Wednesday, November 4


Sleep Like a Cistercian

Some laypeople, when they read of what they perceive as the strictures of monastic life, are often puzzled or even shocked. It’s a defense mechanism, I believe, to prevent us from examining our own messy lifestyles. This is not to say that monks don’t have their own personal interior messes, but, when the world is stripped away and you’re left with just yourself, they’re very hard to avoid. I was reading recently about the world of the medieval Cistercian monastery, and I was struck at how beautifully deliberate it all is. Nothing is left to chance.

Just one example—and I suspect this has changed in the past seven or eight centuries—but I was very struck how there was even a proper way to lay down on your bed. Sit down and swing your legs into it, don’t just flop down like a kid. That can seem quaint and even silly at first glance, but you realize that it’s one less thing to think about, and more time to focus on bigger and better things. I am reminded of the scholastic definition of curiosity as the vice opposed to studiousness—mere inquiry is useless unless directed towards a point.

And the motion itself has a reason behind it—it is simple, dignified, neither sloppy nor showy, but getting the job done in the most logical and sensible way. It is the proper gesture for a human being, not an animal or a puffed-up king. It seems to me a perfect encapsulation of the entire Cistercian worldview.

We have liturgical rubrics for the same reason. First and foremost, they get the job done and save dithering that could be spent on prayer and reflection. They teach obedience, both to external authorities, and within yourself. And they have, laid on top of this from centuries of observation and thinking, a discrete symbolic component. This sensibility—this practical simplicity that leads to a sort of beauty—runs throughout the entire Cistercian monastic tradition; work becomes prayer, prayer becomes work. Liturgy—like life—is hard work. It is not merely a series of rituals for their own sake, but a streamlined program that gives you the tools, conscious and subsconscious, to pray for grace and sanctification. Which, rather than a sort of Zen-like emptiness for its own sake, is the point of life, after all. Many admirers of western monasticism, who might come from a pop-eastern mystical perspective, don’t realize that the Christian empties himself not so he might remain an empty vessel, but so God can have room to come in.

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