Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
During this Jubilee year of sabbatical we are revisiting our Monk Manifesto by moving slowly through the Monk in the World retreat materials together every Sunday. Each week will offer new reflections on the theme and every six weeks will introduce a new principle.
Principle Two: I commit to radical acts of hospitality by welcoming the stranger both without and within. I recognize that when I make space inside my heart for the unclaimed parts of myself, I cultivate compassion and the ability to accept those places in others.
St. Benedict in chapter 53 of his Rule writes:
All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ,
for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35).
The core of this idea was that everyone who comes to the door of the monastery, and by extension the door of our lives—the poor, the traveler, those of a different religion, social class, or education — should be welcomed in, not just as an honored guest, but as a revelation of the sacred. For Benedict, our encounter with the stranger – the unknown, the unexpected, the foreign elements that spark our fear – are precisely the places where we are most likely to encounter God. This is a practice of outer hospitality.
There is another dimension to this practice that we sometimes might be tempted to forget, which is inner hospitality. Within each of us we have a multitude of feelings, experiences, inner selves, that we would prefer to close the door on. We have many inner strangers knocking at the door of our hearts. How many times have I refused to welcome in grief or anger, the scary new dream, the part of myself that doesn't seem to fit with the others?
Becoming a monk in the world means cultivating the ability to welcome in the whole spectrum of our inner experience and develop compassion for all the parts of ourselves. When we are able to embrace all of who we are, we are far more likely able to welcome in what is strange or uncomfortable in others.
We each contain a Self with the capital S, which is the true heart of who we are, beneath all of the roles and identities we play. It is sometimes called the inner witness, and is that place within us that can calmly observe what happens within us and can be with the thoughts that come up and the stories we tell ourselves. The witness brings curiosity and compassion. In religious traditions the mystics tell us this is the place where we encounter the divine within.
The early desert monks would say "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." The cell is both an internal and external place. We carry our monastic cell with us everywhere we go. It is a symbol for the place within our hearts where we wrestle with our inner struggles and encounter God's presence in the midst of the wrestling.
In the desert tradition, when we enter the cave of our heart we encounter the passions which might also be described as habits of being which developed from a core wound, often from childhood. These wounds distort the reality of who we are and lead us to compulsive acts. They need to be tended and healed which is challenging because they connect us to our deepest vulnerability. In one strand of the desert tradition, passions were viewed as something negative, to be eradicated from the soul, and we sometimes read about the language of doing battle with them.
However, the dominant teaching for the desert mothers and fathers was that the passions were considered something positive – natural and neutral impulses whose source is God, but in our human efforts to suppress them their energy becomes misdirected. Some of the language used is "knowing the passions" where knowing means loving and embracing, the goal is to illumine them, rather than eliminate them; we don't seek to destroy them, but figure them.
One of the desert fathers, Abba Isaiah claims that all of the passions including anger, jealousy, and lust are given to us by God with a particular and sacred purpose. Coming to know these passions, how they were formed, and what they desire, is a healing experience. We begin to reclaim all the parts of ourselves in the service of wholeness.
This is a quote from John Chryssavgis from his book In the Heart of the Desert:
"If God is right there in the midst of our struggle, then our aim is to stay there. We are to remain in the cell, to stay on the road, not to forego the journey or forget the darkness. It is all too easy for us to overlook the importance of struggle, preferring instead to secure peace and rest, or presuming to reach the stage of love prematurely. It is always easier to allow things to pass by, to go on without examination and effort. Yet, struggling means living. It is a way of fully living life and not merely observing it. It takes much time and a great effort to unite the disparate, disjointed, and divided parts of the self into an integrated whole. During this time and in this effort, the virtue of struggle was one of the non-negotiables in the spiritual way of the desert. The Desert Fathers and Mothers speak too us with authority, because they are in fact our fellow travelers. They never claim to have arrived, they never indicate having completed the journey."
This practice of inner hospitality means welcoming in whatever it is we are experiencing as having the possibility of wisdom for us. Hospitality is a lifetime journey, we don't one day figure it out and no longer have to struggle with our impulses and desires. But we can learn not to resist them and find ways to enter into dialogue with them so we deepen and grow into spiritual maturity.
In the monastic tradition there is a commitment to conversion which means that we recognize that we are always on the way, that we have never fully arrived. The temptation of the spiritual life is to avoid pain, to believe that being "spiritual" means always being full of peace and grace when in fact the whole teaching of the desert tradition focuses on the need to stay fully present to the often challenging and painful internal dynamics that happen within us.
How do you welcome in the range of your feelings without being swept away by them? One way to do this is by cultivating your inner witness and connecting regularly with your calm, non-anxious, compassionate core Self. Meditation practice can nurture our ability to sit and observe the rise and fall of our inner lives without resisting or seizing any particular moment. When we offer ourselves the space to simply be with whatever is happening inside, without judgment, we begin to see that each of those feelings passes with time. Through art and journaling we can engage in an active dialogue with these parts of ourselves we find threatening or depleting.
The guided meditation for this principle which we'll explore next week introduces a prayer form called welcoming prayer in which you practice noticing when you resist an inner voice or shut your inner door on it, take some time to intentionally invite this voice inside to the table. Ask it what it has come to tell you. Listen past the first layer which may sound ugly or painful and tend to the deeper layers underneath. This takes time, much like growing in intimacy with a friend. Our rejected selves will need some coaxing.
When we choose to receive guests as a window into the sacred presence, we are choosing to live and relate from a more intentional and reverential place. We have practiced being present to the sacred in each hour and each object around us, now we bring that attention even more consciously within. When we engage in a dynamic encounter with what we are fearful of, it releases its power on us and new wisdom and energy is released. It is in this place of hospitality to the unknown where we encounter God.
Pay attention to the feelings and experiences inside of you that you want to reject. Becoming a monk in the world means honoring these as gifts and treasures for our spiritual ripening. And most important of all, keep showing up to practice.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo© Christine Valters Paintner