April 2, August 2, December 2
If a monk is sent on some errand and expects to return to the monastery that same day, they must not presume to eat outside, even if they receive a pressing invitation, unless perhaps the abbot has ordered it. Should they act otherwise, they will be excommunicated.
A monastic is someone who dedicates their life to the nurturing of human contemplativeness. As we walk this way we soon discover that being sensitive to our spiritual life and roots also means experiencing and becoming aware of what gets in the way of this nurturing.
The monastery, in whatever form it takes, is a place that serves our contemplative nurturing. It makes sense that the developing monastic and contemplative not spend too much time in places and with people that do not hold this nurturing as a priority. Not everyone wants to grow in love. Sometimes it’s just too hard. Culture is full of agendas that can distort intention and can shape attention away from the God seeking path.
There are different kinds of eating. The sharing of a meal can be an intimate act through which we may also ‘digest’ the attitudes and opinions of others. In Benedict’s time to share a meal was often seen as an act of allegiance – share my food and you share my worldview. This can still be the case today. Sometimes there are hidden conditions that come with the ‘gift’ of anything, food included.
There is a relationship between intimacy and attention. These two together are powerful. Intimacy can be about vulnerability and what we are open to. In being open we give attention. Benedict wants us growing in the guarding of our hearts and minds from those people and ideas that would use the intimacy of attention for ends not consistent with loving freedom.
A short journey away from the monastery, our home, or an environment in which we can safely be open and attentive, can have us moving through a cultural milieu often absorbed in rush, diversion, and distraction. Billboards displaying the latest fashions; cars purchased as statements of status; t-shirts announcing egoism; faces bearing anxiety; the rush of surviving another day: a journey through this can affect inner balance, inner stability. Attention can stray to these things and we ‘consume’ them. Our own insecurities, fears, and hidden prejudices can all be subtlety fed by the externals around us.
A contemplative practice can diminish the influence of these externals, as can an environment dedicated to contemplative living. As our practice grows in regularity and depth, we begin to see how our intimate living environments can better serve the maintenance of attention in the divine. Facilitating an integration of practice and environment is what community is all about.
But whenever you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mat. 6:6 RNJB)
This ‘reward’ of a regular contemplative practice is the growth of good fruit within us, a growth not conditional on performance. One such good fruit is a healthy mindfulness. Mindfulness is attention now, not attention in the past or the future. As we grow in the life of God our minds and hearts become naturally guarded from the influence of externals that run contrary to this mindfulness. We discover mindfulness as a free gift of grace nurtured while we meditate.
As mindfulness grows, the meditator can embark on their journeys into the world as people divinely alive. In time, our groundedness in the divine life begins to secretly influence people and the culture around us. This is the life of the mature monastic or contemplative: a life aware of, committed to, and defined by the preservation of attention in the divine heart of things. The wise abbot of Benedict’s time may have given permission for such mature monastics to stay ‘in the world’ a little longer as they journeyed, so that the world around them might grow in the God life.
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites: they love to pray standing in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. Amen I say to you, they have had their reward. But whenever you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matt. 6:5-6, RNJB)