Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter X. The Enclosure.

IN a Religious foundation the immediate precincts share in the consecration of the house. It is a tradition almost as old as Religion itself that to every monastery is attached a garden. But this garden is not a mere pleasure-plot, though as with every garden, much of joy is to be found in it. To no garden should Thomas Edward Brown's delicate little poem apply so aptly as to the one within which Religious are wont to walk and pray:

"A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot--
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not--
Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
'Tis very sure God walks in mine."

The garden is indeed a place for prayer more than for recreation, and at Holy Cross on fine days, of which there are many in the Hudson valley, it is a [69/70] favoured spot for quiet reading and meditation. The portion of the enclosure north of the chapel is reserved for the use of the Community, while externs are free to use the other portions of the grounds with their reaches of green lawn, and rose-embowered pergola. The Community garden has also its rose vines and wistaria which in the early summer toss up, like great prismatic fountains, their profusion of white and purple blossom. It has its broad lawn, while at the foot of the high rugged terrace of rock and forest trees, stands the great bronze crucifix, commanding the enclosure, and giving it its continual blessing.

Another thing which gives a special consecration to this part of the enclosure is the little God's Acre off one corner of this garden, which amidst old-fashioned flowers, the early forsythia and snowy spirea, lie the bodies of our brethren who have finished their course in faith, and rest from their labours. Here in this quiet spot they lie, with the great river flowing by, its deep calm current like a living symbol of the peace which remaineth for the people of God.

In monastic tradition the enclosure has always typified the shutting in of the Religious from the turmoil and distraction of the world. It is the normal place where he is supposed to be. There are many calls of service and charity which take him into the world, but these duties fulfilled, he hastens to seek once more the monastic enclosure, finding there his [70/71] best self, and his surest opportunity of service; for while the external work may or may not bring blessing to man and glory to God, the calm unbroken work of prayer brings a certainty of blessing which cannot be questioned.

The immemorial rule in Religious communities is that no one leaves the enclosure without permission. This permission is not grudgingly given, for a walk across the fields, or a climb in the wooded hills which stand about Holy Cross as about Jerusalem, not only affords wholesome bodily exercise, but brings one into secluded sanctuaries of nature where can be learned lessons of prayer; for those who have eyes to see find there the footsteps of God and the signs of His handiwork. But none the less is leaving the enclosure always regarded as outside the monastic routine. It is a dispensation, and not only has permission to be secured for it, but on coming back to the enclosure the Religious reports his return to his Superior immediately.

This coming and going is not permitted without its being offered to God, mindful of the ancient blessing, "The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth for evermore." Our Rule at Holy Cross provides especially for this. "In starting out upon walks," it says, "silence is to be observed for a space, until broken by the Father in charge, that all may lift up their hearts to God as their unseen Companion on the way." And, mindful of the sacredness of the place dedicated to God, it is [71/72] provided that "on the return, conversation should cease at the entrance of the enclosure."

Leaving the enclosure to go on a spiritual errand to a distant place, or for a considerable period of time, is naturally viewed in a much more serious light. Our Rule says, "The going forth of a member on the mission must always be a solemn event. He will prepare for his journey the day before, so that he will not be hurried in leaving. He will make a visit to the chapel . . . and will receive the blessing of the Superior. He will say the Itinerary of our Breviary before leaving, or in setting out on his journey."

While the Itinerary anticipates the distractions of the world, and recognizes the lofty mission of those whom God entrusts with the work of preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, the dominant note in it is that of safe and joyful return when the sacred errand is done. No lingering amongst the allurements of the world, however innocent in many cases these in themselves may be, is contemplated. This Office consists of the evangelical canticle, Benedictus, with the antiphon--"In the way of peace and prosperity the Almighty and merciful Lord direct us; and may the Angel Raphael accompany us on the way, that we may return to our home in peace and safety and in joy."

Then follow some versicles, with four prayers. One of the most beautiful of these is as follows:

[73] "O God, who didst bring Abraham, Thy son, out of Ur of the Chaldees, and didst preserve him unhurt through all the ways of his pilgrimage: we beseech Thee that Thou wouldest keep us Thy servants: Be unto us, O Lord, support in our setting out, comfort by the way, a shadow in the heat, a covering in the rain and cold, a chariot in weariness, protection in adversity, a staff in slippery ways, and a harbour in shipwreck: that under Thy guidance, we may reach in prosperity the place whither we are going, and at length return to our home in safety."

On the return, a visit is again made to our Lord in His Holy Sacrament. St. Vincent de Paul required this practice of his Fathers of the Mission, giving as the reason that it was only right and courteous that on returning, one should report to Him who was the true Master of the house. The Religious then says the Office of Thanksgiving for a safe return, which consists of the one hundred and twenty-eighth psalm, versicles and responses, and three collects--that for the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, and the two following:

"Almighty and everlasting God, who orderest all our days and all our life, grant unto Thy servants the gifts of continual peace, and as Thou hast brought them back again in safety to their home, do Thou ever preserve them in quietness under Thy protection.

"O God, who dost visit the humble, and who hast given unto us brotherly love for our consolation, pour forth Thy grace upon our family, that we may feel [73/74] and know that Thou dost come to us through those in whom Thou dost dwell. Amen."

By a happy and holy coincidence, at Holy Cross one of the principal trains of the day arrives at our little station towards the end of the afternoon, and it often happens that as the missioner is about to enter the enclosure, the bell for Vespers peals out, ringing a welcome as the returning Religious comes back once more from the world's distractions to the quiet and regularity of the life of prayer in the cloister.

"Breaking enclosure," which is the term used to describe leaving without proper permission, has always been regarded as a serious breach of Religious discipline, being much more serious, of course, with those living the "enclosed life," who are bound by their vows to observe enclosure strictly. Anciently, and it is still so in many parts of the Catholic Church, wilful violation of enclosure was visited with drastic penalties, one of them being, under aggravated conditions, suspension from Communion.

These rigid laws were necessary for discipline many centuries ago, for in those rude times men and women did not always seek the Religious vocation because of a desire to consecrate themselves to God in a life of prayer, but sometimes under duress, compelled by family tyranny. Inconvenient unmarried daughters were not infrequently relegated to the cloister, and it was not unknown that recalcitrant sons were compelled to assume the cowl under the [74/75] dire penalty of some far more painful alternative. There is much of the past life of the Church that might happily be restored, but, God be thanked, the day for such abuses as these is long since done. The life of the cloister is not taken for granted in our age by the world; rather it is everywhere spoken against. But this condition has its compensations. Those who seek the cloister in our time come not of constraint, but out of the love of their hearts they desire "Jesus and Jesus only." For such as these no stern laws are required. They serve under the gentle but strong law of love. They look upon the Rule of enclosure not as a grievous thing, but as that which shuts them in with the Lord they love, binding their hearts to His.

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