The monastery without walls recognizes the human need for silence, the part of life that includes the peacefulness of solitude, where the roots of what is sacred can take hold in the soul. The monastery without walls represents the human desire to find one's own spiritual path, one's own divinity as well as the divinity in others; to practice the rich path of meditation and prayer; to live the life of simplicity and humility from which true wholeness can emerge. Today's monastery extends beyond the traditional walls, because so many people feel a hunger for spiritual purpose yet know we cannot separate ourselves from the cares and joys of the world. Many voices in nature, in the world,in ourselves, are crying out, calling for our attention. But in each cry and call, perhaps there is a common plea for us to come back to the sense of the sacred, to come home once again to the silence.
These words were from the introduction to Monastery Without Walls, a book I wrote in the late 1980s. This was a time well before Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, all our media. The cry for silence and sacredness today is only greater. Since the publication, I have met many monks and mystics living normal lives as normal people creating their own monastery without walls. The calling is in each of us. Our lives are only different in form, not in substance. We need at least one foot or one hand into something sacred! Life must have purpose and real joy. The monastery without walls for each of us may look different but every monastery of the heart has much in common. Silence, joy, simplicity, service are the bells ringing loudly inside. We are propelled in this journey.
In the 1990s we found our monastery without walls in the streets of downtown San Francisco. After spending sometime in India, I was shocked how many hungry people were living in our own back yard in San Francisco. So our monastery was bringing food to hungry and homeless people living on the streets, many in cardboard boxes. I could not believe how many hungry people were here in one of the wealthiest cities of the world. The gratitude for one simple sandwich in the eyes of one hungry person fed our heart and life for many years. My favorite memory is pulling up with our van on a rainy night to the old bus depot. Many homeless men and women were escaping the cold, spread around on the floor or laying on the hard wooden benches. All we had left from our day passing out food was lots of cake. We had no forks, no napkins. But this didn't matter. We had a great party of souls in the dark bus depot on that rainy night. It was a party of human warmth I will always cherish. This was great night in the monastery without walls.
In 1999, when our children went off to college, we sold everything and moved to Assisi, Italy. The calling for more sacredness was carrying us. We spoke no Italian. We had little idea of Italian culture but the peace of Assisi called. For 12 years we lived in Assisi, joining other pilgrims one step after another in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. Everyone finds the monastery without walls as an inner and outer journey. People from all parts of the world are growing in the heart, discovering their own monastery within. St. Francis in his simplicity and service was speaking over the noise of the world. Our calling to Assisi quickly took form in opening a room in one of the main squares, a room for people of all religions to sit together in simple peace. This was before 9/11. After those fearful days it was very special to be Americans offering a room for world peace. Pope John Paul II blessed our little Monastery for our interfaith outreach. Travel & Leisure Magazine listed us as one of the top 10 mediation retreats in the world. In the timeless peace of Assisi years flew by. Despite the honors and growing "business" offering retreats in Assisi, something was calling our hearts again.
This is the nature of the monastery without walls. There is nothing to hold onto. It is not the form that our monastery takes that is important. It is the calling, listening, and the bells ringing that lead all of us. Retreats at the Assisi Retreat Center continue as we look for a new owner. If you know someone who has a dream of living in the special peace of Assisi please pass this along. We have moved back to Northern California. Not too far from Silicon Valley, the heart of the technological world, we started Silent Stay Retreat Home & Hermitage. In the midst of wonderful nature, we sit everyday offering everything in our hearts. The heart carries too much feeling and thought which is unnecessary. It is good with our guests to offer everything occupying our inner silence. Then as we find more gentleness within, retreat is time to simply listen. There is the stillness of the heart to be with. We want to absorb that which is beyond words within us. There is so much to receive.
We are hoping the technological world outside our gates will join us in silence, heart, and service. Meanwhile guests come and join us in monastic quiet, nature, and heartfulness meditation. The monastery without walls spreads in the hearts of many as everyone finds for themselves their experience of the sacred.
After being away from America for so many years, living another pace of life in the center of Italy, we forgot the speed, busyness, and intensely mental nature of our culture. When Monastery Without Walls was written there were no words for or need to unplug. There were no alerts or talk of terrorism. The world was noisy from television and the traffic of life. Within us was the noise of too much worry and stress. Maybe times change and maybe nothing really changes. The timeless, simple being of the monastery reaches out over centuries in its solitude, goodness, and innocence. As the book shared sometime ago, sooner or later "everyone returns to the silence to feel the presence of God, which is the presence of love."
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