Dear 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 Three: I commit to cultivating community by finding kindred spirits along the path, soul friends with whom I can share my deepest longings, and mentors who can offer guidance and wisdom for the journey.
Listen to the audio version of this reflection.
Edward Sellner, in his wonderful book Finding the Monk Within, writes,
To be a monk today or someone seeking to incorporate monastic values into his or her own life presumes being a part of a community of friends, people with whom a person can share the counsels of the heart and speak a language of the heart to one another.
Many of us have multiple communities – I consider my primary community to be my marriage. This is the place of my most intimate encounters with another person. My husband supports me wholeheartedly and we also wrestle with one another at times, as we bump up against each other's edges. I have a few very close friends with whom I can share my deepest struggles, who hold me lovingly in that space and witness my own unfolding. These are women who support me in the realization of my dreams and with whom I also sometimes wrestle when we misunderstand one another. I meet regularly with a spiritual director, a wise older man who has taught me much about being present to my dream life, my inner doubts and struggles, and the wisdom of my ancestors.
There is my Benedictine Oblate community, which is my primary spiritual community, the place where I experience the true meaning of church. For me this means having a group of fellow pilgrims who are also seeking ways to live a meaningful life in a complex world through ancient practices, who don't have easy answers, and who are willing to be alongside of me in my doubts and questions.
I also experience the great cloud of witnesses, especially my blood ancestors, as a community of support in my life. I find myself often calling upon my grandmothers – both of whom had to give up work they loved (as a dancer and a teacher) when they got married. I only knew one grandmother but I carry both of their longings in me. I live out my life in their honor and ask them to lift me up.
Beyond these core layers are people I am connected to because of something shared – like my neighbors who also love this vibrant urban place we live, and my fellow spiritual directors with whom I gather for mutual support and ongoing formation. I am connected to many other circles that gather around shared values and of course the wider communities of city, country, globe, and creation.
Then there are the communities that happen spontaneously. When we are living as monks in the world, we are paying attention to the places we see the holy shimmering. If we are cultivating our awareness and openness to these moments, we might begin to discover this kind of spontaneous community happening in more and more places.
What these experiences confirm, for me at least, is that we are all kindred spirits. The contemplative path reveals to us that we are all profoundly connected, rather than disparate people. When people ask me how they know if they are having a genuine encounter with God, I ask them if their heart is expanding with compassion, so that they see more and more people with eyes of love.
Love makes demands upon us like making our relationships a priority and being of service even when we don't feel like it. Love demands that we allow the people in our lives to be themselves without wishing they were different. In our challenges with others we are invited to welcome in the places of dissonance and notice what is being stirred in our own hearts.
In Chapter Three of Benedict's Rule he writes that when any important decision is to be made in the monastery, the whole community is gathered because "the Lord often reveals what is better to the younger." (RB 3:3) Sometimes our vision is clouded by our own expectations. Benedict invites us to welcome in the wisdom of everyone in our community. Often others can see aspects of ourselves that we cannot. You might ask someone you trust deeply to reflect back to you how they see your gifts at work in the world and the places where you seem to hold yourself back. Receive these words with reverence and humility, welcome in what they might have to teach you about your own creative journey.
Or you might pay attention to where these experiences of spontaneous community happen in your life and see if they have anything to reveal to you about your heart's deep call.
In the desert, Celtic, and Benedictine traditions, it was also considered essential to have some kind of soul-level relationship with another person who was further along the path in conscious awareness and spiritual practice. Many of you are probably familiar with the Gaelic term anam cara which means soul friend.
In the 4th-5thcenturies, St. Cassian went to the Egyptian desert to learn about the importance of an elder: "a wise, holy, and experienced person who can act as a teacher and guide for an individual or community." Of the many graces of their spiritual lives, the desert monks believed that an experienced guide was the greatest gift. Abba was the term for male wisdom bearer and amma for female wisdom bearer. Cassian firmly believed that God's guidance and wisdom comes most often through human mediation and the encounter with the desert elders. Age does not guarantee this kind of wisdom, but through a person who has been formed themselves in apprenticeship to another wise one.
An essential element of cultivating our capacity to listen is seeking out wise elders and mentors in our lives. Consider if there is someone in your life who lives with creative vitality and contemplative presence. Invite them into conversation about the ways in which they sustain themselves and nurture their way of being in the world.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner