The true servants of God sits in the midst of their fellows,and rise and eat and sleep and marryand buy and sell and give and take in bazaarsand spend the days with other people,and yet never forget God even for a single moment.(Abu Sa’id Ibn Abi’l-Khayr)
For some years now, inspired by Fr Bede Griffiths’ teaching about the spirit, soul and body, and by Sri Aurobindo of India and more recently folks like Ken Wilber, I’ve been interested in trying to articulate a Christian version of what is called “integral spirituality,” a spirituality that reverences and develops the whole person: the body––the physical being; the soul––the intellectual, creative and emotional aspects; as well as the so-called spiritual side of the person. Yesterday we celebrated the feast of Saint John Bosco, an 18th century priest who dedicated his life to ministering to poor and homeless boys. (In this day and age of so much breach of fiduciary trust, it’s consoling to remember that some Catholic priests got it right.) He is also the founder of the congregation of Salesians, who run a grade school and high school up in Santa Cruz County near where I lived the past ten years. I had many occasions to work for and with them; as a matter of fact some of my best friends are from those schools, and so I grew to love Don Bosco and his unique approach to education. But one of the things that I like the best about Don Bosco is his teaching about “the four oratories,” the four places of prayer––cortile, casa, scuola, chiesa–playground, home, school, and church––which winds up being a pretty good example of exactly what I have been after. He taught the not just the church, but also the playground, the home and the classroom should all be considered to be oratories, places of prayer. I was thinking how much everyone (even, maybe especially, monks!) could take a lesson from this beautiful teaching.
Cortile really means a “courtyard.” In the Piedmontese region especially, I’m told, where John Bosco was from, houses are built with a kind of an open-air quadrangle court in the middle. But the word usually comes to be translated as “playground.” The playground as oratory; I like that a lot! I gave a talk once at Notre Dame on this same topic, “integral spirituality” from a Christian perspective, but I wanted to give it the subtitle, especially since it was at Notre Dame, “Why is it so far from the gym to the church?” What I mean is that what I have experienced of what competitive sports has become in the West––the behavior, the language, the attitude––the whole ecosystem is pretty different from the kind of environment one hopes to cultivate in a spiritual setting, let alone an oratory. One of the reasons I have been so fascinated with Asian traditions, whether it be from the martial arts or from Yoga or the various Buddhist physical disciplines, is that there usually tends to be a certain attitude of a spiritual presence, or at least a mindful concentration on the unity of the body and mind involved in physical activities, even athletic ones. What would it be like if all our physical activities––even taking a walk, exercise, lifting weights, running––were seen as part of our spiritual practice? Carl Jung thought a new yoga would arise in the West and that it would come specifically out of Christianity. The bigger issue of course is what would it be like if we really understood that caring for our physical being is also an important part of the spiritual life? Since we are an incarnational religion…
I like also that the cortile is outside, because we need to recover more and more our relationship to nature, and understand how symbiotically we are tied to it, and how much our own evolution and survival is tied to that of greater nature. And that this too is an integral part of our spirituality, if for no other reason than that we are stewards, servants of creation.
Between cortile and casa, there is also the issue of work. When I was a young monk I had a tendency to think that my work was something I had to get done so that I could get back to my cell and pray. But at some point my postulant master reminded me that I was supposed to be praying constantly; that’s the goal of the monastic life. This is what we learn from the best of the monastic tradition, or from someone like Bro Laurence of the Resurrection, finding God amid the pots and pans as he wrote about in his classic work The Practice of the Presence of God. Not only ought we pray while work; our work is also meant to be a prayer, and even the laundry room, the kitchen, the garage are all oratories. (I think of our old Bro Emmanuel sprinkling holy water on the tractor.) That’s why in his Rule for Monks St Benedict says that all the tools of the monastery should be treated like the vessels for the altar.
The casa–the home, means to me our emotional and interpersonal development. (This applies to monks and other religious, too. There is a communal aspect of our life and a relational aspect to being human. Our former prior general Don Benedetto, of happy memory, used to say, “Before a man can be a monk, he must be a man!”) There’s a phenomenon spoke of often in contemporary spiritual circles called “spiritual bypassing.” What spiritual bypassing means is that because we are outwardly “spiritual,” we might have the tendency to think we can skip all that messy work of psychological and emotional (i.e., human) development, and just be like angels floating above it all. It doesn’t work that way! We’re not made that way. What if we were to understand that our interpersonal skills, and our emotional and psychosexual growth were all a part of our spiritual life, just as important as saying our prayers? I think this is why even the marriage bed in a Christian tradition is supposed to be viewed as a holy place. We only grow through, with and in relationship––even hermit monks! That’s how God made us.
Of course scuola–school is a symbol of the intellectual life. I love the title of Jean le Clerq’s famous book, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. It’s one of those book titles that contain the whole message of the book, and that is the monastic tradition at its best. Learning not just for the sake of learning, not for the sake of a degree that will get you a better job, not just to show how smart you are, and certainly not as an escape from the real world, but learning as a valid path to knowledge of God. Yoga calls this jnana marga–the path of knowledge. The whole person needs to be developed. We don’t leave our intellect behind either, but we reverence it as a part of the ecosystem.
And then finally chiesa–the church, what we think of as the proper place of prayer. All that has gone before is what we bring to worship; everything from the cortile and the casa and the scuola is what gets collected and offered up in our prayer; everything from the playground, home and school is what is symbolized in the bread and wine that we offer; and everything of our physical, emotional, and intellectual beings is what gets accepted and changed into the Body of Christ, the fullness of the one who fills all in all.
They say that St Romuald wished that he could turn the whole world into a hermitage. In a similar vein, let’s hope that one day we could see the whole world as our oratory.