a series of talks on silent prayer and contemplative living in today's world

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Contemplative Living in Today’s World:
an exploration of Benedictine spirituality
and its value for life in the modern world.

Esther de Waal

An edited version of the address given at Westminster Cathedral Hall, 23 June 2007. ©Esther de Waal 2007.

In this talk, I shall invite you to reflect on the two primordial dimensions of our existence, Time and Space, and to consider the ways in which the Rule of St Benedict can give us a better understanding of our relationship to them.

In May I was returning from Vancouver to Heathrow via Denver, Minneapolis and Boston: the sort of journey which is only too familiar. The in-flight magazines, whether American or British, were totally predictable: time management, stress and more stress, the search for a healthier and more balanced way of life, the need first presented to (cynically enough, I am tempted to say created in) readers, and then the market presented which will service that need. Do Ireally want an exercise machine that will reduce my daily exercising to four minutes?

Changing planes in Chicago did little to refresh me. At Heathrow baggage claim - one of my least favourite places on earth - I asked myself what I would feel if my luggage did not in fact appear. It becomes a place and a situation for ultimate questions. What matters? What really matters? It did appear in the end (this has not always been the case) and I emerged to catch the Heathrow Express, and to be swallowed up once again – feeling battered - into the streets of London.

I had been made especially sensitive, I suppose, by the contrast between my outward and return journeys: I had travelled out to the far west by train, and the purpose of my journey had been to lead retreats on the relevance of the monastic tradition (Celtic, Benedictine, Cistercian) for today's world. The journey out had allowed time to pray and to read, to view spectacular scenery and to enjoy relaxed conversations with strangers: it had been refreshing.

The retreats had taken place in a context dictated by the monastic rhythm of prayer, study, work, and recreation. That meant that I had been inserted into a way of life that was sure of itself, and committed to a framework and a structure that ensured balance and rhythm, and thus brought energy. There was certainty, a flexible certainty. I could see it in the way in which people walked along a corridor, or as I watched them at meals: their body language was totally other than the great majority of those doing the same sort of thing here in London.

Yet these monastics (mainly women but also men) were not living in some ivy-covered tower. They were not exempt from any of the pressures familiar to us: they were handling huge problems of down-sizing, of money-raising, of international enterprise, of pastoral demands of every sort. What is their secret and can it - if not be followed - at least shared? Have we anything to learn from them?

The key lies in the Rule of St Benedict.

My own life has been shaped and strengthened by my encounter with the Rule. My introduction to it came when I was living in Canterbury in a house that had been in the Middle Ages part of a great Benedictine monastic complex. It came at a time when I was grateful to be given practical help in a life of some pressure. My husband had a demanding job as Dean of Canterbury Cathedral; we had four sons aged 8-12; Iwas running a vast medieval house with little domestic help; I was called on to play a public role with endless hospitality; and I was also trying to teach part-time.

I did not find in the Rule the answers to specific questions, nor solutions to particular situations. That is not the way of Benedict. Instead his purpose is to shape our attitude, to suggest the approach we should take, or, to put it in more religious terms, he addresses “the disposition of the heart”.

Although the scale and scope of 21st century pressures are vast compared with the 6th century some underlying principles emerge. To what extent can they be useful to us here today, living in the city of London, the work place of today? Can we find any tools or any insights?

The demands of being over-busy are nothing new. They are only too familiar, indeed frequently addictive. Here is a letter from St Bernard written in 1150 to his protégé Eugenius III who had just become Pope - (a letter which incidentally when I taught at theological college I told my own students they should keep above their desks):

Where shall I begin? Let me begin with the pressure of business. If you hate it, I sympathise with you. If you don't, I mourn all the more, because the unconscious patient is in the greater danger.... See where all this damnable business is leading you. You are wasting your time! What fruit is there in these things? They can only create cobwebs.

