I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series. Read on for Wisdom Council member Dena Jennings’ reflection Boundaries and Borders in Contemplative Life.
I imagine that modern walls of monastic cells, perimeters of abbeys, and the spaces to which cloistered monks retreat are not meant to confine as a prison, nor to keep the world out, but to allow recesses for spiritual nourishment and focus. They serve as physical boundaries to remind one of the dedication to this life. Being a monk in the world calls for a different kind of boundary or border from virtuous and not so virtuous distractions.
I’ve lived a life dedicated to God since I was 11-years old. One day, while on my knees at the altar, I had a vision of things I had done as they paraded before my mind’s eye. I felt like a guard at a border checkpoint letting the things I would give up pass into a void. I said, “Yes,” to one thing and “that, too,” to the next. Being rough on the playground, blaming my sisters, sneaking a piece of scrumptious homemade cake before dinner, reading another chapter in my favorite book well past my bedtime by flashlight under the covers— all the excessive indulgences of my little life passed the checkpoint. It looked like the line was getting longer. Finally, I saw myself open the gate wide. I heard myself say, “Yes, all of it. All of it no matter what it is. All of it!” From that moment, I dedicated my life to do what Jesus asked of so many in the stories I had learned, love God enough to leave it all and follow.
That day, I embarked on a course following the light of love and carrying as much light as I can into dark places. While living a life set apart for God’s use, I have become a physician bringing the light into patients’ rooms, an activist environmentalist shining light in the halls of congress, a luthier illuminating a resonant instrument, a poet and musician instilling brightness in the hearts of audiences. Yet, in this life, I am continually challenged to recognize, set, and hold boundaries. How does one keep the world and its concerns at bay while offering service to the same? How is this done while maintaining a contemplative life?
Recently, I read The Cloud of Unknowing translated by Evelyn Underhill. In it, an unknown medieval author writes that there is a Cloud of Unknowing that rests between God and us, and a Cloud of Forgetting from which we turn. God invites us into the Cloud of Unknowing through love. It is where we can blissfully commune in the harmony of oneness with the ultimate, unchanging true reality. The love that calls us to the Cloud of Unknowing equips us with the light of peace and goodwill to share on Earth.
The author also writes of the Cloud of Forgetting. It is a space apart that, in my imagination, does not serve as a place of dread, but as a safe space for passions that are a consuming distraction from the love shining through the Cloud of Unknowing. It is a treasure chest for the deep longings that draw us from the invitation of divine love. It seems that the Cloud of Forgetting is that void beyond the border where I stood guard in my youth as I considered this contemplative life. Rather than being armed at the gate with wit and intellectual rumination of my worthiness or ladened with remorse and regret for the things admitted to the Cloud of Forgetting, I joyfully enter the Cloud of Unknowing with gifts of adoration and communion— a sacred space where I recharge the light of love that guides others in this world as they seek rest from their own Cloud of Forgetting.
As a monk in the world, other tests of boundaries come from without rather than within. It is a paradox to walk in the non-duality of oneness while setting boundaries. Thankfully, wisdom can be found in the teachings of sages. Jesus, the desert fathers and mothers, and various pious visionaries sat with their detractors and even welcomed them with compassion while illuminating their inhumanity.
Sometimes, contemplative life attracts those sickened by the ways of the world— even those who come with a desire to harm us. It takes balance to tend their cries for help without allowing their unjust ways to distract us. Love is what keeps the boundaries clear while leaving our hearts open to receive those wounded by the world.
”[Jesus] who, but for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross despising the shame…” —Hebrews 12:2b
Jesus of Nazareth was a visionary who dared to love everyone. He loved so deeply that his behavior was charged as sedition for which he was crucified. He loved so perfectly that it pleased God.
It is Jesus’ examples of compassion that show us how to open the door to the needs of others while living a life of contemplation and adoration. Times of contemplation help us to recharge our spirit for more challenging encounters. This balance comes as we hold the boundaries set between us and the clamoring world.
The call to walk the border between compassion for the world and contemplation in solitude is a call to selflessly love everyone even those who despise us, those who are threatened by the mere existence of one who chooses to shine the light of love in darkness.
It’s hard at times. But God would never ask us to carry this light in the world if we didn’t come equipped with the proper wick, vessel, and oil to do so.
Dena Ross Jennings, D.O. is a luthier, musician, writer, Virginia Master Naturalist, and an Internal Medicine physician with certification in Ayurvedic practice. In addition to over 30 years of medical practice, she completed a 4-year apprenticeship with a sculptor and luthier in Ontario, Canada where she learned to design and built the gourd instruments of cultures around the world. In 2013 Dr. Jennings married her best friend Donald Jennings and moved to their organic herb farm and wildlife preserve in Nasons, VA which they lovingly call the Farmashramonastery. There, she practices medicine and counselling, hosts contemplative retreats, hikes, and meditation, and raises angora rabbits.
In the larger community, she conducts conflict transformation workshops including one for artistic ambassadors through the US State Department in Washington, DC. She has developed accredited curricula of meditation for racial justice, and for cultural sensitivity in artistic performance. In 2019, she was appointed to the Virginia Commission for the Arts where she serves as the chairperson.
Since 1996, Dr. Jennings has been the Executive Director and founder of Imani Works, a human rights advocacy group that enjoys consultative status with the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs. Through Imani Works, she provides evaluations for asylum seekers. You can reach her for bookings, consultations, and counseling by visiting ImaniWorks online.