An Architecture of the Self:
New Metaphors for Monastic Enclosure
Ellen M. Caldwell
Much of the language that regulates monastic enclosure is filled with clearly stated prohibitions and explanations; it is the language of denotation and prescription. However, the language of connotation, or metaphor, perhaps more accurately reflects the shape of monastic life as it moves from early eremitic origins to the cenobitism of the ninth century and later. When the change in monastic lifestyle, from an emphasis on denial of the self and chastisement of the body to affirmation of one's spiritual powers, is articulated, often architectural metaphor becomes a key to the new dimensions of spirituality offered within the monastery.
Either from the hermit's cell, or from the communal monastic enclosure inscribed by metaphors of containment, descriptions of monastic life gradually appropriate the more spacious metaphors of public areas to describe the contemplative's interior life. The metaphors of monastic life, with time, soar to become a castle, a series of dwelling places all contained within the soul, to become, even, a garden. Descriptions of early cenobitic and eremitic life are both shaped by the metaphors of imprisonment; they graphically image withdrawal from the evil of the world and posit a focus on the practice of restraint. The metaphors of liberation that appear from the twelfth century onward free the monastic from the confining community or cell by offering an increasingly psychological interpretation of that physical space where the monasatic meets the divine. I propose for this paper a survey of metaphors that will highlight the changing attitudes toward monastic enclosure from the sixth to the sixteenth centuries.
i. My Body, My Prison: Harlots and Habits
In the wonderfully disturbing accounts of women eremites of the fourth to sixth centuries lies early evidence of monastic enclosure as metaphor of confinement and punishment. Benedicta Ward's Harlots of the Desert 1 offers several accounts of "bad" women who atone for their previous offenses by "choosing" to live in extreme physical deprivation. One of Ward's examples is drawn from the Life of St. Thais, the Harlot, who, at the advice of her confessor, is walled up in a monastic cell, denied visitors, consolation, and even nourishment, except for what can be dribbled through a tiny slot to her in the wall. There, in darkness, in her
This erasing of gender seems to be a goal of both male and female monastics and is related to the conventional definition of monastic life--not mere celibacy, but the denial of sexuality itself. In writing of the Pachomian monks, a religious desert community of the late fourth century, Peter Brown suggests that the monks' habits of life and dress were chosen deliberately to reflect such restraint:
Paradoxically within monastic confines, however, monks and nuns enjoyed the liberty of escaping from their bodies. C.H. Lawrence associates liberty with the cenobitic life, particularly "as the special result of virginity and chastity, which freed [them] from sensual desires and from ties to the secular world."6 A lived metaphor of containment better expresses this paradox than a merely rational assent to regulation.
ii. The Cenobitic Circle: Regula Magistri
With the discovery of the anonymous ninth-century document Regula Magistri, collected in Benedict of Aniane's Codex Regularum, 7 the images of confinement housing the harlot women and clothing the men are replaced by another image of regulation: that of the group itself. The images of both the physical body and the monastic community suggest metaphors of physical enclosure. Benedict's compendium of monastic rules describes an enforced confinement, where male cenobites must guard against evils not of the world from which they have so effectively withdrawn, but of those within. For the monks, the vessel of containment is not the cell, but the chaste and chastening body as a living cloister:
Unlike the restricted solitude imposed on women hermits doing penance, the Regula Magistri for monks asserts the values of cenobitic over eremitic lifestyles. Further, in a personifying of monastic architectural space, the monks serve as each other's restraint, as in this regulation of sleeping accommodations:
In fact, the desire for individual space is perceived in the Regula Magistri as a temptation. The monks' need for discipline and submission to authority is so crucial that any separation from the communal life of the order is perceived as a reflection of personal self-interest and waywardness. Here is a description of monks who violate the cenobitic rule of living:
The Regula Magistri in fact uses the isolation of contemplative eremetic life as punishment in cenobitic life. Detailed descriptions of the harshest punishments include the practice of excommunication--whether from the common table, or the oratory. In some cases, fallen monks are relegated to the status of novices in the oratory, allowed only to attend services, not to participate in them by speaking the prayers. By punishing with solitude and silence, the Regula Magistri validates the order of hierarchical and communal lifestyle over the self-indulgent practices of eremites.11 Here is quite a contrast from the saintly hermits favored in the literature of earlier centuries. But this emphasis on the commal nature of monastic life undergoes a radical transformation in the next centuries.
