The Monastery as the Household of God

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Our guest blogger today is our friend Sister Hildegard Pleva, OSsR. Sister Hildegard is a regular at evening prayer, appeared on an Ask Sister podcast, and has guest blogged before! You can find Sister Hildegard and the Redemptoristine nuns at the blog Contemplative Horizon.

“… Form ever follows function…”
~ Louis Sullivan, 1856-1924, Father of Modern American Architecture

Our contemplative monastic community has been searching for a new monastery. Our current home and its land is changing hands requiring us to move. In the process have had to explain over and over again the nature of our life and how radically it differs from service oriented apostolic religious life.

The mental image of a cloister is often limited to a dark monastery vestibule or parlor where the visitor glimpsed a heavily veiled nun behind metal grille appointed with spikes to remind that the encounter would not include a touch or kiss.

These images belong to the past and do not point to the real purpose of the cloister. The architecture of enclosure supports the life of prayer to which the nuns are dedicated. The enclosure ensures silence and solitude. It is a living space for the community set apart from space open to the public; that more private space for a community praying, working, eating and recreating together while managing a large household. It allows those activities to cluster around the center which is prayer and praise at the Eucharistic and the Liturgy of the Hours.

Within the enclosure all of the functions of the monastic household are carried out 24/7 within a fixed group of members. It must have room for everyone to do everything together most of the time. No members will be off to a ball game or have a late night at the office. No one will go out to work. No one can arrive home after a long hard day and announce their departure to take in dinner and movie with a friend. These realities determine architectural form.

In our search we visited large homes and former convents. Invariably we realized that each structure conformed to the “form follows function” rule. Private homes were built to be just what they were. Buildings designed for apostolic religious supported the kind of life they lead, a life with work outside the residence. No effort at remodeling would successfully transform them into suitable monastic structures. We had to face in-depth consideration of our monastic enterprise. “What is it we wish to protect; what is it we wish to nourish and pursue in the structure we envision?” “Form follows function”; not the other way around. In the end we recognized that no mere structure will guarantee dedicated contemplative life. Thoughtful design provides suitable space, an environment conducive to prayer, a place apart. The rest is the work of God’s grace in the desiring soul.

Comments

KCMayrie January 27, 2012 at 7:53 am

Great blog! I don’t remember who said it, but I think there is a quote somewhere that talks about the “cloister of the heart.” That the physical boundary that offers the enclosure from which the monastic prayer life flourishes is also to be maintained within – especially when circumstances deem the physical boundary is absent. I think that follows in public life as well. Are we guarding our hearts and minds and keeping them for God or are we allowing other distractors to take precidence? Good food for thought!