PrayerTheology & Spirituality

Notes from New Camaldoli Hermitage: Contemplative Wisdom for the Parish Today

“Prayer comes first. Neither serving nor preaching is good if you are not praying. If you have not got Christ within, you cannot give him to others. You can put words and doctrines before people, but that is not preaching the Gospel. It is only when you have the Gospel and Christ within that you can communicate it to others…The Gospel is primarily not a word to be preached but the Spirit to be communicated”1 -Fr. Bede Griffiths

“If it wasn’t for monasticism, I don’t think I would be interested in religion at all.” These were the words of one of the long-term visitors to the hermitage. He went on to explain how he feels that many parishes and cathedrals in this country are robbing people of the experience of God. “Everybody rushes through Mass to get to brunch early, and the priests present themselves like wannabe standup comedians. The tragedy is that people are looking for contemplation. They are desperate for a moment of guided silence in God’s presence. They are not looking for a show. They are looking for a space where they can genuinely encounter the Lord. Yet we are giving them the fast-food versions of our liturgies at times, and the rest of the time all our gimmickry is choking out their ability to perceive God in the midst of us.”

In light of my experience at the hermitage, I gather that he is not the only young(ish) person to feel this way. During my weeks there I was quite surprised by the number of younger people (early twenties to early forties) that came to visit the monastery. I’ve grown somewhat unaccustomed to people around my own age coming to church. Both Fr. Bede Griffiths and Fr. Thomas Keating have often observed that younger generations aren’t leaving our churches because they are forsaking religion. Rather, they are looking for a religion that touches them and transforms them on a deeper level, which is why many are looking into the non-Christian Eastern religions. Racing through a Sunday morning liturgy so that everyone can get a good seat at Cracker Barrel, and listening to shallow sermons that don’t really address the human condition; these are no longer viable religious experiences for scores of young people. Church has become a distraction from prayer. As an old coworker once told me, “I stopped attending Mass when I was in middle school. Whenever the priest noticed my absence, he came to pay my parents and me a visit. When he asked me why I stopped attending, I told him that I experienced the peace of God far more in my bedroom while I prayed than I ever did at church. I told him that there is nothing prayerful about what our church does on Sunday mornings.”

I think a line from an old Megadeth song is quite fitting as I recall this man’s story: “What do you mean that I don’t believe in God? I talk to him every day.”2 For many, the contemplative way of communicating with God and the churchy way of communicating with God are at odds with one another. Church services are often structured and carried out in such a way that they raise the question of whether or not ministers have actually ever had meaningful prayer with God at all.

Now that I have left the hermitage, I have been praying sincerely for a return to the ancient ways of doing things. I have been praying that people will see the wisdom of Saint Athanasius as he retreated into the desert to experience the life of Saint Antony. I have been hoping that God will raise up another Saint Macrina who will open up the eyes of so many of her brothers and sisters just as she did for Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. I don’t believe that the parish needs to become a monastery, nor the parishioner a monk. I do believe, however, as Walter Hilton has shown, that we should pursue the creative cultivation of a “mixed life;”3 one that is both contemplative and active. I do believe that there is an abundance of untapped wisdom in our monastic traditions that most of our church leaders and parishioners have yet to encounter. I suppose that is why I am writing this article: I want to share what I experienced this summer. I encountered so many wonderful things at New Camaldoli that I hope parishes and churches all over can (re)discover. Fr. Cyprian, the prior of the hermitage, told me that it is all about the little things whenever it comes to the cultivation of a contemplative and a Benedictine environment. This article is a testament to all of the “little things” that I was privileged to witness, along with a few thoughts on how some of these things can be implemented in a parish setting.  

