All of us have parts of our lives that need protection for the simple reason that they are precious. We fence in our gardens, to keep them safe from predators, but what about our innermost goals, devotions, and relationships? Br. James Koester invites us to take up the essential monastic practice of enclosure: setting up intentional boundaries on our space and time. Through enclosure, we can foster those most precious qualities, relationships, and experiences, which the demands of life would otherwise devour.
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Br. James Koester, SSJE, was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1989 he came to the United States to test his vocation with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, where he was life-professed in 1995. Br. James has served in a wide range of leadership posts in the Society, currently serving as the community’s Superior. During his time in the Society he has traveled widely in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, the Holy Land, and Africa, leading retreats and workshops, preaching, teaching, and offering spiritual direction. His personal interests include genealogy, the study and writing of icons, and beekeeping.
Read about James' vocation journey to the Monastery >
protecting what is precious
My parents would certainly never have used the word, nor thought that they were inculcating their children in a monastic practice, but growing up, my family lived to a certain extent by a rule of enclosure.
One of the ways we practiced this was that our bedrooms were off-limits to our friends. Bedrooms were not regarded as play areas, and we could not invite our friends into them. My family also had limits about when we could, and more importantly could not, watch TV. Once we sat down to dinner, the television was turned off. And then there were our rules around the telephone. If the phone rang during a meal, the caller was told that the person they wanted to speak to was not available and would they please call back later.
Now lest all of this make my parents sound like ogres, I assure you, they weren’t. These boundaries were to protect what they believed to be important, even holy: namely, the daily ritual of an evening family meal. That time together was so important, it needed to be protected from anything which would interrupt it. From those boundaries, I learned a great deal about the sanctity of time, space, and relationships. While I could not have named it as such back then, I now realize that my parents were teaching me about the value of enclosure.
Enclosure is one of the essential practices that the monastic life has to offer the world today. Throughout the monastic tradition, enclosure exists both as a physical reality and as a spiritual principle. Physically speaking, the “enclosure” refers to that area within a monastery which is set aside, into which only members of the community can enter. We do not welcome guests into our enclosure. We also aim to keep silence within it, at least at certain times. From such physical limits imposed on this set-apart space, we discern the spiritual principle of enclosure, which sees boundaries as a way of recognizing that things which are precious need to be protected. Monks practice enclosure not to block things out for the sake of blocking them out, but for the sake of allowing something holy to take root and grow. Monastic life itself is a sort of enclosure, into which we enter in order to focus on and foster our life with God.
I learned a lot about the importance of enclosure when we built a fence around the kitchen garden at Emery House, our rural monastery. It was one of those brilliant fall days a few years ago. A guest volunteered to help me plant garlic, and so we spent the day outside, digging, raking, and planting the bed of garlic, then covering it with straw to protect it from winter’s frost. The geese were out that day, helping us. As we dug the bed, they would help by eating any roots or shoots they could find. I tried to shoo them away a few times, but soon gave up. I probably should have been better at shooing them. I should have locked them in their pen. It wasn’t until the following spring that I discovered a number of gaps in the rows of garlic. It wasn’t that the garlic hadn’t grown; it was that the geese had eaten it!
I should have learned my lesson from the garlic, but I didn’t. It took another year. A group of us had spent the morning laying out and planting peppers and tomatoes. When we returned after lunch, we discovered that the geese and ducks had devoured several of the plants, eating all the leaves and leaving only bare stems to show that something had once been there. The following spring, I had a fence put up around the kitchen garden.
That fence did a number of things. Most importantly, it kept the chickens and geese and ducks out of the garden. Finally, my vegetable plants were safe from being devoured by the poultry. By keeping some things in and other things out, the fence protected the garden. Yet the fence also did something else: it gave borders and definition to the garden. I now knew where the garden began and where it ended. In creating a border, the fence created a threshold. And that threshold changed my experience of the garden in subtle, yet significant ways. I knew when I stepped through the gate; I was entering a different space. The presence of that boundary made it easier for me to be fully in the garden.
All of us have parts of our lives that need protection for the simple reason that they are precious. If tomato plants and garlic bulbs need the help of a fence to grow, how much more do those precious, inner parts of our selves need to be protected from anything that would gobble them up? The tender shoots of prayer. The buds of creative inspiration. The not-yet-ripe fruits of love. Such precious things need room and time to grow. By setting up intentional boundaries on our space and limits on our time, we can create an enclosure that fosters those precious qualities and experience which the demands of life would otherwise devour.
For monastics, the thing we deem most precious and in need of protection – that pearl of great price– is our life which is hidden with Christ in God. Because this hidden life is so precious to us, we create and protect spaces and times in which we can be alone and undisturbed before God. We create boundaries around our prayer time through silence and solitude. We lay aside our work to pray together in the Chapel five times a day. And we even limit our accessibility to others and the world, so that we can focus on the one joy of our heart: to be truly present to God in Christ. In ways small and large, physical and spiritual, enclosure protects the heart of our life.
What about your own life? What boundaries might foster what is most precious to you? Could you, for instance, establish helpful limits around your use of technology? We all know how disturbing it is to have someone’s cell phone go off in the middle of the Eucharist. Yet our time at home is equally holy and worth protecting. Have you ever had 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 go back to sleep because of something you have read? We can practice enclosure at home by acknowledging that sleep and rest are precious, and setting up concrete limits to protect them. It is not that checking my email is unimportant, but that my sleep is more important.
How about your relationships? Might they benefit from you creating limits around work or finding time in your calendar to play or setting aside intentional times just to be with those you love? Recall the feeling of annoyance that arises when your companion seems more interested in a conversation with Google than with you. Or what it feels like to be looked past, because what is on the television across the room has caught your friend’s attention. We can practice enclosure by saying that our relationships with family and friends are precious, and by structuring our time and behaviors to reflect that truth. It is not that what I can find on Google or television is uninteresting, but that my relationships with my loved ones are more interesting.
Finally, I believe that all of us – in a monastery and outside one – need the help of enclosure to sanctify time and space for God. If we are always available to the urgency of email, phone calls, and text messages, to the demands of work, to the lure of entertainment, to the needs of those around us, we will probably never find the room to foster our relationship with God. We practice enclosure when we set aside time for prayer each day, perhaps even in a specific spot where we always pray (and only pray). It is not that there aren’t a thousand other things I could spend that time doing — and many of them probably feel more pressing — but that I recognize how this time with God is the most vital thing of all.
What in your life is precious and needs to be protected? By practicing enclosure, you can help what is most precious to grow and thrive.
Matthew 13: 45, 46