The Lure of the Cloister?

Friday August 17, 2007


Yesterday I took the bus from Plovdiv and then walked up to Bachkovo monastery (see my post on my personal blog) where I had been hoping to spend the night. I arrived at not long after three in the afternoon, and left at around six, not having managed to persuade them to give me a place to stay.

Bachkovo is a busy monastery. It is neither particularly isolated nor particularly peaceful (although there are some beautiful walks through meadows and hills in the surrounding nature reserve), but the afternoon I spent sitting in the cloister was a contented one. There is something that I love about cloisters: the sense of seclusion, the feeling of being apart from the world (there are walls, after all), but also being a part of the world (it is open to the sky and to the elements). They are places that it is possible to sit and think – or not think – for hours on end. It is not so much a matter of some kind of spiritual air hanging over the place. Indeed Bachkovo seemed to be a more clamorous and perhaps a no less unkind place inside the walls than outside on the road leading up to the monastery. It is just that this kind of building – human sized, sitting well in the landscape, both separated from and set into the landscape – is a good place to think in.

And as I was there, I found myself wondering: where are the secular cloisters, the places where the godless and those without religion such as myself, can go and dream and think (or not think)? This may seem an odd question, but it is a question that leads towards something I’ve been feeling increasingly strongly lately, and that is that the idea of secularism is one that is without much in the way of poetry.

My own metaphysics is almost entirely materialist, I think, and could probably without too much violence be termed secular. And I have no desire to add some kind of rosy, spiritual glow to the world. The world is as the world is. But I do wonder if those of us who count ourselves as secularists or materialists have only begun to understand the needs of the human heart, the pleasures of silence, what we truly need (and I do not mean religion!) to create, so that we can be fed and nurtured. Materialism and secularism have often presented themselves as heroic destroyers of myths and delusions. This is all very well. But the task of creation is much harder. It is a task always in process, one that is never completed once and for all. It is, perhaps, a task that has only just begun.

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#1 · Chris Bogart

18 August 2007

I once worked in an office that was exactly the opposite of the way you described that cloister: somehow just impossible to think in. I sat in a small office with phones ringing, with my back to the door, writing software to work on broken equipment, in a country where I spoke the language poorly.

There was a catholic cathedral right next door though, and though I’m about as secular as you are, I’d often go and sit in the pew and think or not think for a while. Even if it was busy there, it felt comfortable to just sit there, because that’s all that anyone would expect of me there.

If I had my way every office building would have a chapel-like place in it.

#2 · PeterAtLarge

22 August 2007

Good post… and an interesting question. We need the poetry, we need the sanctuaries you describe. For myself, though, secularism does not exclude these things. There’s still plenty of mystery to go around. Cheers, PaL

#3 · Bala

26 September 2007

hi, there are many meadows, many pastures, many vales… to stroll through.

The exotic novelty aspect is important at times to stimulate the observer/witness within us and to heighten the level of awareness.

We leave behind names for different kinds of thoughtscapes – materialist, secular, theistic and so on.

There is a quest and affinity for certain kinds of spaces – which by their quality facilitate an inward-going. What about the reading section in libraries in today’s world?

Ultimately, many dilemmas seem to revolve around revelation and tradition. Should a personal revelation be sought within a tradition – the one you happen to be born in, or another in which you place a considered hope ?

Or does revelation go beyond all traditions ? Are various traditions merely marker-stones on different mountain paths but which a seeker can recognise and ignore after some experience at the altitudes?

rgds, B

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