Given that New Camaldoli isn’t just Benedictine, but within the Camaldolese Order of the Benedictine tradition, large portions of the day are given over to silence and solitude. This is why New Camaldoli is a hermitage and not a monastery. The Oblate Rule underscores the importance of this silence for the life of prayer: “This secret prayer, the fruit of repentance and purity of heart, is taught by the Gospel and recommended by Saint Benedict, Cassian and the desert tradition. The atmosphere of silence, in which God speaks, is indispensible for this practice. Silence permeates it and nourishes it…” I underestimated the power of this silence and solitude initially, but I eventually rediscovered that God is not in the fire, nor in the wind, nor in the earthquake, per se (aka, he is not in the noise). Rather, he is in the “still small voice” (or “silence” as some translations render it).4 It is in being truly still that we can know that God is God. As St. John of the Cross once said, “The Father spoke one word from all eternity, and he spoke it in silence, and it is in silence that we hear it.”5

Simply being unplugged for half a month had a dramatic effect on me. I had no cell phone service, television, or access to the Internet. All of these things, which now seem like distracting nuisances, could not get in the way of prayer there, nor could they distract me from dealing with myself. In the utter silence you cannot evade your thoughts. In the silence, that still small voice will not allow you to ignore the one who whispers. In being still you are not only confronted with the knowledge of God, but also dashed to bits by the realization that you are not him.

Contemplative prayer is not all butterflies and rainbows. Fr. Bede Griffiths and Fr. Thomas Keating remind us (in all of the books of theirs that I have read so far6) that whenever we are praying contemplatively, stilling our hearts and minds to simply be in the presence of God, the human psyche begins to release memories and suppressed thoughts. During my time at the hermitage, repressed memories came out of nowhere, even bringing me to tears on one occasion. While the process was painful, I quickly learned that God was seeking to heal the baggage that I had been holding onto for far too long. He allowed me to confront and give over to him the dark memories that I had been refusing to deal with. I left the hermitage with the deep conviction that the human being needs times of solitude, not just to hear a word from God but so that we can also see ourselves for who we truly are.

We are all terribly good at coping, but we are not good at healing. Whenever we experience something painful, we busy ourselves to distract ourselves. We begin a new house project or we turn on the television or a video game, or we seek to numb the pain with things like food or alcohol. Yet these things do not heal us; they just help us to forget. I can have a broken ankle, and just because the pain medication helps to keep the aching throb at bay, it does not mean that my ankle is not still broken. At some point I am going to have to let it heal. The same is true of our souls. Just because we can distract ourselves and bury the pain does not mean that we are healthy. We are just prolonging the healing process. At the hermitage I learned that contemplation is one of the chief means whereby God heals our relationship with him, with others, and with ourselves. As Julian of Norwich says, “Our Lord is most glad and joyful because of our prayer; and he expects it, and he wants to have it, for with his grace it makes us like to himself in condition as we are in nature, and such is his blessed will.”7 In other words, God reforms his image and likeness in us primarily through the prayer we give him.

I have become convinced that certain unintended consequences result from a Christian life devoid of silent prayer. Most obviously, we simply never let God heal us as fully as we need. However, I also think the lack of prayer has led to the departure of our younger generations from the church. Not only is the Church is not providing something that younger people feel they spiritually need, but they are not seeing in Church people the sort of transformed lives that are worthy of imitation. If they don’t see healing within us (remember, a definition for salvation in the Scriptures is also “healing”), they aren’t going to believe the message of healing and restoration that we proclaim. Gospel actions must accompany Gospel proclamation. As the author of the Cloud of Unknowing reminds us, positive benefits result from the practice of contemplation. This is not to say that such benefits are why we meditate, but rather that they are missional byproducts of the contemplative life. “If a man were practiced in this exercise, it would give him true decorum both of body and soul, and would make him truly attractive to all men or women who looked upon him.”8 How many have abandoned the Church today, not because of the teachings of Christ, but because of the demeanor of Christians? How many have sensed our message and our manner of life to be at odds with one another? How many have left because they hear about the love of Jesus from us, but they don’t see such love in our lives? While it may seem quite bizarre to say that there are huge missiological implications of contemplation, the mystical traditions of the Church remind us that it is a life transformed by God that transforms lives. We cannot ignore contemplation anymore if we want to reach the culture again. We cannot convert others if we ourselves are not also undergoing the process of conversion, being radically transformed by the Holy Spirit through prayer.