(Bernard of Cîteaux, leader of the 12th century Cistercian reform of the Benedictine order, sought to return to the original insights of the Rule, and to recover the original simplicity and silence of the order, which had become eroded by growing numbers, too much success in farming and other profitable enterprises, the running of schools, the provision of hospitality, and involvement in outside interests.)

So, after the Rule itself, Bernard’s attempt to recover what was early and closer to Benedict’s original intention is my second source of inspiration. Like the Rule, Bernard’s reform has its own particular gift, its special role. Each deepens the other.

Monks in both traditions had many things in common: the values of reverence and respect - for matter, material things, people, and the way they relate to time and space. They put prayer and praise of God at the centre of their lives.


Let us begin with Benedict himself. He was born about 480 at Nursia, in Umbria (Central Italy), and began a normal education in Rome with his old nurse … these words always caused me a sense of amusement until, when I was teaching the Rule to a young novice in a newly-founded Anglican Benedictine monastery in South Africa, I realised as I was telling Benedict’s life in the words of St Gregory that in the oral tradition this was the wise old woman, or the figure of Wisdom. Benedict had huge respect for the mind but he also wanted to explore the wisdom of heart-knowledge; and this he did after escaping from his studies in Rome to spend some years of silence and solitude in a cave at Subiaco – where, to quote St Gregory “he held himself still before the gaze of God.” This solitude ended when on Easter Day a priest interrupted him at prayer. Raising his eyes, Benedict exclaimed: “Easter indeed it is since you are here.” In other words, as he looked upon the first person he had seen for many months he saw the risen Christ, the Easter self, the true self. And this, when he came to found his monastery at Monte Casino in about 520 was to be his underlying attitude: “Let everyone who comes be received as Christ.”


Benedict recognised the need for order: both the interior order within oneself and the outer order in the world around one - whether domestic, work or wider society - and the relationship, the connection, between the two.

Time and space are the two primordial, inescapable realities of our existence. They can either liberate or imprison us.

I invite you to consider these questions:

How do you handle time?
Do you see it as a gift?
Do you treat it with reverence and respect? And with gentleness?

In the lecture that Archbishop Rowan Williams gave in Rome in November 2006 under the title ‘Benedict and the Future of Europe’ (subsequently printed in the Tablet, and also available on his website): he commented on the way both work and leisure appear regularly in inhuman and obsessive forms, and then went on to speak of the climate in which we live, in which time appears as an “undifferentiated continuum, in which we either work or consume. Work follows no daily or even weekly rhythms but is a 24-hour business, sporadically interrupted by what is often a very hectic form of play.”

How can Benedict help? The Rule gives a framework and pattern to the day, the week, the year which both respects the cycle of liturgical time and the changing length of days as light and dark move with the changing seasons. How very different from the time of the consumer world, where we are urged to book our hot cross buns in February, and to begin our Christmas shopping in October; where we are governed by the deadlines of the financial year, the academic year, and so on. We are forced to fit into a pattern which no longer pays respect to the seasons, to the coming of light and darkness, or to a liturgy which marks life and death, creation and re-creation. Joan Chittister about 20 years ago pointed out: "With the invention of the light bulb balance became a myth”. And now of course there are many more developments to defy the play of light and dark: think of e-mail and the mobile phone …

So reflect:
Has your own daily life become dictated and formed by these forces?
Have they crept upon you unawares?
Is that why you are here today?


Let us return to Benedict: what is his starting point? He tells us that we are all tripartite: made up of body, mind and spirit. We must honour our physical selves, our intellectual capacity, and not least our spiritual side. All claim our attention, and must be nourished. (This is in essence of course a holistic way of living.)

Where the body, the physical self, is concerned, Benedict addresses the important point of how we approach meals: he is clear that we need decent food, carefully served. There is to be enough sleep. Time for manual labour, or physical exercise, are also amongst the fundamental principles.

There is also to be time to stretch the mind and the imagination. This means reading material that will make critical demands. Benedict suggests authors who come from different traditions, and take different approaches; in other words the sort of study that will keep the mind open.

