Monk in the World Guest Post: Pat Butler

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Pat Butler’s reflection, “The Secret Place Studio.” 

“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”—Matthew 6:6

Just as an artist needs a quiet studio to practice his or her discipline, a monk in the world needs a quiet studio to pray. We might call it a cell or prayer closet; I prefer to think of it as a creative studio.

Jesus called it the secret place. He instructed his disciples to withdraw behind a closed door, implying a place of intimacy and privacy. Like a cell or prayer closet, our secret place is sacred space where we meet with the Father in private.

It takes thought to set up an artist’s studio—and a secret place for prayer. How do we create such a space? As an artist, this monk needed to consider time, place, and materials.

Setting Up the Studio

Time

I’m not a morning person but woke early one morning at Jesus’ invitation, “You have only to get up in the morning and greet me.”

Easy enough, but cagey: the simplicity of “Hi!” left me thirsty for more. What if I gave God five minutes? The next morning, I set the timer. After saying hi, I read a verse and a short devotional. The morning after that I brought my journal and five minutes became fifteen. Gradually, my time grew to a half-hour, an hour, and more.

A verse became a chapter, then several, and my journal filled rapidly with questions, ponderings, prayers, and epiphanies. When I grappled with some theme or issue, I strung scriptures together like pearls for a necklace to understand God’s thoughts.

Place

My bedroom was best in the stern New England winters, although a dawn walk in freshly fallen snow was a special treat. When Spring announced itself, I scouted for new locations. A nearby park, a local law school campus, or a lakeside reservoir were perfect for what I called our “walkie-talkies.”

Materials

In those early days, I brought a journal to my secret place studio. Over the years, I added a Bible, more devotional reading, commentaries, my laptop, a sketchbook, camera (for contemplative photography), and worship music. As a poet, I often wrote or read a poem to close my time.

Listening

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.— Ecclesiastes 5:1-2

Jesus described his ministry as a listening and then a doing. Time in the secret place studio is not meant for navel-gazing or sterile introspection. When I learned about Lectio Divina, I began practicing in my secret place studio. I learned to listen, to dwell with the Word and the Voice that is always speaking. In listening, I receive what I’m to confess, ponder in my heart, or take into the world. I’m mindful of Mary’s advice: “Do whatever he tells you to do.”[1]

Adjusting

As with any discipline, we make a beginning but adjust for life. Although I jealously guard my morning hour in the secret place studio, I sometimes only get five minutes. If my home is too noisy, I leave books and props behind and head out into nature. I may snatch a few minutes in my car during lunch hour or add an hour before bedtime. I’ve learned to shrink, change, or expand the time according to circumstances. I ask myself regularly what location would be best to meet with God—outside in nature or indoors with a cup of tea? Do I need silence, music, or the crash of waves?

For vacation and travel, I created a portable studio space, which I keep in my suitcase. I filled a small pouch with colored pencils, post-it notes, glue stick, and index cards. I added a crucifix and postcards to practice visio divina. These days, with the convenience of a smartphone, I leave Bible, books, and commentaries home and use apps.

Becoming Fire

Some time ago, Christine posted this story from the desert fathers: “Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?’ The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?”[2]

Can we ever exhaust the possibilities of a secret place studio? We can find the best time and location, remove distractions, and gather materials. We can order our lives to withdraw regularly to be with the Father. But we can visit our studios even in motion—in traffic, in line at the supermarket, or waiting at the airport. For the secret place studio is in the heart.

How much time do we need to quiet our hearts? How much time does God desire? Maybe if we answer those questions, we can become all flame.

[1] John 2:5

[2] https://abbeyofthearts.com/blog/2006/07/31/becoming-fire/


Pat Butler is a monk in the world who’s lived in New England, France, and Atlanta, and currently walks with cranes in Florida. A published poet with Finishing Line Press, Pat also publishes in literary and online journals. New projects include 2 manuscripts and blogging at MythicMonastery.org.

You might also enjoy