Contemplation truly does lead to active compassion. New Camaldoli is truly a testament to this. The brothers there, and even the non-monastic staff, were all so warm, hospitable, open-minded, and mature. They made me feel truly at home and completely at ease while I was among them. They all, without even trying, made me want to be more like them. I wanted to imitate the Christ that I saw in each one of them. They were living icons of love, hospitality, grace and authentic faith. While certainly not perfect, they restored my hope that Christian community (and not just Christian theology, preaching, politics, etc.) can offer something truly wonderful and transformative to the world once again. They are to me a living image of what a community formed through contemplative prayer can look like. No doubt this is the reason why New Camaldoli has so many visitors each year, and the reason why so many adopt their Rule of life as non-monastic Oblates. People feel like they are getting a taste of the true Church and genuine Christianity once again. It is like stumbling across an oasis in the middle of a parched land, and being reminded that there were more fruitful times before the drought.

To use Fr. Cyprian’s terminology, I saw the brothers do many “little things” to foster a genuine Christian community. For one, they warmly welcomed all of their visitors. If a new person came into one of the services and looked lost, the monks would come over and help guide the person through the prayer books. I think I saw every single monk do this by the time I left, proving that they all took responsibility in showing hospitality to the strangers who came their way. They were especially hospitable with me. I lived amongst them for two and half weeks in the cloister with them. The fact that I was Episcopalian and that they were Roman Catholic didn’t seem to matter to them at all. They welcomed me with arms wide open, accepting me as one of their own.

To my initial frustration, I also noticed how they constantly shifted their liturgical schedule around. On most days they celebrated Vigils, Lauds, Noonday Prayer, Vespers, and Mass. However, these weren’t held at the same times every day. They would shift things around in order to accommodate everyone. For example, on one occasion several monks left the hermitage to go to a nearby mission for the day. So, Mass was moved down to Lauds before the monks left. Lauds was even moved down a bit to give the monks more time. Even though this tripped me up quite a bit at the beginning, I began to see the beauty in the shifting liturgical times. Liturgy, for them, isn’t all about ritual (although they would argue that ritual isn’t unimportant). Rather, it was truly about the “work of the people.” I was reminded during my time there that “Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath.” This is why a monk wouldn’t mind leaving his seat to help a complete stranger who had just walked into the middle of a service. It is also why the community doesn’t mind having a flexible liturgical schedule.

Life at New Camaldoli was also wisely balanced. There were designated times for contemplative prayer. There was also a time for work, and times to come together to pray the liturgies. There were times of fellowship, which one might think odd for a hermitage. While I was there they had a movie night each week and even occasional parties. While this notion of balance may seem insignificant, I was constantly reminded of how far my own life had been thrown off kilter. How many of you are like me, overworking yourself? How many of us give so much of our time to the service of the Church that we leave little to no room for our own spiritual replenishment? How many of us have the liturgy memorized but honestly feel like we haven’t encountered God in private devotions for quite some time? To critique my own tradition, we Episcopalians tend to forget that our spirituality is threefold, harmonizing Mass, Office, and private devotion.9 How many of us know how to pray, but not how to party (or the other way around)? How many of us know how to party but not how to work? The hermitage is a testament to a true Benedictine comprehensiveness, one which harmoniously balances all these different dynamics.

I can’t help but think about the profound wisdom that can be gleaned and applied to a parish setting. For one, we too can make sure that we are emphasizing a balanced life. I have known too many parishioners and too many ministers who give far too much time to the church to the detriment of other vital aspects of life. Christ has not just redeemed our souls; he is not just concerned with things spiritual. In Christ’s Incarnation, the physical has become spiritualized. Thus, how we tend to the body and our emotional well-being matters. Church cannot drown out family life, nor should it crowd out times for silence. The Christian life needs to be a well-balanced one. We need to know how to pray and to party. We need to give our time to the Church and to work. We need to seek physical health as well as spiritual nourishment.

