AT HOME WITHOUT PERMISSION
I was told that in the last General Chapter of Abbots and Abbesses of the OCSO in Assisi, the day they had to talk and share on the theme of the Lay Cistercians , an abbess said:
“With them the Holy Spirit has entered our house without asking us permission. ..”
She probably explained it more extensively to her colleagues at the Chapter, but I only received this brief and tasty comment, which, I must admit, surprised me. In a first instant, savoring the affectionate and beautiful words, I extrapolated it to my personal circunstances: “If only one of my brother monks could express it referring to my person in the monastery; if only one had felt a small breath of the Holy Spirit with my presence in their home, I understand that he would be docile, even without being conscious, to the action of the Holy Spirit, as it is Him, who enters ” without asking permission” incide me and in their home” .
Immediately after, I looked at the new life growing in the Cistercian family. Lay people and fraternities linked to monastic communities have initiated a path that, step by step, should be traveled through with calm, prudence, respect and, also, with confidence, happiness and hope. It is a Common Path in which the travelers –monks and lay- go together but we do not have a map, nor shelter guide, nor the chronicles of previous experiences, simply because the only One who knows where to go, how we should go, whether to come in, go out or stay, is the Holy Spirit; to the rest of us, all is left is to go following the trails that He leaves us with confidence.
As we speak of the Cistercian environment we should refer to what Saint Benedict says (RB LIII, 1) : “To all those who arrive to the monastery, they shall be received as Christ himself”. In principle, we know that it is part of the monastic rule to welcome the other, which is not a small thing nowadays, where individualism and the fear of the outside puts us in guard, al less at first, when “the other” approaches us. But in the monastery is different or, at less, it should be if he Rule of Saint Benedict is followed.
This story of an encounter begins at a gate. On one side we have the layperson, who calls and, on the other, the monk who opens. We should stop there and discern where we are going with this and what we are being called to if we abandon ourselves, both people, to the smooth and free movement of the Holy Spirit. There are many fways to arrive, enter and be, like there are also ways to leave, pass, and receive.
Arrival and entrance
From the outside world, we arrive to the monastery by the most diverse roads. There are those who seek a space of silence and solitude where to charge batteries; others need a time dedicated to the prayer without distractions; others arrive seeking God because they no longer know where to find Him “outside” and they want to see if He hides over there. There ae also those come to the monastery with a much less “spiritual” search: a friend took them there because he/she didn’t want to go alone; he/she likes art and “old stones”; or simply they were on a trip, stopped for a coffee in the town and the monastery was open for visits.
On the other side, someone opens the door and let it open. In the aesthetics and detail of this first moment, before even speaking a word, there are many messages. The one who arrives can be seen speaking before a phone or in front of a turnstile without visible access to the speaker’s face; instead there is a smiling monk or nun opening the door; or one can enter directly to the store of the monastery and see the busy monk or nun trying to attend to everyone with amiability and trying to let through in the time of selling a postcard, jam or the entry ticket to the monastery.
Entrance and welcome
In a second step, after the arrival and inicial visit, some people feel moved to enter a little more inside. Interest? Curiosity? Search? … God’s ways are difficult to determine and in each person they are unique. Some will be interested in the community (how many there are, if they have been there long, what they do, etc.); others in the schedule of the prayers and if they can attend them… Many and various questions on the monastic life come to those who enter a little inside.
In that moment, the art of receiving starts. Each comunity choses with freedom, looking at all aspects, how they want to share their monastic life with those that come from the outside. It varies from the minimum contact of entrance, visits and buying a present. This is one way. But the other way, even with limited time, during the opening of the shop or the guest house to share how the community leaves: if they receive from the monastic life essence or they just assume, the contact with the “external” world, as a heavy burden or a imminent danger.
In case of opening, the person who arrives from outside and becomes part of the monastic prayer with the community can perceive many different things. There are those who think to have crossed a tunnel in time and feel a few centuries back, others remember their childhood, some day their grandmother took them to a convent. The sound of the prayers would be strange, even in their own language; it is posible that the monks or nuns could be perceived as serious or distant…
There are also those who, from the first moment, they become part of this type of prayer to which they are not used to, causing them true surprise. The singing prayer of the community (which does not have to be angelical or perfect), the offering prayers connecting with the reality of the world, the times of silence, even the “liturgical gymnastics”, will reveal that the monastic prayer has its roots in the prayer of the ones that seek God at all times.
