The Household of God: Monastic Architecture
Holy souls setting out on solitary journeys into the deserts of
in the 3rd century of the Christian era provided the first expression of a movement from which monastic religious life would ultimately emerge. The landscape of the desert, the landscape of desolation, was sought as the proper setting for life with God alone. The call to set out, to withdraw from worldly cities, became more and more pronounced in the aftermath of the Edict of Milan issued in AD 313. Signed by emperors Constantine I and Licinius, the edict proclaimed religious toleration in the Egypt Roman Empire at the conclusion of the Diocletian Persecution. This declaration legitimized the followers of Jesus Christ as well as their Church thus eliminating the possibility of martyrdom for illegal activity as the penultimate sacrifice in true devotion. Absent bloody martyrdom, men and woman began to satisfy their desire for total self-donation by seeking the ‘white martyrdom’ of withdrawal to solitude and silence in deserted territories. The most outstanding of these early hermits came to be known as the Desert Mothers and Fathers, the holy Ammas and Abbas. Magnetic in holiness, they drew those who wished to live for God, to pursue a life of constant prayer. This way of being would be attained by attachment to these experienced mentors, stern, demanding, and wise, who taught more by example than words. From clusters of followers gathered around a hermit practitioner with a reputation for holiness gradually rose monasteries, organized communities under the tutelage and authority of a spiritual superior. Slowly clusters of solitary hermits became organized cenobites, women or men living in religious community together. Eventually rules of life would be formulated, the most well known written by St. Benedict in the 6th century.
An introduction to development of monasteries from the historical perspective sets the stage for explanation of the nature of monastic life and community. Lack of familiarity, even among Catholics, of the purpose and features of the monastic household has become apparent as we seek a new location for our contemplative monastery. There is little, if any, sense of the organic daily reality of the monastic enterprise. Questions and suggestions received from family and friends; from apostolic religious whose life is dedicated to active service; and most profoundly from conversation with laity, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, indicate that the purpose and nature of contemplative monastic life remain to them almost a complete mystery. In addition, the fact of a relationship of architecture, the structural design of a monastery, with the intended use of this specific type of dwelling is lost. It has become necessary, over and over again, to explain how a monastic structure truly illustrates the principle which states ‘use determines form’.
Generally, the image conjured by the word ‘house’ is a dwelling in which one family whose members are related by blood makes its home. The image is limited to an experience of home as either an ordinary family dwelling or, in the case of vowed apostolic religious, as the typical residence for an active community. The visualization is limited to an abode which is a place of safety, nourishment and restoration for those who will be sent out into the world to be educated, to earn a living, to contribute to the well-being of others, to relate to the body politic and to be integrated into all facets of society and culture.
The monastic house, any monastery, is not intended to be such a launch site. It is not a place designed to send members forth prepared to act on the world stage. While a call to action is the most common vocational call, the monastic, the monk or nun of our time, no less than the hermit St. Anthony or the great Pachomius, father of monasticism, is called to go apart; to migrate to a place at the margins of social intercourse; to cultivate in silence and solitude an intimate relationship with the Divine. Recognizing their weakness and as an expression of humility, monastics seek the support and challenge of organized community as well as the authoritative guidance of experienced practitioners as they travel the path of interior transformation into the likeness of Christ within community.
From the very beginning these purposes motivated the creation of highly self-sufficient and self-contained enterprises. However varied in nuance of expression by virtue of spiritual charism and chosen modes of life, the members of all monastic orders pray, work, nourish themselves and recreate together. Prayer, both communal and private, is the central core, the rotating energizing hub from which all other functions radiate. Monastic institutions support themselves by work done within the monastery walls even while income is augmented by the philanthropy of benefactors. In earlier centuries the work was mostly agricultural, even for monasteries of women. In time income would also be generated through handicrafts and the arts: carpentry, calligraphy, manuscript copying and illumination, bookbinding, embroidery, lace making, weaving, woodworking, pottery and production of wine and foodstuffs, etc. These enterprises required space for organized production especially in communities where membership could soar to over one hundred. Today a common source of income for monasteries of women is the manufacture of altar breads (hosts) for Eucharist. It is a difficult and highly mechanized work requiring a great deal of space. Our own monastery business requires a space resembling a garment factory; rows of industrial sewing machines flanked by large cutting and ironing tables, surrounded by racks of neatly sewn ceremonial capes for the Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre ready to be packed and shipped.
Until thirty to forty years ago a few monastic architectural terms remained in the general Catholic memory. A Catholic vocabulary included the word cloister. However, the mental image of that term was often limited to an experience of some dark monastery vestibule dominated by a turn set into a wall. A delivery could be placed in the cylindrical device which would be rotated by an unseen hand while a disembodied voice uttered a word of appreciation and blessing. A second but none the less limited mental image associated with the word cloister was that of the monastic parlor where a privileged visitor could get a glimpse of a heavily veiled nun separated from her guest by metal grille work sometimes appointed with spikes to remind that the encounter would not include a touch or kiss.
These dark images spoke of separation and carried the notion of possible contamination by the world. They do not give testimony to the real purpose of the cloister or the traditional monastic enclosure from its beginnings to our time. While in the distant past some real protection from outside forces may have been required, the true purpose of monastic enclosure is to preserve and enhance the apostolic work of contemplative nuns which is prayer. The typical cloister, indeed any architecture of enclosure, protects by design the life to which the nuns within have dedicated themselves. The cloister or enclosure is constructed in such a way as to ensure that degree of silence and solitude in which the life of prayer can be born. Today few monasteries retain the vestibule turn or the metal grille in the parlor. Noting the absence of these features many conclude that the nuns must no longer require any form of enclosure. The direct opposite is true. Monastic cloister or enclosure is a living space for the community set apart from space open to the public (chapel, library, parlor, meeting room, etc.). In the public places nuns may mingle freely with those who come to worship, to unburden their hearts, to seek spiritual direction or to experience the monastery as a school of prayer. Today, our contemplative monastic community does not wish to be defined only by the descriptor which declares us ‘cloistered’, as women who live separate of from the world and from those who live in it as if warding off contagion or, even worse, announcing ourselves as special in the eyes of God. Rather, we present ourselves as a dedicated praying presence in the world, a burning flame of praise and petition before God. Contemplatives do whatever they find suitable in order to follow the often repeated directive of our Church to be ‘a school of prayer’ and offer comfortable spiritually enriching public spaces in their monasteries. At the same time, the heart of our vocation to constant prayer in the midst of the Church requires some more protected space provided by the architecture of enclosure. The enclosure is that more private space in which the contemplative way is lived by a community praying, working, eating and recreating together while managing a large household. Above all it is a space that allows for those activities as they cluster around the true center of the life; prayer and praise expressed at the Eucharistic table in the Mass and in the daily round of Liturgy of the Hours. The enclosure thus supports the public prayer life of the community and also guarantees an environment conducive to a quiet and recollected way of being personally available to God.