Furthermore, we can more attentively cultivate a contemplative ethos on Sunday mornings. Mass/Liturgical worship is meant to be a time for prayer, not just ritual. Not that these two should be set at odds with one another: prayer truly is ritualistic. However, rather than racing through our liturgies, we can slow down, thus making space for prayer to blossom even more. As the Oblate Rule for New Camaladoli states, “The Hours are enhanced when prayed slowly and reverently.” The same is no less true of Mass. It is truly appropriate to take a moment to pause after different parts of the liturgy, especially the Scripture readings. Sitting in silence together for fifteen to thirty seconds after a reading isn’t going to kill anybody. Instead, it will give the Holy Spirit an occasion to wrestle the Word more deeply into our hearts. At New Camaldoli, there is a lengthy pause after each Psalm, each canticle, each Scripture lesson, and each homily. This made worship there truly reinvigorating for me, giving me greater opportunity to weave my own prayers into the liturgical setting and to meditate upon the Spirit’s working in my own heart.10 Worship there does not cut against the grain of the pursuit of still prayer; it does not drown out the ability to find silence and to meditate. Instead, I found my own prayer life being fueled, and going into my cell for contemplation after Vespers each evening felt like a natural extension of the liturgy.

I also noticed that there was no clutter in these services. They truly were without pomp and circumstance. The chanting was incredibly beautiful, but simple enough for someone like me to sing along. The lack of instrumental accompaniment was refreshing, reminding all in attendance what worship is all about; the people of God raising their voices in praise to their Creator. The chanting was stylized in such a way that a visitor didn’t have to think too much about how to sing along while they were singing. In contrast, much of what we consider as worship music today actually detracts from prayer. If we have to think too much about how we are singing, it can be quite easy to forget why we are singing to begin with. As most monastic traditions teach us, there is a certain beauty in simplicity. Church music should be fairly plain so as to not distract from contemplation or discourage the visitor who can’t keep up.     

There was another aspect of New Camaldoli that really got me thinking about the parish setting. As I mentioned, each evening after Vespers and Mass (unless Mass was moved to an earlier part of the day), the community engaged in thirty minutes of contemplative prayer together. Some would remain in the sanctuary, sitting around the altar. Others would go back to their cells. Regardless, it was a community-wide practice. I couldn’t help but think about how powerful a similar practice would be in a parish setting. Rather than rushing out for coffee after the service, what if everyone sat in silence, stilling themselves before the Lord for another fifteen to thirty minutes after the service? Or if that is too inconvenient, what if we replaced Sunday school with times of guided contemplation? Others might feel this is too bold of a move, but I would ask what the greater necessity is in our day. Do our people need to know more stuff about the faith, or do they need deeper union with Christ? Again, not that these two dynamics need to be at odds with one another, but utilizing Sunday school as a means for a purely intellectual endeavor doesn’t do a whole lot to stir up fervor for God. The Church Fathers teach us that the person who prays truly is a theologian. If we want our parishioners to be more theologically endowed, then they need prayer more than they need to work through a half-baked curriculum. To look at it another way, if Sunday school is utilized as a time for Bible study (which is really great), why not shift things around a bit to turn it into an opportunity for Lectio Divina, where the Scriptures are not just studied but prayed? 

I am certainly not arguing for jettisoning catechesis during the Sunday school hour. Rather I am arguing for greater intentionality in what we hope to achieve after catechesis. Do we want to merely form thinkers about the faith, or lovers of God? What good is knowledge if it lacks love? Why should Sunday school aim at the former and have nothing to offer in terms of the latter?   

As with most things, it is impossible to truly encapsulate an experience, to fully convey to others the transformation that one has undergone and the insights that one has gleaned. I have sought in this article to pass on some of this but, alas, words fail. So, I can think of no better way to conclude than with something the monks introduced me to. It is called “St. Romuald’s Brief Rule.” St. Romuald was the one who started the Camaldolese Order, and his Brief Rule will perhaps serve as the best summary of everything I’ve so feebly sought to articulate. 

“Sit in your cell (or room) as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms; never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, then take every opportunity to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind. And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more. Realize above all that you are in God’s presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor. Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother gives him.”11

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TJ Humphrey

TJ Humphrey

TJ is a student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and aspiring to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. He is an avid reader, especially in works that deal with relational ontology, liturgical theology, and the ecclesial life of the Church. For fun, TJ loves to spend time with his family, travel, go backpacking in the mountains, watch a good hockey game, sip on a good bourbon, and geek out with a good theology book.

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