Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Monasticism of the Closet

Free-standing closet from an art exhibit 
in the Berkeley Center of Yale Divinity School, 1973.

“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet…,”Jesus advised in the KJV translation of Matthew 6:6. The NJB renders this “your private room.” I am told that this was a pantry, which would be at the center of a house of Jesus’ time. Like pantries today, it had no windows, so to keep stored food fresh and protected from critters, outside temperatures, and sunlight.

In his book, Contemplative Prayer, Thomas Merton wrote: “Some people may doubtless have a spontaneous gift for meditative prayer.” Beside it I wrote, “I think I do.”

This is more happenstance or grace than achievement on my part. I can go into a meditative state at will. I use it to begin my morning prayers, or as I approach a tense situation. I even use it when my blood pressure is being checked at the doctor’s office.

I once wrote that it may be sheer laziness on my part: I enjoy having to achieve nothing, to be at rest and at peace, given my busyness, schedule and work ethic. I also have described as difficult sitting with Henri Nouwen meditating on the Host for an hour, but I realize not because of the silence, rather because of the focus and the restless companionship of Henri. Centering Prayer has always seemed busy to me, having to return to one sacred word or phrase over and over again. I have found lectio divina helpful, though, but for the purpose of elucidating a text.

Merton writes that meditation is less about “method” and “system” than cultivating an “attitude,” an “outlook”: “faith, openness, attention, reverence, expectation, supplication, trust and joy.”

He warns against going simply by feelings, declaring, “A hard and apparently fruitless meditation may in fact be much more valuable than one that is easy, happy, enlightened and apparently a big success.” He suggests the movement of meditation follows the “rhythm of the Christian life, the passage from death to life in Christ. Sometimes prayer, meditation and contemplation are ‘death’—a kind of descent into our own nothingness, a recognition of helplessness, frustration, infidelity, confusion, ignorance.”

Thinking of my own contemplative proclivities, I have realized that my version of the monasticism of the desert is my monasticism of the closet, a version of Jesus’ pantry. It was the one place I was “safe” from shaming and bullying, as well as from the demanding and distracting world. I was carefully taught that God loved me; so my closet served as a retreat where I could rest in that love, a love that prompted my coming out in ministry with others. I feel for those who instead got the message that God was a God of wrath and hate that preferred they stay in the closet.

I felt safe enough in God’s love that God and Jesus were the first ones I came out to as gay. That did not mean our “conversations” were not filled with angst and fear and doubt and wrangling. But, thanks to my parents and my church and my Christian elementary and junior high school teachers and my love of scriptures, I grew in trust of God’s love. “When one is simply obeying God, a little effort goes a long way,” Merton writes.

He says that in meditative prayer, God “draws us out of darkness into light—[God] hears us, answers our prayers, recognizes our need, and grants us the help we require—if only by giving us more faith to believe that [God] can and will help us in [God’s] own time. This is already a sufficient answer. … A new realm opens up, that cannot be discovered otherwise: call it the ‘Kingdom of God.’ … But effort is necessary, enlightened, well-directed, and sustained.” (Emphasis Merton’s)

I was blessed with good spiritual directors, from my parents to my teachers, some of whom I only met through their writings.

Today’s quotes may be found in section III of Contemplative Prayer, pages 34-37.

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  1. I'm amazed to hear your misinterpretation of Centering, Chris, when you call it "busy" and refer to "having" to return to the sacred word. I like Cynthia Bourgeault's explanation far better. The essence of CP is the "letting go" gesture. What you're describing in your own meditative practice seems the epitome of this. The excessive use of a mantra is more Eastern meditation.

    1. I thought I'd hear from you on this one, Trudie! I stand corrected; not all forms of Centering Prayer are that of Centering Prayer proponent Thomas Keating, who has instructed the use of a word or phrase to return to when the mind wanders. Thanks for your response!

  2. Someone just wrote this to me, and I thought I'd share it:

    Thanks for your piece today on "Monasticism of the Closet." Are you familiar with Paul Evdokimov and his book THE STRUGGLE WITH GOD, and the concept of "The testimony of the Christian faith in the framework of the modern world postulates the universal vocation of interiorized monasticism." I've read quite of bit of Evdokimov close to half century ago. I just found the whole book cited above on line. If you're not aware of Evdokimov, you might find him a great complement to Merton. Paul was twice married and a lay theologian in the Orthodox church; lived in France.
    The "closet" the "hidden room" is no bigger/smaller than the human heart.

  3. This is quite beautiful and meaningful! Thank you, Chris!