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The Radical Practice of Enclosure – Br. James Koester

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Br. James Koester

My parents would certainly never have used the word enclosure, nor thought that the practice they were inculcating in their children was a monastic practice, but growing up I lived in a house that lived, to a certain extent, by a limited rule of enclosure.

One of the ways we practiced this was that our bedrooms were off limit to our friends. Bedrooms were not regarded as play areas, and while we could play there quietly on our own, we could not invite our friends into them. We entertained our friends in the living room or the basement, but not in our bedrooms. I was always a little uncomfortable when visiting a friend’s house to be invited into their bedrooms. I had the feeling that I shouldn’t be there.

Another way in which my family practiced enclosure was about when we could, and more importantly could not, watch TV. We were allowed to watch TV for an hour or so after school and then again before bed. Once we sat down to dinner the TV was turned off. Unlike all my schoolmates, I only rarely saw The Wonderful World of Disney which always came on just as we were sitting down to Sunday dinner in the evening. I was always slightly jealous of my friends, when on Monday morning at school, I would hear about the Disney show I had missed the night before. It was a rare occasion indeed that I actually got to watch the Disney show as a child and always relished those few opportunities.

It was only after I was ordained and started to do parish visiting that I discovered that for some people, the TV is their constant companion. While for some, having the TV on, or music constantly playing in the background is a source of companionship, it can also be a distraction to what else is trying to happen. Just try to have a conversation with someone, or celebrate the Eucharist in their living room while they are partially listening to you and partially watching the TV at the same time. I have never gotten used to TVs in restaurants, and when there is one I usually try to position myself so that I can’t see them, but that is usually impossible.

The other way in which my family practiced enclosure were with our rules around the telephone. I can still hear my father say the telephone is not a toy. If the phone rang during a meal, whoever answered simply and politely told the caller that the person they wanted to speak to was not available and would they please call back later. Our friends pretty soon got the message that there was no point in calling the Koester house during meals.

Now lest all of this makes my parents sound like ogres, I assure you, they weren’t. I learnt a great deal about the importance and sanctity of time and space and relationships, and that after all is the purpose of enclosure. The purpose of enclosure is not simply to block things out for the sake of blocking them out, but in order to establish boundaries for the sake of allowing something holy to take root and grow.

My family practiced enclosure and established boundaries in our house by limiting access to bedrooms to members of the family, around the dinner table by eliminating the TV during meals and, not by ignoring the telephone but by making it clear when it was, and more importantly when it was not, appropriate to engage in telephone calls.

The rationale for practicing enclosure in my family was to protect something that my parents believed to be important, even holy, namely the evening ritual of a daily family meal. It was to protect family time together that these other activities were limited. It is not, to be clear, that we were hiding anything in our bedrooms, that The Wonderful World of Disney was never worth watching, or that the telephone was evil or wicked. But what was important was that 45 minutes that my parents and siblings and I spent together eating and talking and being together. In fact that time was so important that it needed to be protected from things which would interrupt it.

One of the radical practices that the monastic life has to offer to the world today is this sense of enclosure, not as a way to keep things out or exclude them, but as a recognition some things are precious and need to be protected. Eden was one such place.

In those long ago days God planted a garden in Eden, in the east. It was there, in that garden, that God placed our first parents for it was in Eden that God put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.[1] What God had created was a place that needed to be enclosed and protected and so around the garden he placed rivers to give it a shape and a space and a place.

I know something about gardens and shapes and spaces and places. I know too that gardens need to be protected. A few years ago I had a fence put up around the Emery House kitchen garden. I did it initially because it was impossible to keep the chickens and ducks and geese out of the garden without one. The kitchen garden needed to be protected from the scratching, pecking and billing that the chickens and duck and geese did in and around my garden beds, and the general destruction they caused eating their way through my vegetable plants. By keeping some things out of the garden, I was able to protect what was in. At the same time the garden fence created a border around my garden. With the fence, I knew where the garden began and where it ended. In creating borders, the fence also created thresholds. I knew when I stepped through the gate, I was entering a different space. In a sense, the monastic practice of enclosure is not much different than fencing in that kitchen garden at Emery House. Like that garden all of us need a fence around our lives, not just to give our lives a sense of shape, but to protect that which is valuable within. As monks, we call that garden fence enclosure.

