom is found not in keeping all our options open, but in stability, in responding to the call of inner authenticity. For monastics, the commitment to living in one community removes the surface choices, but deepens the freedom to learn one’s intended path. Stability, in the broader sense then, is the vow to continually look for the wondrous right where you are, wherever you are.
Stability in the Benedictine way does not necessarily mean only stability of place, but also stability of community and stability of heart. Stability of community, in Paintner’s words, is “making a commitment to find kindred spirits and be present to the challenge of relationship.” Monks, artists, and maybe ALL people need to find a contemplative and creative community where they can feel at home, where they can share not only their joys and accomplishments, but their deepest fears and weaknesses as well.
Stability of heart is a critical, larger concept of the Benedictine way of life. We must all find our own “inner monastery”, that place of solitude where we can communicate with the spirit of the divine. The essence of stability begins in the heart. “It is not a place, a geographical spot. It is not first and foremost a house or a room. It is within your heart.” Stability means finding and regularly seeking your “center”, your own source of rejuvenation, your own private space where you listen for the whisperings and engage with the divine.
Conversion: Here’s another paradox of the Rule. Conversion is the counterpoint to stability. The vow that Benedicts take, Conversatio morum, is a Latin phrase often translated ‘conversion of life’ or ‘reformation of life’. It is a vow to a be open to a having a continual change of heart, to allow a daily reshaping of the mind and heart according to God’s plan for us. The conversion commitment is essentially a call to always be growing and changing.
Paintner describes the meaning and power of Conversion for us as lay people, outside the monastery:
Conversion begins with ourselves, as we cultivate compassion for our own desires and the choices we have made. Then we are gradually able to see those who were invisible to us and give them the dignity of our attention. As we grow in this capacity, we begin to encounter God in more places and experiences. We open ourselves to being surprised by God in the moments when our hearts previously would have been closed.
“Ora et labora”, pray and work, is a Benedictine motto, and their monastic life aims to join the two. Benedictines insist that there should be time in each day for prayer, for work, for study, and for play. All work, regardless of how simple or base, is considered to be sacred; washing the dishes, working in the fields, peeling the potatoes, polishing the floors, were all viewed as daily ways to serve and to communicate with the divine. ALL of life should be viewed as sacred, even the small stuff.
In the World, But Not Of the World
To answer the question of why these monasteries called to me so deeply, I ‘followed my whisperings’ over the last two months and read several books on the Benedictine Way and the application of the monastic vision to life outside the monastery walls. Although it is tempting, I don’t think I’ll be seeking asylum in a monastery anytime soon. But there is much to learn from the Benedictines on how to live both in relationship with others, and in daily private, contemplative communication with the divine.
To paraphrase the apostle Paul, the call of the monastery was not to escape, but to be present, to live “in the world”, in community, in relationship, and in service and learning with others, but to not be “of the world”; to not allow the pace, the trappings, and superficiality of the world to distract you from hearing your own unique call and finding the sacred.
Seek and welcome silence.
Listen for the whisperings.
Find your own center, and return to it often.
Seek the wondrous in your current place and relationships.
Be open to continual transformation.
See all of life as sacred and anointed.
Be in the world, but not of the world.
No wonder these sacred places called to me so strongly. There’s some excellent advice buried in the stones of these ancient cloisters and in St. Benedict’s 6th century Rules for Life. We just have to welcome silence and listen carefully to hear it.
The quieter you become, the more you can hear. – Baba Ram Dass