My friend Toto (who is also one of my patrons) recently asked me “A topic that is often at the front of my mind is balance. What to do with the flood of insight and feeling? What to do with the numbness and apathy? How did Jesus and the early Christian mystics approach distraction, how about monotony/boredom?”
Balance is such an important thing in life. It is perhaps the best way to describe a state of health – to be well balanced. Jesus practiced this in his way of life, even while living in a very radical way. Jesus knew when he needed time to retreat from the demands of the world. For instance, when his cousin John the Baptist was murdered he took time to go by himself and mourn. Again, when his own murder was at hand, Jesus retreated with his closest friends to a mountain to center himself and pray to God. Even there, though, he left his most trusted companions by the fire to be truly alone.
Without intentional time to attend to our inner condition, we can easily become out of balance. One of the great strengths of the monastic tradition is structure and routine. The human will is naturally fickle and inconsistent. It is precisely when we need to pray most that we are the least inclined to do so. Often the simple practices which ground us and restore our balance are the first things we cut out when we feel stressed.
During these stressful times, in the midst of a global pandemic, when everything we know has changed, it is easy to lose our routine. I think that having times set aside for daily reflection can be so essential.
I would like to share with you a quote from Pelagius. It is from his letter to Celantia who was a married woman looking to live the religious life while also caring for her family. Pelagius was famous for teaching women when others were unwilling and in this case Celantia was strongly called to God while her husband was not.
In his letter Pelagius gives the following advice about maintaining a balance between married and religious life and I think it applies very much to many of us who are at home with our families and in need of some of that monastic structure as the world seemingly descends into chaos.
“Let your home be the object of your concern in such a way that you can still allot a period of respite to your soul. Choose a convenient place, a little removed from the noise of the household, to which you can betake yourself as if to a harbour out of a great storm of cares and there, in the peace of inner seclusion, calm the turbulent waves of thoughts outside. We do not say this with the purpose of detaching you from your family; rather our intention is that in that place you may learn and meditate as to what kind of person you ought to show yourself to your own kin.”
Here Pelagius is suggesting dedicating a specific place and time (in other letters he recommends the morning when the faculties are still fresh) to attending to the inner condition. He also, and I think this is so beautiful, makes a clear point that this is not meant to be a way for Celantia to renounce her family, but rather he encourages her to use the time to rejuvenate herself and become the best mother and wife she can be for the sake of her kin (or family).
This intentional time spent alone in one’s closet, as Jesus put it, restores us to balance. In fact, this practice will inevitably have an effect on the rest of our lives as well. It is very easy to move towards extremes of eating or sleeping or drinking. When we do not take the time to be attentive to ourselves we become imbalanced.
The Cloud of Unknowing talks about the importance of balance as well. The author says that in all things moderation is key. The only exception to this rule is that one can spend as much time as one likes in contemplation without any ill effect. But even things like reading and prayer can be over (or under) done. Here is a little snippet of what The Cloud teaches us about this:
“If you ask me what moderation you must exercise in this work of contemplation, I answer you by saying, ‘None at all!’ In all your other actions you must exercise moderation, as in eating and drinking, in sleeping, in protecting your body against extreme cold or heat, in how long you pray or read, or in conversing with your fellow Christians: in all these things you must exercise moderation, so that they are neither too much or too little. But in this work of contemplation you must not keep within limits, for I want you never to cease from this work while you are alive.”
Whether you spend your time reflecting on your inner condition or basking in the wordless light and love of the eternal Christ, retreat is essential in order to maintain balance and the balance won in the contemplative work pours forth great blessing into your home and all aspects of your life.
So I pray you seek balance in the stillness, for stillness is the fountain from which balance flows. Be intentional. Do not spend the whole day doing any one thing (unless you’re so inclined to spend it in contemplative prayer). Set aside specific times for reading, prayer, and social activities. Take time to be alone and to spend with your kids or spouse or pet or online community. Have moderation in all things and balance will emerge from that intentional space you have created. For balance lies dormant in the hidden recesses of nature, waiting for a still moment to blossom forth.
David Cole and I have put together a virtual retreat on the subject of New Monasticism. It includes six sessions each with a series of talks and a meditation video featuring beautiful nature scenery and Celtic harp music. There are a few videos available for free preview so that you can get a sense of what it’s all about before signing up. You can click the button below to learn more.