Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source.
In spite of what may seem to be the contrary, there is a deep interest and need expressed by a growing number of persons in our contemporary society to live their lives in a more authentic Christian manner. The desire for authentic Christian living leads them to heed an inner call to adopt a contemplative spirituality and lifestyle.
Many of the psychological and social forces in our consumer society present a distraction for those who seek a deeper meaning in their life experience. The search for meaning and authenticity in one’s life leads a person on a faith journey to the discovery of his or her true self, and to a deeper level of insight regarding the meaning of human existence. It can also lead one to a renewed relationship with God, the source of our existence, with the Christ, who reveals our God, and with all of humanity, with whom we share God’s spirit, the spirit of God within us.
Throughout the ages Christian tradition has gifted us with persons who have given us a variety of approaches to spiritual growth. The process of monastic renewal that began at the end of the eleventh century and continued through the twelfth century resulted in the founding of the Order of Cistercians, with its characteristic spirituality of monastic simplicity of prayer and living.
The writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thiery, and Aelred of Rievaulx, for instance, gave expression and impetus to the development of a Cistercian form of Christian spirituality. This was an attempt to return to the original simplicity of life and prayer that Benedict of Nursia had envisioned in his rule for monks.
Contemporary Western society has been affected by extremes of materialism and individualism that was similarly characteristic of the twelfth century. Like the twelfth century the later half of the twentieth century began a time of religious and spiritual renewal. This spirit of renewal in our time has been given much thrust by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The development of a personal spirituality for laypersons had been neglected during periods of Christian history. Religious literature treating such subjects as methods of prayer and elements of spiritual growth, for instance, was mostly directed to clergy and to members of religious institutes. Bonding between laypersons and religious communities has emerged as a result of new emphasis on spiritual development for all members of Christian communions. Traditional third order and oblate programs have expanded to include a growing number of associate programs connected to religious and monastic communities. This is based on a sense of sharing elements of spiritual growth while maintaining distinctive lifestyles.
Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani Abbey is one such associate program of Christian women and men that formed in the late 1980s as Cistercian Lay Contemplatives. It provided a network of support for those who desire to integrate elements of Cistercian spirituality in their lives. CLC was formed as a result of a dialogue among like minded individuals who were connected by a monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky U.S.A. CLC has evolved into a more structured association with a defined discernment/formation and is now known as Lay Cistercians of Gethsemani Abbey. LCG has an informal relationship with the Abbey.
The founding group of CLC members composed the following Plan of Life as a rule or guide for integrating Cistercian values and spiritual practices for its members.
PURPOSE OF THE PLAN OF LIFE
The ultimate value of our human existence and the goal of the Christian life is union with God. This reality has been revealed to humanity in the person of Jesus the Christ. The Gospels articulate this reality. The Spirit of God enlightens our understanding of this reality and encourages our response in faith.
Our faith response is given expression through prayer and a commitment to spiritual growth. Our faith journey will lead us to a discovery of our inner depths where the spirit of God also dwells. We are challenged to expand our consciousness of God’s unique presence in community with others and in all of creation. In other words it is through God’s call that one is invited to accept the gift of contemplation in which a deeper dimension of God’s presence is revealed.
The purpose of the Plan of Life, therefore, is to serve as a guide for Lay Cistercians in their efforts to develop, in their secular life, a contemplative spirituality according to the Cistercian tradition. The Plan of Life reflects elements that are characteristics of the Cistercian monastic regimen of prayer, work and study. There is an emphasis on a modification of lifestyle that is similar to monastic conversion of manners. These elements can be adapted to and are compatible with the demands of a secular/lay lifestyle. It is obvious that personal discipline of time and activity is required.
It is also hoped that the Plan of Life will assist Lay Cistercians become more centered and quiet as they progress in their spiritual journey. It is expected that the elements of the Plan of Life may serve as the basis of ongoing dialogue between Lay Cistercians and members of the monastic community of the Abbey of Gethsemani.
Since the thirteenth century founders of religious orders have developed a variety of spiritualities, such as Franciscan, Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, or Ignatian (Jesuit), for the purpose of enhancing formation in the Christian life. Lay persons in turn have adapted elements of these spiritual charisms to their ordinary life as Christians. It is in this same vein that the characteristics of Cistercian monastic spirituality have recently attracted laypersons to explore the integration of some elements of Cistercian spirituality with their own Christian formation.
The basis of formation in the Cistercian/Benedictine tradition is the Rule of St. Benedict. Although the Rule was written in the sixth century as a rule of life for Christian monks in the Western Church, laypersons have found portions of the Rule applicable to them in their secular lifestyle.
For persons who choose to adopt a contemplative spirituality according to the Cistercian tradition, it is suggested that they become familiar with the Rule of St. Benedict, attain a general knowledge of Cistercian history, and develop an understanding of Cistercian spirituality. The following list of reading material is recommended for one’s initial study and reflection:
Rule of St. Benedict
Spirituality for Everyday Living: An Adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Brian Taylor (Liturgical Press, 1992)
The Cistercian Way. Andre Louf (Cistercian Publications, 1989)
Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Esther de Waal (The Liturgical Press, 1984)
Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St.BenedictToday. Joan Chittister, OSB (Harper Collins Publishers, 1991)
A School of Love: The Cistercian Way to Holiness. M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. (Morehouse Publishing, 2000)
The Way of Simplicity:The Cistercian Tradition. Esther de Waal (OrbisBooks,1998)
The Waters of Siloe. Thomas Merton (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers,1949)
ELEMENTS OF THE PLAN OF LIFE
The Plan of Life for Lay Cistercians parallels elements that are characteristic of Cistercian monastic life. However, it is understood that persons who follow this guide are immersed in the cares and concerns of life in the secular world. By living their lives according to these guidelines, they would give a contemplative witness where they reside, work, pray, and share community.
Adopting the Plan of Life demonstrates a commitment to daily prayer, lectio, study, and time for silence. It also suggests that a person develop a disposition that is conducive to contemplative spirituality, as well as engage in some form of service or ministry in one’s community. The Plan suggests the minimum commitment a person would make. The four major elements of the Plan of Life are:
Prayer is essential for spiritual growth. Prayer must be valued as an expression of our relationship with God, a relationship that is nurtured by a transformed consciousness of the presence of God in our inner depths. Our private contemplative prayer and participation in liturgical worship should be mutually supportive. One should include the following types of prayer in their daily/weekly prayer experiences:
Eucharistic Liturgy – One should prepare for and more attentively enter into the celebration of Sunday Eucharistic liturgy. Previewing and studying the Scripture readings for Sunday liturgy is recommended. (Note: For those Christians who are not Catholic but are interested in adopting the CLC Plan of Life, it would be expected that they participate in the Sunday public worship service of their primary faith community.)
Liturgy of the Hours – The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Hours) has been a part of monastic liturgical tradition. The reforms of Vatican II have encouraged the restoration of the Liturgy of the Hours for all faithful as public prayer of the entire Church. It is not necessary that the hours be prayed in common. However, it should be understood that when The Hours are prayed, it is from the stance that the entire Church is praying. The minimum recommendation is that Morning Prayer (Lauds) and Evening Prayer (Vespers) be prayed. The monastic/clerical form of the Office is not appropriate for everyone. A simpler version, consisting of a couple of psalms, a Scripture reading, and a prayer of petition or thanksgiving is sufficient.
Lectio Divina – Lectio Divina is the prayerful and reflective reading of Scripture or any inspired writing with a view of letting God speak to us in and through the Word (divine reading). In lectio divina God speaks to and addresses each person individually. It requires a discipline which allows us to enter our own heart, that place where we can truly hear and welcome the Word of God. Lectio is an effort to place ourselves in the presence of God. We must free our minds and hearts for this encounter so that God can draw near to us and we can hear his word.
Contemplative Prayer – At least a half hour a day should be spent in quiet prayer and meditation. It is suggested that this time be divided between morning and evening. This is the time to make a conscientious effort of quieting and centering oneself in prayer so as to celebrate God’s presence within.
It is recommended that a person spend time each week reading and studying Sacred Scripture and engaging in spiritual reading. This activity is an integral part of one’s spiritual development. Scriptural and spiritual reading support one’s prayer experience.
Scripture Reading – There are several biblical commentaries and study guides available for use in studying Scripture. Particular attention should be given to the Gospels.
Spiritual Reading – There are numerous spiritual writers, both classical and contemporary, whose topics include methods of prayer, spirituality, elements of spiritual growth, the contemplative experience, etc., who are sources for spiritual reading. The writings of the Cistercian fathers and mothers should especially be considered.
Supplemental Sources – One should also consider resources such as media, workshops, and lectures that treat relevant spiritual topics.
Manual labor has always been a valued part of Cistercian monastic life. Early Cistercian writers developed a theology of work whereby they considered human persons as co-creators when engaged in authentic work activity. Although manual labor is not always possible for everyone, it should be the attitude of one to engage willingly in productive manual labor when the opportunity is available. Work should be approached with a sense of dedication, praise, and thanksgiving. One should perform his or her work duties as best as possible.
MODIFICATION OF LIFESTYLE (CONVERSION OF MANNERS)
Those who feel they have received the gift of the Cistercian charism and have been called to live a contemplative lifestyle according to the suggestions of the Plan of Life are not attempting to escape the realities of secular life. While recognizing the responsibilities of marriage, family and employment, they are embracing these commitments from a contemplative stance, integrating silence, solitude, simplicity, stability and service into their lives.
From one’s inner self a person is able to connect with others and become more open and responsive to their brokenness and poverty. From this disposition one would be expected to share oneself, both spiritually and materially, with others in a spirit of building community. It is the task of the contemplative to build authentic human relationships.
Silence – One should make a genuine effort spend time in silence during the day. The amount of time will vary given one’s availability. Silence will allow one to be more centered and to discover one’s inner depths.
Solitude – Likewise, one should also regularly spend time alone that allows for deeper reflections and meditation.
Simplicity – A natural outcome of growth in the spiritual life is a desire to live more simply. Moderation and discretion with respect to food, clothing, entertainment and material goods are suggested. Simplicity is a virtue that is difficult to acquire in our materialistic culture. The virtue of simplicity is very prominent in early Cistercian writings.
Stability – A sense of stability keeps us grounded and committed to the spiritual path we have chosen. It also enhances our disposition to be faithful to our vocation in life and our love of God in all things.
Service – Living the Christian life to its fullness should challenge one to serve others. This is how Gospel values of Christian love and justice are demonstrated. A person who grows in the contemplative life is sensitive to the needs of others and is moved to serve. Therefore, engaging in ministry and/or community service is expected.
The following suggestions supplement the Plan of Life for Lay Cistercians:
Annual Retreat – It is recommended that one spend a few days annually on a spiritual retreat. An occasional day of reflection or prayer is also suggested. During these times it is important to assess one’s spiritual growth.
Spiritual Direction/Mentoring – A vital aspect of Cistercian spirituality is forming a trusting relationship with a spiritual mentor or guide. One should be open to receive spiritual guidance or direction.
Spiritual Companioning – It is also recommended that one seek out others (spiritual friends) with whom to walk the spiritual journey. These relationships offer opportunities for mutual sharing of personal experiences, spiritual insights, and challenges to spiritual growth