The heart of the life was of course the work of God, Opus Dei, the regularity of the time spent in prayer and praise, in reading the Psalms, in hearing the scriptures read aloud and then in mulling over them in lectio. In this way the balanced life cultivated that underground stream of prayer, so that the continuous prayer sustained and upheld every other action.

The monastic horarium established an enviable framework in which to live like this, providing a context which made it easier than for most of us. Nevertheless, it contains an underlying wisdom and it is worth thinking how it might still apply today.

That underlying wisdom is summed up in the word balance: no one thing is to absorb one’s life to the exclusion of any other. Life has different dimensions, or facets. Only by bringing them into a harmonious relationship can they together form a satisfying and balanced whole. And balance and harmony cannot be separated from order.

Here is what a present day monk of Caldey says about how grateful he is to those 12th century Cistercians who knew how to re-establish the balance of the day when it had been thrown off-kilter, and the temptation to worldly success arose, because he is today the inheritor of what they restored. This is not to say that you must model yourself on Br David, nor that this is THE answer, but there are some questions - good questions - in listening to this and seeing what it tells you about the pattern of your daily routine:

’The balance of the day' means a day divided between study, prayer and manual work punctuated by the divine office – it makes for a healthy, harmonious life, as well as being an antidote to the tensions and pressures of contemporary society... because it does not allow one to become obsessively wrapped up in one thing for too long.

Note the verbs he uses: divided and punctuated.

Henri Nouwen is a name familiar to many people for his many writings on spirituality. One of my favourite books of his is a very early one - written originally in 1976, it has been published and translated frequently ever since. I feel that it is foundational in his later life. He tells us how at this time he was living a hectic life, pulled in many directions, as a priest, a writer, a counsellor, a University teacher, a popular lecturer, constantly busy and constantly travelling and playing many different roles. He said that it was like living with a divided heart: classes to prepare; lectures to give; articles to finish; people to meet; phone calls to make; letters to answer ... As a result he decided to try to stand back from it all, to see if he could find a still point from which his life was anchored, or a quiet steam underneath all these fluctuations. What happened to him following his decisions to spend seven months in a monastic community is described with great honesty and humour in The Genesee Diary, Report from a Trappist Monastery. He discovered that it brought him a sense of just those things that we too are trying to explore today: the role of silence, the importance of structure, balance and rhythm. It is a book that I return to time and again for its practical insights and which I warmly recommend to others.

You have a chance today to take a look at the pattern of your life, and to ask: are there parts of that life which are at war with other parts? Am I being pulled in different directions? What does this do to me?


Balance is closely linked to harmony. Think for a moment of what harmony means in music: without it there is cacophony, because it is essentially about the right relationship of the parts to the whole. "Without form there can be no work of art”. It is as true in other forms of art. A rambling anecdote is not a novel, nor a splurge of paint a work of art.

What happens if we now apply this thought to ourselves, seeing ourselves as a work of art, uniquely and mysteriously created?

Here is Bernard on the dignity and beauty of the human person:

Does it seem to you a little thing that God made you?
Think of what quality he made you.
For even with regard to your body
he made you a noble creature,
and still more so with regard to your soul,
inasmuch as you are the extraordinary image of the Creator,
sharing his rationality,
capable of eternal happiness.

After the bright light of beauty
has abundantly filled the depths of the heart,
it must pour outward,
as a light under the bushel basket,
or rather a light shining in the darkness
which cannot be hidden.
The body,
the image of the soul,
takes up this light
which shines and breaks forth,
as it were,
with its rays.
The body diffuses the light all over its members and senses,
so that everything may radiate it:
all activity,
and laughter…….
Were we not put into this world to be a work of art coming from the hand of the creator? Do we do violence to our own physical selves?

The following words come from an account of Genesis by Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish writer: "Time becomes a gift when it has a receiver. When a gift is offered and it is not received...it loses its power as a gift... The gift may be delivered but the door is closed'”.