While it is true that fences create borders, they also create thresholds. Yes it is true that fences keep things out, or in, they also protect. The purpose of enclosure is not to inhibit or prohibit or even to deny something, but to protect something precious within. The purpose of enclosure is not to divide or separate, or to cut us off from the world, but to create a threshold so that we, and others will know, that this space or this time, at least for us, is different from that space or that time, and that it has been set apart for a particular purpose.

By creating a sense of enclosure for us, my parents were not saying that opportunities to play with friends, or occasions to watch TV or times to talk on the telephone were not important. What they were saying was that times spent with one another as a family were also important and that those times needed to be protected. By creating a fence around the Emery House kitchen garden, I wasn’t saying that what was outside the fence was worthless, or couldn’t be productive. What I was saying was that what was within the kitchen garden needed to be protected, even from my beloved geese. By creating a boundary around Eden, God isn’t saying that what is outside the Garden is not of God’s making, or that you and I can’t discover God in those places too. What God is saying is that that within the paradise of Eden needs to be protected.

All of us have parts of our life that need protection for the simple reason that they are precious. We all know how disturbing it is to have someone’s cell phone go off in the middle of the Eucharist. We know too the feeling of annoyance when a companion is more interested in a conversation with Google than with you. We know what it is like to be looked past because what is on the TV over the bar in a restaurant has caught your friend’s attention, rather than you. We know the experience of waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, I wonder if I have any new emails? And then not being able to sleep because of something we read.

The practice of enclosure is a way to say that my sleep and rest are precious. It is not that that email is unimportant, but my sleep is just as important. The practice of enclosure is a way to say that my relationships with my family are friends are precious. It is not that what you find on Google or TV aren’t interesting, but your relationships with others can be just as interesting. The practice of enclosure is a way to say that my relationship with God is vital. It is not to say that phone call may not be urgent, but your relationship with God is just as urgent.

What in your life is precious and needs to be protected? For my parents that precious thing was the sense of family created by eating together and being truly present to one another each evening. Because that was so precious to them they created boundaries around the supper hour that would protect us from being interrupted or distracted. What in your life is precious and needs to be protected? For us as a monastic community it is occasions when we can be alone and undisturbed before God. Because that is so precious to us we create boundaries around our prayer time with silence and solitude, laying aside our work and even our accessibility to others and the world, so that we can focus on the one joy of our heart and be truly present to God in Christ.

What in your life is precious and needs to be protected. That is the purpose of enclosure. Not as a way to isolate or separate, but as a way to protect so that what is precious may grow and thrive. As monastics our radical practice of enclosure helps us to protect that which is most precious in our life. How do you protect that which is precious? That’s what we mean by enclosure.


One of a series of addresses given by James Koester SSJE in the monastery chapel. Originally given as part of the Radical Practices preaching series, on 29 November 2016.

[1] Genesis 2: 8 – 9

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2 Comments

  1. Marie on December 2, 2016 at 07:02

    This is a wonderful sermon on all levels, and it also gives me a name–“enclosure”–for how I was raised, how my husband and I raised our four children, and how I continue to live my life. Bedrooms are off limits to friends, phone is not answered during dinner, one TV in the house and it is off most of the time, no TVs or phones in the bedrooms, phone is taken off the hook during my prayer times and other quiet times, computer is in another room so that I have to make time and effort to go to it rather than checking it all the time.

    I pray that no one reading this thinks I am boasting or that this way is “right” and any other way is wrong. It’s just so affirming to know that I’m not alone in this manner of living and to have Br. James put words and reasons for this way of life. Enclosure…protect what is holy and sacred and meaningful in our lives…and it most often is not the phone or the email or the TV. Don’t even get me started on TVs in restaurants….

  2. Ruth West on December 1, 2016 at 19:20

    This so good, Br. James. I regret that I did not practice more enclosure times with raising our children. May God forgive me!
    Both of us were working long hours, allowing them too much freedom, I am afraid. Even whole family sit-down meals were not possible every day. The families in which my husband and I were raised did practice radical enclosure times. That was a different era with no T V, few phone calls, and, generally, fewer distractions. My mother gathered us children around her for daily Bible reading and prayer. It has been a spiritual bank account for me through the years. Few families these days can afford a stay-at-home mom, as my mother was.
    I loved your account of your own upbringing.
    May God bless you and the memory of your good parents.

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