I have been enjoying some wonderful dialogues with readers about my Cloister of My Heart. Today I want to explore some of the important issues that our dialogue has presented.
Is a Cloister simply a way to deny the pain and suffering of the world?
A person may go on a retreat for a few days or weeks to shut out the pain and suffering as it is presented by the culture, but actually living within an intentional cloistered community is the opposite of denial. There is a natural pain that arises from the transient nature of life. The constant change of comings and goings, gains and losses, births and deaths is a given and cannot be avoided in a cloister. In fact, the cloister brings us into direct contact with this natural pain and supports us in authentically dealing with it and finding peace. Contrary to this natural process, culture denies suffering by sweeping it up into a myriad of ways of coping, all with ulterior (usually economic) motives. Instead of being helped to clearly look at and come to terms with the transient nature of existence, we are inundated with scare stories and dramas that are presented in slanted video clips, sound bites, and narratives, Instead of seeing clearly, we are confused and frightened. Then we are offered ways of coping with our confusion and fear. We are taught to blame others, made to blame ourselves, urged to take some sort of action which is impossible to take, and then to assuage our chaotic minds we are offered trinkets, bread and circuses, and every kind of legal and illegal soporific. This is true denial. The peace we find in a cloister is an authentic peace, not the avoidance culture offers.
The Cloister removes the sources of melodrama and fear, of blame and anger, and of avoidance, distraction, and diversion. Then, and only then, can we see and deal with real life in all of its transient wonder and all of its authentic pain. Then, and only then, can we be find encouragement, community, and practices that help us find our Divine Heart, our Oneness with all that is. Then, and only then, do we have clear minds and spirits that can authentically feel pain and loss and act in compassion and hope.
A cloistered life is real life. The cloister, because of its emphasis on clarity and because it blocks off most of my escape routes, forces me to deal with what is really real. It offers a depth and clarity of Heart and Soul. This is why the first weeks, months, even sometimes years of cloistered living are seen as a “Dark Night of the Ego.” As a gracious Abbot once told me, “Bill, this monastic life is not about petting bunnies in green meadows.”
Is a cloister of any real value to the world?
If for nothing more than offering a minimal carbon footprint, minimal consumption, and perhaps simply nurturing a group of less anxiety-ridden people, I would say a cloister is of great value. Of course there is more. When the illusory fears and dramas fade, the intrinsic nature of the person is available. From a Taoist point of view, this intrinsic nature will, by its very essence, be of joyful use whenever need arises. It might be in the service of teaching, health care, counseling, tutoring, gardening, poverty work, retreat work, or simply being available to whatever arises. When a person discovers their Divine Essence, they naturally express that discovery in their lives. This has the benefit of being, to a degree, un-selfconscious, expressing the Taoist ideal of, “virtue that is not self-aware of being of virtue.”
I appreciate the dialogue that people have opened with me on this subject. I’m going to keep looking at it and working with my “inner Abbot” to make a truly gracious and compassionate Cloister of My Heart. I am continuing to refine the expression of my “precepts” for my cloister and I’ll share them at a later date. Thank you for your interest and support. These are important ideas for a time of deep transformation such as we are facing.