The Monastery of the Heart

Joan Chittister, Monastery of the Heart: An invitation to a Meaningful Life,  BlueBridge (May 1, 2011).

Reviewed by Bin Song. First Published at,and recommended in Old Monk’s Journal, Entry 23, 2014.

For a modern lay person, how could she or he follow the example of traditional Christian monastics as illustrated by The Rule of St. Benedict to live a sui genesis spiritual life? This is the key issue to initiate this cutting-edge spiritual prose poetry.

In 2011, Benedictine Sisters of Erie, a catholic monastic community committed to the Gospel and the vision of life practiced by Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica, launched a new program “Monasteries of the The Heart: A New Movement for a New World”. Its aim is to establish a virtual, cyber-space monastery that will provide individuals worldwide with a chance to join in a community of like-minded spiritual seekers who could congregate according to their own schedule. This virtual platform enables members to maintain a stable and creative spiritual community, and to revive the virtue of Benedictine spirituality without being physically bound into a monastery “within walls”.

At the same time when this modern, even post-modern, monastery begins to be established online, The Monastery of the The Heart is published. The text is taken to be a basic illustration of the movement’s ideals and a manual to guide its members’ innovative monastic life. To a certain extent it strives to achieve the same goals as The Rule of St. Benedict has in traditional Christian monasteries since the sixth century. As the Introduction of the book says, its goal is to shape new ways of spiritual living in the shell of the old, which means to revive and enhance the most impressive feature of Benedictine spirituality: to turn the ordinary into an extraordinary union with God and thus always to aspire to reach the full potential of human nature as it takes root in the divine here and now. Obviously, a virtual monastery without walls, which is extremely different from where Saint Benedict lives, is the sociological and institutional soil upon which this “in-the-world” theological stance of ecclesiology is grounded. Correspondingly, apart from some ordinary interpretations of what The Rule of St. Benedict means in its original context, the most appealing part of this book is how Dr. Chittister adapts these interpretations into her new motivation. As a religious scholar whose main religious self-identity is Confucianism, I appreciate a lot Chittister’s respect for her tradition, her creative impulse to revive the tradition in such a startlingly innovative way and her theological emphasis on the in-the-world value and the co-creative role of human spiritual life.

There is no doubt that a new concept of community is a main contribution made by the Monasteries of the The Heart as a spiritual movement to Christian ministry. Traditionally, a monastic life is either private, sometimes so private as to isolate the practitioners from their specific responsibilities in the world, or takes place within a community that is physically located and comprised of a relatively stable number of participators. In the latter case, the monastery may be so cohesive, even hierarchical as to water down the vigor and creation of the spiritual community. In contrast, what Dr. Chittister promotes is a monastery of the heart, which prioritizes the inheritance and transmission of Benedictine spirituality based upon the individuals’ spontaneity, group cooperation and communal self-discipline over and above any physical or institutional manifestation of monastic life. Of course, this should ideally be achieved without a complete marginalization of the physical aspects of monasticism (p.18). For Chittister, a virtual spiritual community is neither a loose combination of independent individuals nor a monarchy to submerge private voices into their leader’s monologue. A monastery of the heart is a “place” which tries to facilitate a reality in which everyone learns from everyone (p.82). In case one doubts its stability due to the absence of an established physical site, Chittister suggests that we resort to the stability of heart, not stability of place, as the real monastic gift (p.160). And if a too far distance makes common worship impossible, kinds of powerful social media as supported by new technology could guarantee an individual’s constant prayer and her or his maintaining a single common vision of spirituality with her or his monastic companions (p.25).

Meanwhile, the disappearance of “walls” makes the monastery of the heart a big challenge to its members. The monastery bases itself on cyber-space and takes root in the details of modern life, which requires that its participators pay much more attention, in comparison with their medieval monastic predecessors, upon the going-on life-events in the world, as Chittister says: “it bursts through the monastery gates into a world where national laws and local prejudices fail to take into account.” (p.93) Trying one’s best to transform this world with all its downsides into a better one becomes thus one of the most important parameters to evaluate the quality of monastic life. Besides, because any person could step into the virtual space without any traditional limitation upon identity and qualification, the monastery of the heart becomes a real community of “strangers”. As Saint Benedict teaches, the welcome to strangers is to stimulate a well-founded spiritual community to cast off unnecessary stereotypes about spirituality and then to commit itself fully to creation and compassion (p.142). That role is no less important and could even be enhanced in this new virtual space .What is more important, since The Rule of St. Benedict is written in the general ascetic atmosphere of medieval monasteries, how is its instruction on abstinence of life interpreted and practiced by contemporary lay monastics.

