"Sit at home as in paradise": The Rule of St Romuald and the Terror of Perpetual Prayer
The Rule of St. Romuald is brief. I first encountered it at the New Camaldoli Hermitage on Big Sur, where it was printed on a little piece of cardstock and circulated among all the guests on retreat.
Sit in your cell as in paradise.
Put the whole world behind you and forget it.
Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.
The path you must follow is in the Psalms—never leave it. If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind.
And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.
Realize above all that you are in God’s presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor.
Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.
Perhaps you are spending a good deal more time at home lately than you usually do. I certainly am, although I’ve spent plenty of time at home in my day. “To home,” they used to say in the Midwest, as in “She’s to home this afternoon.” I have no idea where the phrase comes from, but I like it not just for its folksiness but in the sense of being kept or tethered to home, rather than merely located there.
I’m often compelled by monks and monkishness in a way I’m not at all compelled by any other religious community. Likely this is because I have met very few monks in the course of my life. Monks discipline themselves, rather than others – I don’t readily associate them with pastoral abuse because I think of them as having been charged with the keeping of only one another in practice, and with humanity in theory. This may not be true, historically, but the association lingers regardless. I do not go inside a church building, I do not purchase anything from the Spiritual Disciplines table in a bookstore, but I quite like a monk. They render the constant-surveillance of God less terrifying, because they dedicate their lives to staring back.
“Sit in your cell as in paradise; Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish.” The problem with the imagination is it makes so many things nearly-bearable. Every moment, watch your thoughts; hunt them like a sportsman; forget everything behind you; make a heaven of hell; bear Hell. Empty yourself; trust me and me alone.
I find great comfort in the fact that no one I am related to now knows where I live. If they wanted to find me, they could not. A relative called me last week from an unregistered number. I thought it was a reporter calling to interview me about the book and picked up. I did not recognize the voice at first, having had to block their number months ago – “It’s ____. Can’t we talk?”
Book of Isaiah, Chapter 1, verse 18: “‘Come now, and let us reason together,’ Says the Lord, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Ver-ry wool, Jenna.) I like to spend time at home, and I like my home to be safe; I wish to be on reciprocal terms with God, so that if I think little of him, he will do me the courtesy of thinking little of me.
My father’s favorite movie was Night of the Hunter – thematically resonant of him, no? One of the stories he liked best to tell about his courtship of my mother was how they went to see it one night and, afterwards, he called her and started singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in the deepest, most sonorous tones he could muster.
Miss Rachel – she of the strong tree with many branches – meets the Preacher on her doorstep, he demands to be let in on the strength of his fatherhood.
She’s prepared to hear him out, suspicious as she is; she has a moralizer’s intuitive respect for fatherhood, and is only prepared to revoke its rights after serious transgression.
I love this movie, too; it’s something my father and I have in common.
A few weeks ago I got a couple of wrist-warding tattoos to commemorate our flight to New York and my political commitment to forgetting the project of fatherhood (by which I don’t mean male parenting but the right of the Everlasting Arms to pursue children).
I think about them a lot, since I see them every time I read a book or pull out my phone. They put me in mind of The Cloud of Unknowing, another monkish text, which encourages the reader to meditate on as short a word as possible as they struggle towards God:
And if thee list have this intent lapped and folden in one word, for thou shouldest have better hold thereupon, take thee but a little word of one syllable: for so it is better than of two, for ever the shorter it is the better it accordeth with the work of the Spirit. And such a word is this word GOD or this word LOVE. Choose thee whether thou wilt, or another; as thee list, which that thee liketh best of one syllable. And fasten this word to thine heart, so that it never go thence for thing that befalleth.
This word shall be thy shield and thy spear, whether thou ridest on peace or on war. With this word, thou shalt beat on this cloud and this darkness above thee. With this word, thou shall smite down all manner of thought under the cloud of forgetting.
I cast a net through my thoughts, and each fish wears the face of my father; I cast down the word DAD (a little word of one syllable, better than of two, accordeth with the work of the Spirit) under the cloud of forgetting. I stay at home and avoid paradise.