One monastic aspiration is transparency – behaving the same everywhere, alone or with others, not hiding “shameful” parts or preferentially displaying “good” parts. As one old desert Abba, Poemen, said, “Teach your mouth to say that which you have in your heart.”
A strict divide between lay people and “professional religious” grew up in Christianity after it became a state religion in the 300s. Christians weren’t to kill. How could Constantine, the first Christian ruler, control his empire without soldiers? Yet all his soldiers were required to be Christians. A solution was to let most folks follow a lax version of Christian practices while professional religious kept all the precepts for everyone.
One side effect is that lay people are shut out of the messy, human reality of monastic life. The sisters I knew donned "monastic habits" in public, acting out ideals of serenity, kindness and welcome. Yet they were like anyone off the street in private, often uncritically indulging destructive behaviors. This need to act like monks to guests damaged the sisters and deluded guests, at least those desperate to find holy people to follow. Other guests became cynical on glimpsing the underlying clay of the sisters’ feet.
Such an “invisible cloister” exists within communities as well. As a novice, I rarely had emotionally honest exchanges with the fully professed sisters. I don’t know if they had honest emotional relationships with each other. Like anyone, they were often jealous, impatient, frightened and angry - but I only saw them flame certain targets, e.g. “evil others,” such as Bush and his cohorts, or those of less status, such as novices.
Most of us don a public face outside the privacy of our homes. The monastic desire for transparency seems easily lost in the all-too-human desire to look good to “outsiders.” Could we stand to let guests into the whole thing – to display the farts and short tempers alongside the generous hearts and soothing voices? This would be healthier for all concerned. Would we still need private spaces for members to relax and “be themselves” or could we live with guests everywhere in our home at all times? How would that feel?
Enclosure also separates monks from the distractions of society. Is a physical or emotional barrier necessary for that? Does separation from people less focused on practice have other benefits (or harms)?
How can a community support each other in displaying their whole selves, flaws and all?