Contemplative Living in Today’s World:
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.
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 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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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 …
Has your own daily life become dictated and formed by these
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
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
’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
Here is Bernard on the dignity and beauty of the human
Does it seem to you a little thing that God made
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
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
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 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
so that everything may radiate it:
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.
SPACE - THE CLOISTER
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
But perhaps our innermost self is a shrine, shaped like a
lotus? Here is a passage from the Chandogya Upanishad,
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
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
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
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,
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
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
Seeking God: the way of St Benedict
Living with contradiction: Benedictine wisdom for
Lost in wonder: rediscovering the spiritual art of
Return to Achive page.
Page updated by hn on 19 January 2013