An extract of this essay was recently published in To Live From The Heart, Sr. Stan's latest book.
The Contemplative tradition echoes back through many centuries of spiritual wisdom from the early Christian saints such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, St Bernard, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart. It has been brought to us more recently by the writings of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Richard Rohr, James Finley, Fr. Daniel O'Leary, Fr. James Martin, and the rich heritage of modern writers and living "saints".
According to Thomas Merton, Contemplation is “awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.” While we associate the contemplative life more typically with cloistered monks and nuns, more and more lay people are seeking balance through a gentler, contemplative context for their ordinary lives, whether they are parents, children, teachers, students, bread-makers or quantum physics professors. Such people are seeking their truest life in the busy-ness of this modern world. Prayer itself, by creating an anchor in the Heart transforms our interior landscape to create a true and meaningful life, as exemplified by the contemplative sisters at St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey in Glencairn.
Monastic life at St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey moves each day with the rhythm of the Divine Office, where the community gathers for prayer in the Abbey Church 7 times daily, in addition to the morning celebration of Mass. The Divine Office begins with Vigils at 4.10am, and the day completes with the community’s evening gathering at Compline at around 7.55pm, closing the day once again in prayer. The Office itself consists of the prayerful singing of Psalms and hymns as well as readings from the Bible, and moments of Silence. The Office of Vigils is followed by a period of silent prayer, reading and Lectio Divina, the sacred reading of the Bible. Two periods of work take place daily except on Sundays, to allow the Abbey to run in a self-sufficient manner, including their Eucharistic Bread and Greeting Card businesses. In addition, the myriad domestic and farm maintenance activities take place each day in a spirit of devotion to God and in a context of prayer and surrender to the divine.
Throughout this rhythm, apart from the praying of the Divine Office and mass, the movement from rising in the early hours of the morning to the setting of the day after the final Office of Compline, the community remains largely silent, bringing their attention, time and time again, interiorly to God. This devotion to interiority, contemplation and prayer leads the Sisters to a deeper experience of Presence, and to being internally “united to all”, as highlighted by the Desert Father, Evagrius of Pontus. The early Office of Vigils takes place at a time when people often wake from sleep with troubles and worries. We can only too easily forget that these concerns are held daily in prayer by the Sisters and in the prayer lives of all Monastic traditions.
In speaking with one of the Sisters at St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, it was her initial unexpected encounter with God’s Presence and Love at the age of 18 that so ingrained in her being a lifelong recognition of Presence and a unquenchable desire to remain there continually:
“I had a wonderful sense of His Presence. He showed Himself in His incredible beauty and love and I understood without a shadow of doubt that He was Love and that I was loved unconditionally and lifted up into that self-same love.”
Sr. Michele, St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn
This initial encounter confirmed a deep knowing that the meaning of her life was to devote herself to this Love, and soon thereafter she joined a religious missionary congregation. While her younger years as a nun saw her serving as a missionary nurse overseas, she eventually followed the deeper call within her to a life of contemplation, and joined the contemplative monastic life at St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn some 28 years ago.
Fr. Thomas Keating, the Cistercian monk who rekindled meditation and brought us Centering Prayer said, “the Spirit prays in us and we consent.” It is not just through the formal prayers, or the praying of the Divine Office, or even Lectio Divina that prayer happens - prayer is a way of being, it is an offering of yourself to be prayed. It was the French Cistercian Abbot, André Louf, who said that the objective of the monastic life was to awaken the heart and “make it aware of that prayer which is always going on within it. Prayer is there. It abides there.” Prayerfulness is the landscape that is continuously present in the background behind us all, monastics and lay people alike. The Heart is prayed into Being.
There is a place in every man where God touches him and where he himself is constantly in contact with God. This is simply because at every instant God holds us in being. The place where this creative contact with God takes place is deep within me. If I can reach it I can touch God.
