Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source.” (Thomas Merton)
In spite of what may seem to be the contrary, there is a deep interest and need expressed by a growing number of persons in our contemporary society to live their lives in a more authentic Christian manner. The desire for authentic Christian living leads them to heed an inner call to adopt a contemplative spirituality and lifestyle.
Many of the psychological and social forces in our consumer society present a distraction for those who seek a deeper meaning in their life experience. The search for meaning and authenticity in one’s life leads a person on a faith journey to the discovery of his or her true self, and to a deeper level of insight regarding the meaning of human existence. It can also lead one to a renewed relationship with God, the source of our existence, with the Christ, who reveals our God, and with all of humanity, with whom we share God’s spirit, the spirit of God within us.
Throughout the ages Christian tradition has gifted us with persons who have given us a variety of approaches to spiritual growth. The process of monastic renewal that began at the end of the eleventh century and continued through the twelfth century resulted in the founding of the Order of Cistercians, with its characteristic spirituality of monastic simplicity of prayer and living.
The writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thiery, and Aelred of Rievaulx, for instance, gave expression and impetus to the development of a Cistercian form of Christian spirituality. This was an attempt to return to the original simplicity of life and prayer that Benedict of Nursia had envisioned in his rule for monks.
Contemporary Western society has been affected by extremes of materialism and individualism that was similarly characteristic of the twelfth century. Like the twelfth century the later half of the twentieth century began a time of religious and spiritual renewal. This spirit of renewal in our time has been given much thrust by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The development of a personal spirituality for laypersons had been neglected during periods of Christian history. Religious literature treating such subjects as methods of prayer and elements of spiritual growth, for instance, was mostly directed to clergy and to members of religious institutes. Bonding between laypersons and religious communities has emerged as a result of new emphasis on spiritual development for all members of Christian communions. Traditional third order and oblate programs have expanded to include a growing number of associate programs connected to religious and monastic communities. This is based on a sense of sharing elements of spiritual growth while maintaining distinctive lifestyles.
Since the thirteenth century founders of religious orders have developed a variety of spiritualities, such as Franciscan, Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, or Ignatian (Jesuit), for the purpose of enhancing formation in the Christian life. Lay persons in turn have adapted elements of these spiritual charisms to their ordinary life as Christians. It is in this same vein that the characteristics of Cistercian monastic spirituality have recently attracted laypersons to explore the integration of some elements of Cistercian spirituality with their own Christian formation.
The basis of formation in the Cistercian/Benedictine tradition is the Rule of St. Benedict. Although the Rule was written in the sixth century as a rule of life for Christian monks in the Western Church, laypersons have found portions of the Rule applicable to them in their secular lifestyle.
For persons who choose to adopt a contemplative spirituality according to the Cistercian tradition, it is suggested that they become familiar with the Rule of St. Benedict, attain a general knowledge of Cistercian history, and develop an understanding of Cistercian spirituality. The following list of reading material is recommended for one’s initial study and reflection:
RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1982
Rule of St. Benedict: Spirituality for Everyday Living: An Adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Brian Taylor (Liturgical Press, 1992)
The Cistercian Way. Andre Louf (Cistercian Publications, 1989)
Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Esther de Waal (The Liturgical Press, 1984)
Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. Joan Chittister, OSB (Harper Collins Publishers, 1991)
A School of Love: The Cistercian Way to Holiness. M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. (Morehouse Publishing, 2000)
The Way of Simplicity:The Cistercian Tradition. Esther de Waal (OrbisBooks,1998)
The Waters of Siloe. Thomas Merton (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers,1949)
This Plan of Life for Lay Cistercians parallels elements that are characteristic of Cistercian monastic life. However, it is understood that persons who follow this guide are immersed in the cares and concerns of life in the secular world. By living their lives according to these guidelines, they would give a contemplative witness where they reside, work, pray, and share community.
Adopting the Plan of Life demonstrates a commitment to daily prayer, lectio, study, and time for silence. It also suggests that a person develop a disposition that is conducive to contemplative spirituality, as well as engage in some form of service or ministry in one’s community. The Plan suggests the minimum commitment a person would make.
The ultimate value of our human existence and the goal of the Christian life is union with God. This reality has been revealed to humanity in the person of Jesus the Christ. The Gospels articulate this reality. The Spirit of God enlightens our understanding of this reality and encourages our response in faith.
Our faith response is given expression through prayer and a commitment to spiritual growth. Our faith journey will lead us to a discovery of our inner depths where the spirit of God also dwells. We are challenged to expand our consciousness of God’s unique presence in community with others and in all of creation. In other words it is through God’s call that one is invited to accept the gift of contemplation in which a deeper dimension of God’s presence is revealed.
The purpose of the Plan of Life, therefore, is to serve as a guide for Lay Cistercians in their efforts to develop, in their secular life, a contemplative spirituality according to the Cistercian tradition. The Plan of Life reflects elements that are characteristics of the Cistercian monastic regimen of prayer, work and study. There is an emphasis on a modification of lifestyle that is similar to monastic conversion of manners. These elements can be adapted to and are compatible with the demands of a secular/lay lifestyle. It is obvious that personal discipline of time and activity is required.
The four major elements of the Plan of Life are: