Mention the word “cloister,” and a host of images come to mind, mostly with long hallways and arched ceilings. In most of the monastic communities I’ve been to, there’s some sort of cloister, whether it’s a simple walkway, or something more classical. It defines parts of the monastic enclosure, which can still be seen, either symbolic (a pile of rocks, a small fence, a gateway) or functional (an actual wall with signs requesting that guests respect it.) It’s also functional, a way to get from one place to another, without worrying about inclement weather. At the heart of it is some kind of garden or fountain, representing paradise.
The term “cloistered” is also used to denigrate people. It’s easy to dismiss someone who chooses a cloistered existence as one lacking common sense, one unable to cope, and a misanthrope. The notion that a cloistered person has renounced the world is an easy stereotype, but one not based in reality. Most of the cloistered monastics I know would argue that it allows them to interact with the world in a different way.
The ideal that one aspires to–at least among the Benedictines I know–is a life of continual prayer, one centered in the Eucharist and always open to God’s presence. As an oblate–a lay person who lives according to the Rule of St. Benedict as best as he or she can do–one faces a different,and seemingly harder, set of distractions from this ideal. We have to carve out time for our practices (lectio divina, the Divine Office, some form of contemplation), and our lay lives are hardly conducive or easy to reconcile with our contemplative lives. Some days it feels like being ripped in half between both lives, instead of being perfectly balanced.
But then there comes the realization that the cloister isn’t a physical place, but a state of being. One’s urban monastic tendencies aren’t a hobby or a job, but a way of life. It’s realizing in the midst of chaos and a million things vying for our attention that we’ve chosen the better part, one which can’t be taken away or desecrated. For a fleeting instant, there’s stillness.
not that horror was not, not that the killings did not continue,
not that I thought there was to be no more despair,
but that as if transparent all disclosed
an otherness that was blessèd, that was bliss.
I saw Paradise in the dust of the street. (Denise Levertov, from “City Psalm”)