Stay for a moment with the simplicity of this: "Many of us are not receptive to gifts freely given'”. We believe that we have to earn things! She points out, what is only too obvious, that this way of living prevents us from being open and receptive: "Prayer is a practice of opening the door, opening the heart to welcome the gifts”

(These quotations are taken from Etty Hillesum, An interrupted life: the diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-1943, originally published in the Netherlands in 1981, re-issued by Persephone Books, London, 1996, with a preface by Eva Hoffman, and an introduction by Jam G. Gaarlandt.)

Or, instead of gifts, we might say, the blessings that surround us. Celtic tradition is especially rich in this regard: it is full of blessings which bless the God who has blessed us so abundantly. Celtic blessings are NOT ways of asking for blessings, and yet more blessings, as if they were a branch of our acquisitive society. They are invitations to open our hearts, minds and imaginations to the gifts which are waiting for us - to see, to recognise, and to enjoy.


Christopher Brooke says: "The cloister was the physical centre of their world'. Twenty years after leaving Canterbury that image of the cloister and the garden that it enclosed is one to which I return time and again. Images and symbols have enormous importance, and our denial of their role has impoverished our Christian teaching. For as Prince Charles knows, speaking as he so often does on behalf of lay Christians today, "we're losing the symbolic nature of our faith,” and that brings with it the danger of extremism.

When I think of cloisters I picture them as Dom Dominic Milroy, when he was headmaster of Ampleforth, described them (in an address to the Headmasters’ Conference!), as a "link-line”, i.e. one which connected all the buildings serving the daily needs of men and women whose life was devoted to prayer, to study, and to work – and not forgetting of course the time needed for sleeping and eating.

Picture therefore the daily pattern as the monks moved between the dormitory and the church, the refectory, the library (for study, and for the illumination of magnificent manuscripts), the chapter house (for administration and decision making, and for the allocation of jobs) and manual work further afield, from which they returned before meals to wash their hands and feet at the lavatorium situated in the cloisters.

It brings all these aspects of life into one whole, or, to use another analogy of Dominic Milroy, “a seamless garment”. It says that all things are important, that no one is higher than another. It is a visual statement about the sacred and the secular, how they are not separate, how both can lead to God.

Thus what might easily have become an over-busy, complex and probably fragmented life is given a framework, a structure and a rhythm, because everything is anchored in the times of prayer. The church to which the monastics go seven days a day for the saying of the daily offices provides the metaphorical baseline of the cloister. Everything flows in and out of prayer. There are huge implications here; we are being shown something of the most profound significance. And it is even more powerful to see it presented visually before our eyes than to be told about it in words, however wise and helpful!

Now we come to the heart of it all, the end and purpose of today: the cloister and the cloister garden are an image of our own selves.

We must do what was common in monastic thinking: establish a relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. The cloister garden becomes a metaphor for my own interior, innermost self.

It is of course only one possible image among many others, and we each have our own favourites, which may well change as our life changes.

Today you are here to refresh yourselves - to find a new image, to deepen what you already have, to re-think. Here are some other possible images:

the cave of the heart,
the poustinia [a Russian word for a small sparsely furnished cabin or room where one goes to pray and fast alone in the presence of God]
the hermitage in the desert
the cell of the Celtic saint
Essentially the image we are seeking reflects the place of the heart, the essential core of our deepest being , the unique and true self that each of us is.

For each of us here the daily life which goes on all around is busy, sometimes frenetic. That is why we are here today: to discover what we can learn by looking at the cloister garth about keeping a still centre, a heart of tranquillity, sensitive to the times and the seasons, kept green by a spring of living water.


A still centre of quiet, stillness. That amazing woman Etty Hillesum in a Nazi concentration camp learned to access and to deepen that heart of stillness. "There is in me a vast silence that continues to grow”. Even in the extreme and appalling chaos of noise and pain she wrote "I keep following my own inner voice even in the madhouse in which I work, with a hundred people chattering together in one small room, typewriters clattering...”

“There is in me a vast silence that continues to grow.”

