Michaelmas, when we think about realities usually unseen, is a good day on which to respond to a question raised by a number of people about what we mean by our ‘cloister of the heart’ and the internet as its ‘fourth wall’.
I hope Sr Joan Chittister won’t mind my saying that I think we were using the phrase ‘cloister of the heart’ before she coined the phrase ‘monasteries of the heart’. Although there are similarities between the two, there are also major differences.
When we began life as a fully autonomous monastic community, we had practically nothing in material terms, but we did have a vivid sense of the importance of chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Reception of Guests. Benedict exhorts us to welcome the guest tamquam Christus, as if Christ. That means that the monastery must not only give to the guest, it must also receive: the guest should not only find Christ in the monastery but also bring Christ to the monastery. Hence, hospitality is a sacred duty, and a mutual duty. For us, without a physical space into which to welcome guests, the internet provided an opportunity to exercise Benedictine hospitality, no less real for occurring within a virtual space. That is why we have tried to introduce elements of interactivity and to create a space that is at once welcoming and imbued with a sense of the sacred. There is a lot still to do, but we have to work within the constraints of our resources, both human and financial.
We commonly refer to this virtual space as our ‘cloister of the heart’, and the internet, which is both the means and mode of its existence, as its ‘fourth wall’. To understand that, you need to have some knowledge of the role of the cloister in monastic history. Historically, the cloister is usually a quadrangular covered walkway, adjoining the three most important places within the monastery, church, chapter house and refectory. It links them all, and is traditionally associated with prayer and reading. In medieval times, it was often also the scriptorium, where monks and nuns worked at manuscripts.
Church, chapter house, refectory: where is the fourth place to encounter Christ? In the guest, of course; and how do we at Hendred chiefly encounter the guest? Through the internet. There is a further point to make. We speak of the internet as a ‘wall’ as well as a vehicle of welcome. That is because a life of prayer requires discipline and sometimes distance from many of the preoccupations of a more secular lifestyle. The internet is a way in which we can take the monastery to others and enable those who wish to share in our life of prayer to experience something of God’s love and explore with us some of the big questions of life; but it is also a way in which a small and ‘economically challenged’ community can protect itself from being devoured by the needs and demands of others.
We hope that readers of this blog and users of our various web sites will always feel welcome in our ‘cloister of the heart’. We cannot always meet your expectations or demands, no human being could; but we hope you will be encouraged to go further into God. It is the greatest of all journeys. May St Michael and all angels attend you on the way.