Inside the chapel or the church, one can perceive much of what the community understands in receiving those from outside. In occasions, even from a position of interest and closeness in sharing the prayer, there are signs and gestures that, in themselves, produce separation. It is not the same thing to enter a space of prayer where the one that arrives is integrated in the choir of the community, that to feel at the other side of the wall, literally. There is too many grilles that do not allow the closeness, since the simplicity, the treasure that is the monastic life and the message that this life has for the external world. Some are grilles of forge and other psychological.
On the other hand, this does not mean that to pray together, we have to be together in the space of the community. One must be exquisitely respectful with the intimacy of those who receive and especially when they open the doors of their house and life. Sharing is not to subjugate. Sharing prayer is to be opened to the possibility of the encounter in the search of God. It is not different to what happens in the exterior world when you are invited to a family encounter or to join at some friends’ house for a dinner party. You are not asked to move in or sort out the junk room. Sharing the prayer is to open floodgates to a space that is sacred because it exposes the intimacy of the other. We are called to meet on that intimate point –individual and of community- where we recognize each other as brothers and sisters. That is the place where the Father lives… the Father of all.
To be and welcome
Those who arrived and entered a little more inside and were, sincere and simply, welcomed, discover a new desire inside. Coming in and looking a little has become not enough, he/she wants a little more, a few days in the Monastery. He/she is encouraged to ask if there is a guest house in the monastery and if there is room (the phenomenon of hurry and noise of the exterior world each day makes more people to seek the calm of the monastic space) and thus the experience of ‘being” begins, that is to say, to enter in the prayer, the silence, the solitude, the time (that in the monastery it has its own and peculiar measure), the lights and shadows and the encounters of the monastic life. Finally, the time to discover that this life has a message for the women and men of today is here, that it is not the closed “echo-system” of other times, preserved today as “theme park”, but instead a road that takes us to the pillars where, in the beeper inner-self, we sense the whole life is carried: prayer, silence and solitude in community.
“To be” in the monastery, it is absolutely indispensable to be welcomed. That work corresponds to those who live in the house and we know that what San Benito left in writing to his monks was more to do with vocation than work, although they got quite of that too.
The welcome is the key point in the relationship “intra-extra muros” as the old would say. And today, to understand it better, we would say that the welcome is the space where to open to the possibility of encounter among those living incide and outside the monasteries. Although those living incide are the first to welcome, both parts assume a great responsibility. Welcoming and being welcomed requires a special refinement, a mature respect, a humble patience and a large dose of liberty, generosity and gratitude. The demand is not other that to be opened to see the other with the eyes that God sees him. The welcome flows from inside to outside and outside to inside until the mutual recognition is given.
In this reflection, I recall a chat I had with a monk in the cloister. He was saying goodbye to me after having shared with the community a few days of praying and I didn’t want to leave without telling them that I had felt really welcomed and loved when I arrived to the monastery and that this gave me much gratitude. The monk, smiling and almost laughing said to me: “Why do you want to come to the monastery?” He was refering to the laypeople, those in the outside. I looked at him surprised: “How is it that we wouldn’t? We receive much here, much that is missing outside!”. The monk more serious this time said: “ I know what you are saying, but we also receive much from you all”. I didn’t understand him, I didn’t understand that I could give anything to them, I didn’t see myself as a “giver”. He continued: “We also receive much from you when you come to the monastery. And you must continue talking to us, it is good that you talk to us”. I was really surprised that the monk told me that we, as laypeople, had to speak to them. I didn’t understand what I could contribute to a community of contemplative monks.
I continued going to the monastery and a little time later, I understood what the monk said to me.
The Spirit flows from the inside out and from the outside in when we open ourselves to share gifts and charisma, that is to say, when we walk together. Since this dimension I can understand the words of the abbess in the General Chapter.
Mari Paz López Santos
Laica del monasterio de Sta. Mª de Huerta