As of today I have spent four months here on the farm, mostly isolated from the world, and doing almost all of my ministry by means of phone, Facebook and Zoom. In that time winter has turned to spring and spring has turned to summer. Daffodils bloomed and faded, trees flowered and set their fruit, four lambs were born, one ewe suffered a miscarriage. The chickens have continued to be generous with their eggs, even though I can no longer take those eggs into Seattle for my church’s Sunday morning breakfast. I have traveled into Seattle only four times; to pick up some things from my office, to stand in a Black Lives Matter vigil, to say goodbye to a beloved colleague, and to perform a wedding. Every trip was rich in ministerial work, and every trip contained some risk. And each time I returned with a greater sense of grief for myself and my community in what we are losing. This is no doubt the strangest time I have ever lived in.
I will not minimize the world-wide suffering brought on by this pandemic and also by our totally inadequate national response to it. Still, some ways for me this has been an amazingly rich time as well. My life has been simplified beyond what I imagined possible. It is a simplification that has me binge watching sunsets and recognizing the gifts of long phone conversations, easy-paced morning chores, and hand-written letters from friends. My prayers have grown slower and richer. The few precious times I’ve seen friends in person have become, well, precious times. And I can’t recall ever living more in the day-to-day presence than I am now.
A member of our congregation has suggested that many of us are now living a “cloistered” life. She got me reflecting on the whole idea. There is a rich tradition in spiritual communities about how to do that well. From early days, Christian hermits, monks and nuns have seen withdrawal and simplicity as powerful spiritual practices. Many of those practices continue today in some expressions of Christianity and other faiths.
A cloister is a place of seclusion. It is generally defined by withdrawal and simplicity of life and of focus. The word comes from the Latin “claudere,” to close. One look at that word calls up another word related to that root- claustrophobia. The fear of being closed in. So I approach the idea of being cloistered with both interest and a little bit of fear. Maybe that’s a good balance.
In the progressive church where we often measure our faith by our active involvement in the world we do not have much of a theology of cloistering. Or to say it a different way, we often minimize the spiritual value of a contemplative life. But a contemplative life is what I am being offered these days. I imagine many of you are being offered it as well. So what wisdom might I glean from other groups who have walked this path before me?
Well, it didn’t take long for cloistered communities to develop “Rules.” These Rules were guidelines for how to order one’s days and one’s life. Some of them were quite odd and peculiar. But some of them seem to me life giving and helpful.
The 8th Century Rule of Columba for the religious community on the Scottish island of Iona, for example, suggests: “Let a fast place with one door enclose you,” and “Hymns for souls to be sung standing.” “Why one door?” I find myself asking. “And does that mean no windows?” Maybe my musician friends would be in support of the “sing standing” rule. I’ve always heard we humans sing better on our feet. But I’m ok with singing sitting down too.
Anyone who knows me, knows I’m not one for rules. I am more of the “here’s a suggestion” type. And some of the Rules for cloistered communities are genuinely obnoxious. Still, St Columba’s Rule, (and others) points to some very basic and helpful practices. It offers balance throughout the day for work and reflection, worship, and rest. It centers around generosity, gratitude, and compassion. And it has me reflecting on what my own Cloister Rule might contain. Some suggestions come immediately to mind.
-Upon waking, express gratitude for the day.
-Upon starting the day, learn what is happening in the world, by means of radio or some other device. Yet do not overwhelm thyself with news, and be cautious in trusting Facebook memes.
-Sit not long at thy desk, nor gaze long into thy computer screen, but take care to stand and stretch.
-If despair threatens to overtake thee, walk about, outdoors if possible.
-Limit thy trips beyond thy gates. Yet when thou must, for sake of provision, care for others, employment, or protest or vigil participation, go.
-When traveling about, wear a mask that covereth both thy nose and mouth. Remember that this is for the sake of others’ welfare as well as thine own.
-Engage thyself in some project for good, and take action on it daily. Write a letter, make a phone call, take a stand. Do what thou canst.
-Take care that thy heart and thy soul are well tended with prayer, readings, action, or other life giving engagement.
-Tend daily to something growing.
-At the close of day, retire to thy chamber in gratitude for the day. Be gentle with thyself in what thou hast accomplished or in what thou hast not done. Let the day be sufficient unto itself. Close thy eyes knowing the God who cares for the sparrow and the grass, the sheep and the dogs, and all that thou lovest, cares for and loves thee as well.
I’m sure there is much to add to this list. The Rule of St. Benedict is a whole book, after all. Perhaps I shall spent the next four months refining my list. And I would love to hear from any readers what “Rule” you are practicing. But whatever comes next, I pray I will not forget my Cloister Rule. Or my cloister suggestions, for that matter