Following the Rule of St. Benedict, which is adopted for monastic life in most monasteries and abbeys, the working day in this School of Love flows out of its prayer life, forming a continuous flow from more meditative prayer into the active daily chores. The vast majority of work time is spent in silence, when the sisters continue to rest in Presence during their activities, and to Pray Continually (1 Thess 5:17). All the ordinary events and encounters of the day become devoted to this relationship with God, with Love. It is also a discipline of seeing every moment as a gift from God, surrendering one’s own self into the greater Self of God.
“The call and grace of monastic life is to move from the superficial self to the deeper self and to live from the heart. The call is to listen to the voice of the Lord, moment by moment, and to make choices that are motivated by a surrender to God and his will.”
Sr. Marie, Abbess, St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn
Contemplative Prayer is also a disposition of heart, by yielding, receiving and responding to God. At times there is a felt awareness of the Presence of divine energy, and at others it is simply a patient knowing that God is present. Contemplation strengthens this awareness, and the certainty that God is everywhere, is in everyone and in everything. God is in every human activity. Presence envelops our atmosphere, our surroundings, our personalities, our work, our life experiences. Our response is borne out by following our heart-felt desires, planted there by God. By being and becoming fully ourselves, we respond.
The singing of the Psalms at the Divine Office, as well as the periods of quiet prayer and Lectio Divina, holds the sisters in touch with God and the concerns of others. Many people contact the Abbey and report answers and resolutions to their prayers, often in unexpected yet welcome ways. Through Prayer, the sisters hold the certainty that even in the midst of our experiences of difficulty, suffering, confusion and even joys and breakthroughs, we can rest assured that we are contained in the Love of God.
Inspired by the lives of the many saints and Cistercian brotherhood throughout the centuries, one sister felt her calling was deeply influenced by the example and influence of St. Joseph, in particular his qualities of unassuming protection, strength and hidden Presence. Having spent 32 years as a missionary nun, she then chose to follow the deeper yearning within for the Cistercian life.
“The Cistercian Way in its simplicity of lifestyle, in humble manual labour and highly organised life, opens my heart to discover and receive the ever loving Presence of God in the ordinary; in the obscure minute moments.”
Sr. Denise, St. Mary’s Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn
In day to day life in Glencairn, Prayer is lived out in the relationships within the Abbey community and with the wider community outside the Abbey. Harmony in the Sisters’ prayer life extends outwards to create and nourish harmonious relationships, which then feed and nourish the prayer life further into deeper contemplation. Community living fosters the development of deep compassion, forgiveness, tolerance and understanding for their own perceived weaknesses and failings, and those of others. This is humility. St. Bernard described the journey of the steps of humility as arriving at a “no-self”, which for him, was union with God in Love. His continuous advice to “return to your own heart” was to bring people home to the Heart where God dwells. A natural selflessness arises out of this place of humility, and the generosity to perform little hidden acts of kindness and help for others. Prayer transforms the heart into ever-increasing contentment, and humble generosity arises.
As a lay person I have felt very drawn to the Contemplative Way, especially by this sense of an interior prayer which is constantly going on within me, even before I do anything - I am being prayed into Being. In our busy modern lives of constant external stimulation and demands, more and more people are feeling anxious, powerless, uncertain and disillusioned with their lives. Mahatma Gandhi said that prayer is not asking, but is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. "It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart."
I have always felt that the deepest aches and joys of the heart are always heard, especially those that defy words. They are utterances longing for rest. Sometimes just being heard is enough. At others, the allowing of the interior ache to exist brings untold relief. At still other times, we have to practice a kind of patient Unknowing until some sense of resolution eventually comes.
Over time, through surrender and trust, I have gained more patience and tolerance for this vulnerability and this Unknowing, and a wonder at the harmony with which each new situation becomes resolved, too often in spite of me. Such contemplative experiences have confirmed to the degree of unshakeable certainty that Life, that Love, that God is present in them.
One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life itself solves them for you.
With heartfelt thanks to Sr. Marie, Sr. Michele and Sr. Denise, contributors and inspirations to this essay, and the entire community of St. Mary's Cistercian Abbey, Glencairn.