A monastic is someone who is dedicating 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.
…they must not presume to eat outside…
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 openness 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 a place like Meditatio House is all about.
It can be a challenge to be faithful to this integration when there are psychological tensions within us that we would otherwise not give attention to. This could be easily done if the environment we were in was one that prioritised distraction rather than integrity and honesty. A contemplative environment is always about integrity and honesty.
But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you. (Matt6:6 NJB)
This ‘reward’ of a regular contemplative practice like meditation is about the growth of good fruit within us rather than on any giving conditional on performance. One such good fruit is a healthy mindfulness. As we grow into the life of God our minds and hearts become naturally guarded from the influence of externals that run contrary to the love and freedom of the divine life. We discover mindfulness as a free gift of grace. We do not manufacture it, or make it happen. It is a fruit of our attention on the mantra.
As this mindfulness grows, (thanks to our attention growing deep roots in the heart) we embark on our journeys into the world of culture as people divinely alive. Our groundedness in divinity begins to secretly influence people and shape 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 at the centre and in divinity. The wise Abbot of Benedict’s time may have given permission to 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.