Chittister thinks that the core of Benedictine sanctity is not about excess of any kind, not the physical, not even the spiritual. “It is about dealing with all the good things of life in moderation, properly, appropriately.” (p.98) So a new monastery should stand upon a “middle way” between indifference to and extremism in the spiritual life (p.125). In this respect, no amount of special asceticism can equal the amount of the spiritual growth that comes from care for others. A contemporary spiritual seeker should know what is enough, set the limit, obey the limit and then contribute the extra to the well-beings of other people who are in desperate need of help. (p.125)

All these innovative and insightful points relevant to nurturing a virtual spiritual community are ultimately bolstered up by Dr Chittister’s specific understanding of God and God’s relation with the world and human beings, i.e., a specific theology. For Chittister, God is at the heart, in the foundation, the beginning and the end of life. The seeking of God could bring coherence to all the little parts of our small lives and thus integrate them into one great enterprise. Chittister calls this integrating God-seeking process in the world “conversion” (p.156). Once people are converted into that integrating life style, nothing in the world will be regarded as “secular” and unimportant (p.156). In the spiritual community where the boundary between holy and human becomes senseless, care for the souls and care for the world are always equal concerns (p.37).

Union with God and global identification with all the human community are thus two indispensable dimension of one common cause (p.78). In this way, the traditional Benedictine monastic slogan “in the world but not of it” is further paraphrased as “to create this new world within a world” (p.26). In the ultimate sense, human beings become co-creators with God of what the divine creation has left unfinished (p.115). That means, humans could only become fully human through exploring the inner potentiality bestowed by God to cultivate themselves and to take good care of the world in a constant creative process.

As a Confucian spiritual seeker, I can’t help approving these points of Chittisterian theology. In one of the most important spiritual texts in Confucianism, Zhongyong (Centrality and Commonality), human beings are encouraged to fulfill their human nature bestowed by Heaven, to continue the creation of what is left unfinished and thus to form a trinity with Heaven and Earth. If we substitute the Confucian term “Heaven” or “Dao” with Chittisterian “God” in this respect, I don’t think there will be engendered any substantial difference.

But as it could be anticipated that such a new movement would take a long journey to refine and realize its exciting spiritual goals, in Chittister’s book there are also weak points that have not been fully addressed. No difference among people is more conspicuous than in an online forum. Radical equality, sometimes even in anonymous way, engenders enormous differences among opinions. Then how to harmonize these different voices into a communal spiritual focus and to let the difference enrich rather than vitiate the spiritual pursuit will become a huge challenge for this new virtual monastery. But in this respect Dr. Chittister’s instruction seems more broad-brush than operative. When talking of “equality”, Chittister says all the differences of participators in the community should be treated equally (p.77); but when talking of “leadership”, she also teaches that a spiritual leader must value the Gospel beyond public approval (p.86). But is there an unique and absolutely reliable understanding of the Gospel apart from people’s continuous critical interpretation ? Since the meaning of the Gospel in a spiritual community depends a lot, if not totally, upon its members’ cooperative interpretation and practice, if, according to Dr. Chittister, even public approval can’t guarantee the truth of a specific interpretation, what other procedure could be resorted to in order to hit the expected balance between unity and diversity? It seems that a concrete way should be designed to promote consensus on the basis of individuals’ special voices, especially in a cyber-space monastery.

Anyway, the idea of a monastery of the heart is already exciting enough to be worthy of careful reading and serious contemplation. This is a vivid example of how to invest new elements into an old form of Christian spirituality and to revive it in an astoundingly innovative and viable way. For all religious scholars who are not only interested in the history of religions but also attentive to its going-on process, for all religionists in kinds of traditions who are aspiring for enlivening their own tradition in modern society, and for spiritual seekers who want to maintain the purest zest for seeking God without much ascetic tendency towards the seething and simmering contemporary world, I recommend this prose poetry, beautifully written and with insuperably appealing spirituality.