Just off the main road, surrounded by the vigor of fall foliage, sits a simple monastery. The walkway is open; the front door is glass. There is a tiny doorbell under a large sign that says,”Use this doorbell”. So I did. And there began a conversation that threaded the essence of monastic life with the social and cultural life existing all around and within it. The opening words belonged to a Poor Clare, and she spoke of “the mystery of enclosure”.
“Enclosure” to some is a fenced off area, a separate space. To a Poor Clare, it is the space within the house in which the sisters live: their home and their workspace. It is set apart from the public parts of the monastery: visiting rooms, guest rooms, the chapel. It is a challenge and a reality, a purposefully physically restricted space.
There was a twinkle in her eyes as she spoke. With six decades of monastic life under her belt, she had been invited to speak to a parish group about enclosure. “We all live in enclosures,” she said. “Family, friends, work, schools, ethnicity….” and the softness in her voice was strengthening. Enclosure shapes who we are in ways both clear and curious. There are strengths to it: identity and purpose, connections and support. Danger lurks as well. Those enclosures can become insular, and isolating, discriminatory and divisive. Enclosures are like social systems: subtly and consistently, actions become norms and thoughts become shared viewpoints. They are both inclusive and exclusive, and somehow become visible. The enclosure lives within the person as each person lives within it. Consciousness of that reality is enviable.
In the world outside that monastery, the enclosures so casually named are now colliding: the understandings, the images, the perceptions. What was unseen, what gave life and identity, a common purpose and foundation, has challenged the comfortable enclosures of others. That has opened social channels of uncertainty, confusion, convictions and courage in a torrent of wonderings. But above all, colliding enclosures represent an opportunity to generate new groups, new systems, new hope. Enclosures are there to be created and recreated: the enclosure is a human construction, part of a searching for more.
Monastic enclosure also represents that search for the more. Grounded in the truthfulness and simplicity that allows for awareness of the sacred, monastics cultivate the quiet, the attentiveness to the present moment with a tenacity and resilience that belies the structured days, the sameness. Their enclosure is a testimony to both the human spirit and the divine spark. The mystery of enclosure is embedded in the reality of every day, praying together, eating together, discerning and deciding together. There is the mystery: in the very stillness of being apart comes the wealth to become attentive to who and what is present and outisde the physical parameters. Here, the losses and brokenness can be named, accepted, understood if not forgiven; the divine spark genuinely dances into daily lives. Stillness has substance and movement.
Each enclosure is animated by the layered beauty of humanity. And each is maddeningly challenging to live through: humans working with other humans both gifted and flawed is decidedly difficult. Life is difficult: enclosures like family, friends, churches and ethnic groups promise some comfort, familiarity, hope. Our colliding enclosures are dislodging the past and enabling us to choose new structures, a new system, and new hope.