An excerpt from Jennifer Kavanagh’s “The World is our Cloister”
To live sacramentally demands that we start with ourselves; with inner peace and love we can go forth into the world. To acquire and live with that inner peace we do not need to separate ourselves geographically, to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. What is key is to cultivate the inner “monk”, the monastery within. Sister Stephanie, who lives as a “hermit” in Tamil Nadu on a large and populous estate, defined hermitage as “silence in the heart. That is the true hermitage, the hermitage of the heart.”
Many I have spoken to have expressed this inner reality and the need to hold it while living in the world. But our attention is lived not only as an inner self-remembering but also in a glorification of the Spirit without. Thomas Kelly writes that we can live a life on two levels: “On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings” .
For there is another realm, a parallel universe, a life not seen. A realisation of the spirit within is at the heart of our existence, and contemplation, a centring, a recollection, is an attention to that spirit. To allow that awareness to take place, there has to be an emptying, to make room. The less we hold of ego, the more space there is for the Divine; the less we push our own agenda, the more possible it is to change. This gradual transformation, this journey towards enlightenment, this trust in the unknown, and celebration of the grace that fills the universe, make up what we call the contemplative life.
And it is that other realm, that parallel universe, that needs to shine through in our outward lives. As the Quaker writer Jonathan Dale says, We need “to approach the daily world from the prism of faith”. The sacramental life in the world is not a compromise; it is a different experience lived with the same wholeheartedness as a monastic vocation: a dedicated life, dedicated to God and man. Those of us whose path is in the world are unenclosed, unprotected by a common identity and the values of those around us.
To live in the world is an explicit practical acceptance of the dynamic nature of the Spirit. Our relation with God is not in isolation of our fellow beings; as we are blessed, so we too are able to bless. The Spirit works on us to enable us to give something of what we have received to others, to act as a mirror. So it is that God works not only directly but through human beings, each on another. As we open our hearts and receive, so we give to and receive from other people. How we relate to the world and to other human beings is part of how we relate to God. Thomas Merton writes that “it is only in assuming full responsibility for our world, for our lives and for ourselves that we can be said to live really for God..”
Living as a contemplative in the world is about taking that responsibility. We are mutually accountable for what after all is our world, a world not outside but part of our deepest self. It is not to live in abstraction. We are embodied. The incarnation in several religions teaches us of the inseparability of matter and spirit: our wholeness, integrity, groundedness are a crucial expression of who we are. Spirit without matter is as unbalanced as matter without spirit or materialism. Life in the world is about a series of balances: of the life within and the outside world; inner experience and outward witness; humility and using our full potential; being passive to God and active to the world; concentration on the present moment and with a view to the far horizon; time in eternity; this place in infinity. Joy and suffering; love and detachment; plenitude and the void.