I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to our Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Justin Coutts’ reflection, “A Monk with a Family.”
One of the greatest of the ancient monastic teachers, at least in my own reckoning, is the Celtic monk Pelagius. His monastic style was to live in the world. His disciples, to whom he wrote letters of instruction, were people living within society but with a radical Chrisitan lifestyle. He wrote a letter to Celantia, a woman who had found her call to the monastic life after getting married. She asked Pelagius to write a rule for her to live by that would allow her to deepen her Christian vocation in the manner of the Celtic monks while also allowing her to live at home with her husband and children. His letter to her (which he described as a personal rule of life) included the following instructions:
“Let your home be the object of your concern in such a way that you can still allot a period of respite to your soul. Choose a convenient place, a little removed from the noise of the household, to which you can betake yourself as if to a harbour out of a great storm of cares and there, in the peace of inner seclusion, calm the turbulent waves of thoughts outside. There let your study of divine readings be so constant, your alternations in prayers so frequent, your meditation on the future world so steadfast and deliberate, that you have no trouble in making up for all the employments of your remaining time by this spell of freedom from them. Nor do we say this with the purpose of detaching you from your family; rather our intention is that in that place you may learn and meditate as to what kind of person you ought to show yourself to your own kin.”
This instruction has become the foundation of my daily monastic practice. I am a monk living in the world with a family just like Celantia. Much like her, I also stay at home and care for my family – you might say I’m a stay-at-home monk. My wife is the primary breadwinner in our home and I divide my time between household chores, caring for our son, and spiritual practice. This instruction which Pelagius gave to Celantia was one he gave to many people. In his letter to Demetrias, a young teenage girl still living with her parents, he adds to this reflection that the time she should set aside for solitude, study, and prayer should be the best hours of the day, which he says are in the morning when the mind is still fresh. In my own work as an anamchara (the Celtic term for spiritual director) I often encourage people to find the best hours of the day and dedicate them to God.
For me, the best hours of the day are the morning, not the very first thing, but after I have checked my phone and had my shower. This is when my mind is the most fresh and alert and therefore it is the best time to give to God. By giving God our best hours we offer the first fruit of our harvest. If we try to fit our practice in at times when we are exhausted after work or when our mind is flustered in the middle of the day, we may find that our practice does not bear the fruit we would like it to. Knowing your own natural rhythms and following them is a wise thing to do.
As Pelagius noted in his letter to Celantia, the purpose of solitude is not to detach ourselves from our family or to renounce them in any way, but rather to be a time in which we grow in holiness so that we may be the best person we can for the sake of those around us. Right now in Covid we are doing schooling from home and it requires a great deal of patience for everyone in the house. My 9 year old son is beautiful and brilliant and compassionate, but he is also extremely high energy and he is struggling like we all are. His struggles are my struggles because we are family. By taking the best hours of the day and dedicating them to meditation, fasting, and study I become a better father and a better husband, I am better able to support everyone else in the house. My solitude creates a sacred space which gives life to our entire home. I like to think even the dogs benefit from my time alone.
What I do during this time of solitude varies according to my own spiritual condition and the needs of my soul, always with the advice of my spiritual director. One of the great pieces of wisdom the Celtic monks give us is that each person in each moment has unique needs and therefore, there are a variety of spiritual practices which may be useful at different times. Having an anamchara is essential because they can help us determine what practices will be the most life giving to us in the moment we find ourselves in. Here are some practices which I use during this time of solitude:
There are many kinds of meditation. The one I use most at the moment is breath prayer, which I do while walking in the woods. You can read more about that here. In the past (and I have no doubt again in the future) I have found that apophatic prayer is quite life giving and beautiful. The Cloud of Unknowing is perhaps the best manual for this kind of meditation which can be found. Lectio Divina is another great practice which is best described in The Ladder of the Monks by Guigo II. I don’t have any published articles on that at the moment, though they are in the works :)
Both lectio divina and breath prayer are made more fruitful by using the approach called Talking Back to Demons. This is a practice that comes from the desert monks, particularly Evagrius and Cassian. They used the imagery of demons to describe unhealthy spiritual states like pride, sadness, or anger. Evagrius put together a list of scripture verses to be used either in lectio divina or breath prayer which are focused particularly on the demon the monk is facing in that moment. I have written about the practice of talking back in this article and how it was carried over into the Celtic tradition in this article. I have also written specifically on the demons of acedia, sadness, anger, and shame.
The Celtic and desert monks who are my inspiration were definitely all about fasting. It is also a practice which I was reared in. I was raised going to indigenous ceremony from the time I was little and fasting was an essential part of our spiritual practice. It is a way of praying not only in our minds, but also with our bodies. I still fast regularly and I help people find healthy ways to express this ancient art in my work as an anamchara. Each person has unique needs, but I personally do daily intermittent fasting and only eat between the hours of 12 pm and 8 pm. That way I am hungry, and therefore my mind is sharp, in the morning when I focus on my spiritual practices. I intensify my fasting during Lent, but the rest of the year this simple practice of fasting is very fruitful in my inner life. You can read more about fasting in general, here, here, and here. I also have a practice of intense fasting for three days by myself in the wilderness each summer which you can read more about here.
Learning is such an important part of the monastic life. Study doesn’t have to be intensely academic, though there’s nothing wrong with that. It can also be discussions with wise people, hearing a good sermon, reading an article like this one, or watching meaningful youtube videos. Anything which helps us to gain wisdom is a form of study. The primary text for study in the Christian monastic tradition is, of course, the Bible. Origen of Alexandria gave a beautiful system for understanding scripture which you can read more about here. You can also read about how the Cloud of Unknowing describes the path of reading, reflection, and prayer here. Being a lifelong learner is an essential part of monastic life. There is much wisdom to be found and we never come to a place where we need not learn anything new. So, in your time of solitude, be sure to learn something new everyday.
I hope these thoughts have been helpful for you. May God continue to bless you in everything you do and may your spiritual practices bring hope, patience, and compassion to you, your family, and the whole world. Amen
Justin Coutts is a Celtic monk living on Manitoulin Island in Canada. He grew up in a traditional rural Quaker meeting but was also involved in indigenous ceremony from his youth. He trained as an apprentice to an Ojibwe elder for the better part of a decade before finding his way into Celtic Christianity. He now hosts an online community of Celtic contemplative spiritual seekers. You can learn more about the New Eden community by following this link.