The medieval mind loved symbolism, layer upon layer; it was a natural part of their thinking. Using words poetically, artistically, I want to regain something of that. I am left-brain weary. And so I discover layer upon layer of images for that inner space when I begin to apply it to my own self.

Peter de Cells (d. 1183) called the cloister a kind of paradise where "no aggression from the outside can enter”. He also describes it as an ark, and refers to “swimming in the belly of a whale”, and to consecration in the womb. Finally, he says it is the ante-chamber to an audience with God.

Let’s stay with these images for a moment: they come from so many biblical sources, generally from situations of dire distress or emergency such as the flood and Jonah's adventure. Or from what is common and shared by us all: the womb.

And (this seems to me very important) we are given here a set of images which are basic to our full humanity, images which are primal, primordial - rooted in ancient wisdom which is timeless and crosses all cultural divides.

Experience of applying these images to my own inner self convinces me that we all need to discover ancient roots, ancient sources of wisdom. If we are to survive we need to go deeper than the words that are around today, whether in secular society or in the church (which is also not immune from using popular jargon).

Here is another image: the courtyard of the traditional farming community, which can still be seen in remote parts of Europe today (e.g. Romania). It is vividly caught by the travel writer Colin Thubron in his 1995 book Lost Heart of Asia. He visits an old man, a poet, in Turkmenistan, who takes him into his family home, and shows him something which has survived despite Soviet dominance: the vine-shadowed courtyard "where people shed their shoes before entering the home in the Islamic way”. And Thubron feels that he has dropped through the floor of the bland Soviet world into an ancient substratum of people’s consciousness.

But perhaps our innermost self is a shrine, shaped like a lotus? Here is a passage from the Chandogya Upanishad, 8:1:

In the centre of the house of God, which is our own body, there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus flower, and within can be found a small space. We should find who dwells there, we should seek to know him.

And if anyone asks: “Who is he who dwells in a small shrine in the form of a lotus flower in the centre of the house of God,? Whom should we seek, to find and to know?”, we can answer: “The little space within the heart is as great as the vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun and the moon and the stars; fire and lightning and winds are there; and all that now is and is not: for the whole universe is in Him, and he dwells within our heart.”

Flow, structure, and framework are gentle words. They are an encouragement and not a restriction, as those who truly understand the monastic life express it. "Strict rules which orchestrate the day” reveal a profound wisdom: a structure which conserves energy, and makes the best use of time. It is in contrast to dissipated energies going off in all directions, with disastrous consequences of either depression or overwork or both. Instead I am given an image for a movement which unifies and strengthens.

The cloisters are a place of movement but also of stillness. They were used for lectio divina, the particular kind of monastic reading which is inseparable from prayer, taking time to ruminate, to chew the cud of the word, so that it yields up its juices just like the cow chewing grass (this is a most common medieval monastic analogy), taking time to digest properly. Here they would sit, backs to the wall, on benches, in silence, letting the words move from the head down to the heart, to the gut, until, as one monk put it "they burst into fire”. Later on, working in the fields or copying a manuscript in the library those words will be there, a constant presence, as the Word should be.

This is, as is so much of the monastic tradition, good psychology as well as good religion.

This comment, which does not come from a theologian but from a historian is illuminating:

"As the architectural lungs of the monastic system and the intellectual lungs of a monk's faith, the cloisters enable the monastery to breath.” (Daniel Faure and Véronique Rouchon Mouilleron, Cloisters of Europe, Gardens of Prayer, Viking Studio, Penguin Putnam Inc, New York, 2001, p. 18.)

Time and change, light and dark, death and life. One of the immediate impressions of the cloister is the patterns of light and shadow cast on the ground. In southern Europe the extreme light and heat dictate the actual pattern of each arch. The sun moves daily, changing its position throughout the year. This movement of time, and of the changing seasons, is written in the cloister - and that dramatic pattern of bright sun and dark shadow is also of course a reminder of the pattern of light and dark, of death and resurrection, and not least the way in which they are inseparably inter-connected.

