There is a story of two monks, who look for the place where heaven and earth meet. So they go on the journey to find that place, endure many obstacles, travel many strange places, until they finally arrive at the door of the place they had been looking for all along. When they open the door, they find themselves in their very own cloister cell.
After having traveled together through the 12 Days of Christmas this, again, is where we arrive: once more at our own heart. Many people encourage contemplation and recollection but forget how difficult it is to actually start out on that journey. And what for? To arrive at the same place? Or is this arrival somehow different after all?
On this journey we invited you to ponder the rooms of our inner dwellings. As an aid, we walked through a virtual monastery, learning from its architecture of space about the the architecture of our own spiritual home. We walked from the gate into the cell, from there to the chapel and then directly to the kitchen, then took some time in the library before pausing at the threshold to the new year. We then pondered new beginnings, the hospitality of the monastic guesthouse, the healing space of the infirmary, as well as the sacredness of our every day work. On this last day of our journey we want to look at the monastery as a whole and how the monastic rooms can help us to deepen our own spiritual home at the end of this Christmas season.
At the heart of the Christmas story lies the quest to make room. Mary’s womb, the stable, reminds us that this story is not reserved for one season, when we get out the decorations and feel touched when the light goes out and Silent Night is sung. This silent night should not be reduced to celebrating “Jesus’ birthday,” as the Christmas worriers of this age have it. The silent night is ever waiting for us, time and again, looking for a space where the Divine word can become flesh and live among us. For this we need to take it to heart, as did Mary, to carry it in our womb, and to give birth to it as light into the world. This is the difficult task, and we will meet many obstacles on the way whenever we pursue it.
Thus walking the monastic rooms was our attempt to structure this quest to make space in our daily life so the Christmas story can become alive in us. As Abbot Eckert, whose German book we have used often for our reflections, says: It is about building a monastery in our heart. Or as the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart reminds us: We first need to empty the heart, so that God can write in it.
But how shall our heart become a monastery?
Monastics create their spaces to help them concentrate on what is essential. So also, we need to create places where we can do the same. This requires a wise balance of retreating in solitude and of communing with others. Concentration and recollection requires not only a turn inward, where we can be alone with our self and with God but, because we are embodied souls and social creatures, it also needs the creation or sharing of space where these encounters are possible. The monastic does not always stays in her or his cell, but meets the community for shared prayers, meals and work. The art of a spiritual life for anyone is constantly to balance between both poles: retreat and outreach, solitude and communing, individual and group. We should not close ourselves up from the rest of the world – cloistered monasteries are far more connected to the world than you might think. Instead we need to find the balance between retreating from the world and being in the world, and we do so by concentrating on what truly matters.
The Danish spiritual writer Søren Kierkegaard was not fond of monastics and mystics. He thought their retreat from the world was too extreme and one-sided. For the rest of us it is much harder to create monastic spaces outside monastic walls. We try and often fail. But we neither need to go in a monastery nor in the desert to live inwardly. We do not need to build tall walls, in order to protect our life style from other influences. Still we do need boundaries, e.g. to protect our inner lives from the day to day busyness and distractions waiting for us around every corner. We, for example, have tried to get along without news and social media distraction during this 12 day retreat. We were mostly successful and it was mostly a relief.
Such boundaries help us to concentrate and collect our thoughts. But as monastery walls are permeable, have windows and doors, so should our boundaries. Building a wall around our heart would be the wrong kind of protection as well as the wrong kind of solitude. When we build impermeable walls our protection soon becomes an isolation that distracts us from those important influences which have the potential to challenge or change us. The recent clamor for a wall to protect us might reveal something about the spiritual state of the country. We long for our own space, and safety, but often conflate our interior anxiety with the exterior environment. Thus we project our fears onto others, from whom we must protect ourselves. But such walls do not lead to any progress, they instead cut us off from future perspectives and reveal a deeper misunderstanding: Our fears need to be confronted in the interior, instead of projected on the stranger. And in order to truly confront our fears we need an intimate space to reflect, collect and concentrate, place where we can hear the call to deeper self understanding.
When we build impermeable walls our protection soon becomes an isolation that distracts us from those important influences which have the potential to challenge or change us.
Living fully does not come by erecting walls but by cultivating an inner life, which can wisely balance compassion and reflection, action and contemplation. It is the healing process for which we all long.
Thus our spiritual home needs gates, windows, and doors, so we can learn the right relationship between the interior and exterior, just as the monastics remind themselves when walking the cloister walk which connects both worlds. Each one of us must find one’s own balance according to one’s needs and gifts. As always moderation is key. One can lose oneself over constant activism in the outside world, being compassionate to others but forgetting compassion for oneself. Or, another one might enjoy the contemplative life and confuse it with a total retreat from community. The monastic architecture suggest connections between all these spaces, so that no space is used in isolation, so that each space has a purpose that is balanced by connection to other spaces. Creating our inner monastery requires creating a space for recollection and concentration, where we can meet ourselves and where we can meet others on a deeper level. It needs spaces for retreat as well as communion.
For many the Christmas season is one of the busiest in the year. Especially for religious people. We find ourselves in frantic activity to create some sort of Christmas atmosphere, in the hope that it might somehow touch our hearts. What is much harder, says Loretta Ross-Gotta, is to not do but instead to be open. As Mary offered space in herself for God to dwell, Christmas should be less about activism than about making space, space for this process of renewal and life giving to unfold within us. Thus it was not so much where the two monks went on their journey, but that they trusted themselves to the journey at all.
The Christmas story is a story of new creation, of pregnancy and birth. Walking with child is less about doing something, than it is about learning to trust the sacred process which unfolds within us, and in doing so already always goes beyond us. We become part of co-creation and Divine wisdom, even if all we can do is to walk along.
We all are called to be Mary. We all are called to become “virgin.” We all are called to create sacred space where the Divine can dwell. In the spiritual sense virginity is not a physiological marker one can loose but rather a spiritual state one must attain. To become virgin means to become open to the Divine, to become whole by conceiving the eternal, giving it space in our heart, walking pregnant with it and giving birth to it into our time.
“What if, instead of doing something, we were to be something special? Be a womb. Be a dwelling for God. Be surprised.” (Loretta Ross-Gotta)