The garden in the centre, the hortus conclusus, was basically grass, generally divided into four sections converging on a fountain or spring in the centre.

As you approach, from whatever angle you come, you cannot see the whole: it is always broken up by a pillar or a column, so it is partially hidden, and yet it seems to draw you on. It is as though there is a visual tension between the arches of the walkway and the green centre which they hold. But entering the garden itself, and then, standing there at its centre, it is green, simple, a basic structure of four parts converging at the central point. Its most compelling feeling is that of stillness.

Again I turn to the practical insight of an architect to help us to recognise what we are experiencing: the funnelling of daylight into the heart of a complex of buildings.

Like daylight, the colour green even glimpsed momentarily, can have an uplifting effect. The setting of green grass within the cloister range has long been known to have a unique power and grace, and to exert a calming effect. (Mick Hales, Monastic Gardens, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, New York, 2000.)

But there is also present in the cloister garden that other universal and fundamental element of the world - water. There is great symbolic significance in the presence of water in the centre of the garden. This is the crux of it all, literally and figuratively: living water, a spring or a fountain, is placed at the very heart of this vast and busy complex. It is of course a technical achievement and once again reflects the bringing together of hands and intellect to explore technology and then to use it responsibly to good purpose.

It is a reminder of the care needed to encourage those flowers, few and simple, which were grown in the cloisters, the seasonal need for seasonal nurturing. It is a reminder of the baptismal font. Above all the fountain of water designates Christ who is the fountain of life.

I want to end with some thoughts about stillness, reminding you of what St Gregory the Great said about Benedict: “he held himself still before the gaze of God.” God was gazing on Benedict while Benedict gazed on God.

Donald Nicholl was one of the great lay prophets of the Catholic Church. I visited him as he was dying of cancer. So did Gerard Hughes. Donald told him, "I've been thinking. I think that thinking is a result of the Fall, so now I spend my days in gazing.”

Icons also have much to tell us about stillness, and about the gaze of the eyes, especially those in that most familiar icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, of which someone used the striking phrase “the listening eye.” And Thomas Merton when given an icon said that it brought its stillness to the whole hermitage.

Stillness and silence: what is the distinction between them? Here is a Benedictine sister from the community of Osage in America (where East meets West) in a paper given to the American Benedictine Academy Convention in August 1994:

Silence can be legislated,
Stillness cannot.
Silence is on the level of the rational,
Stillness opens onto the intuitive.

In stillness of heart we reach far deeper layers of consciousness than the ordinary keeping of silence.

There is a Latin tag from the Benedictine tradition: tranquillitas ordinis, the stillness of order. But the present-day monk David Steindl Rast tells us that this is a dynamic tranquillity. It is like the stillness of a flame burning in perfect calm or like a wheel spinning so fast that it seems to stand still.

So I guess we end up with something that is not static or safe - just as it should be at the end of a day like this. I am tempted to stop here, because this would be a very good point.

YET it is from that centre that we must move outwards. It is the place where God finds us and we find him. It is not empty space per se. It is space for listening to the Word. We enter into that conversation with God, in which our part is mainly to be silent and to listen. And then, from there, strengthened, we go out.

Thomas Merton, steeped in the silence of his hermitage at Gethsemani, was at the same time deeply engaged in the world – in radical and prophetic ways, he fought for the causes of social justice, against racism and war.

Outside his hermitage stood this wheel. Where is the energy here? Does it flow from the hub to the rim? Does the centre hold the edges? What is the relationship between the two? Does the power of the wheel to move depend upon the firm stillness at the centre?

Do we have to find the right connection? The way of coming & going? Going out & returning?

To explore these topics further, you may also like to read these three books by Esther de Waal, all published by the Canterbury Press:

Seeking God: the way of St Benedict

Living with contradiction: Benedictine wisdom for everyday living

Lost in wonder: rediscovering the spiritual art of attentiveness

Return to Achive page.

Page updated by hn on 19 January 2013