iii. Like a Fish Out of Water:
De Quadripartito exercitio cellae12
This twelfth-century account of Carthusian monastic life narrated by a monk identified as Adam marks a return to the trend advocating the joys of the cell rather than of the community--part of a twelfth-century reform movement that used a "back to basics" approach to bring monastic life more in line with its rule. The four parts of the Quadripartito deal with spiritual reading, meditation, prayer, and manual work. Based on Guigo's Consuetudines Cartusiae,13 Quadripartito argues that the Carthusian monk's life of solitude and silence is modelled on Christ's sojourn in the desert. The narrator claims that the monk who lives in his cell lives in heaven (cella, caelum). Another startling image is that of the fish out of water: the life of the cell is as essential to the interior life as water is to fish. The fish called the allec dies when pulled from the water; so too the monk who is snatched from his cell. The author notes that the same letters that comprise the name of the fish also comprise the letters of the word for cell: the palindrome allec, cella.14
The monk living in this Carthusian cell must share his limited space with a variety of images, including the aula caeli, or gate of heaven, which perpetual solitude constitutes. And this tiny space is also described the author as a heavenly garden.15 In accounts of twelfth-century monastic life, images of fertility abound, but only as they are circumscribed by the cell. Reformers who advocated return to the strict observance of St. Benedict's Rule also found themselves using a language of verdant fertility to describe the effects of this restraint. Reformer Philip of Harvengt, writing De institutione clericorum (c. 1140), claims that the Rule has "been recalled to the truth of the letter." Yet that "letter" allows for this surfeit of metaphor:
Whether or not the image of eremitic or desert isolation was always intended to be metaphorical rather than literal,17 it is evident that by the twelfth century, the notion of "desert places" as the place for following the monastic way of life relinquished literal for metaphorical reality. By late in the century, not only the geographical isolation, but the physical restriction of the monastic cell itself begins to dissolve forever.
The monastic imagination of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries abandons its walls for a new connotative definition of solitude. Giles Constable describes this as "an increasing tendency . . . to stress the importance
iv. Back to the Garden: The Orcherd of Syon20
Neither a code of monastic rules nor an account of the spiritual of life of eremites, the Dialogo of St. Catherine of Siena, originally published in 1378, was translated into English, retitled The Orcherd of Syon and published in 1519. The translation was made for the Bridgettine nuns at the double monastery of Syon in Barking, England. The text's history is particularly interesting. Its early sixteenth-century translator added the introductory apparatus of the orchard image as well as the new title. So the original fourteenth-century work by Catherine was actually reshaped by translators of the sixteenth century, who placed this spiritual treatise in the midst of a carefully tended metaphor.
The Orcherd of Syon is a remarkable illustration of what has become of the prelapsarian garden of Eden metaphor. This garden has been cultivated, planted, subjected to the strictures of rule and order. Here, the meditants are instructed to choose alleys or pathways within the text, depending on what shape they wish their meditation to take. The Orcherd of Syon is divided into seven parts, five chapters in each part, with thirty-five alleys in which the sisters may read, or, metaphorically, walk. Because there appears to be no set order to the way in which they might choose to plan their meditations, the metaphor images the paradox of freedom within restraint. Catherine's book offers the ecstatically dictated account of her visions. A document closer to the literature of mysticism than of regulation, Catherine's work expands, the twelfth century tiny cell, emphasizing solitude and silence, to a place of conver-
The Orcherd offers both interpretations of scripture and summaries of Church dogma. Doctrinally, there is nothing new here, but structurally The Orcherd builds a new monastic world: its form presents us with an interactive text, the author in conversation with God, rather than in relationship to a rule or to a superior who administers that rule. Moreover, through the fertile garden image added by the medieval translator, The Orcherd of Syon creates a framework very like the monastic space, which allows freedom only within enclosure. The physical body also comes to be associated with this enclosed space, since mankind is
v. Castles in the Soul: Teresa's Dwelling Places
Teresa of Avila's,writings range from her literal accounts of the founding of convents in Foundations (1576, 1580) to the mystical text of the inward dwelling of God in The Interior Castle (1577).23 Of the numerous literal enclosures or religious houses for women that Teresa establishes, she writes,
Elsewhere, she borrows the "nun out of her cloister is like a fish out of water" metaphor that we found in the Quadripartito. But when these nuns are fish out of water, they seem to carry their own cell with them--in the form of their veil. In fact, Teresa extends the cloister to the bodies of her individual nuns, who veil themselves whenever going into or dealing with the public. Of this source of protection--or portable cloister--Teresa remarks, "The world is so full of novelty that were it
But by far the most interesting metaphor of enclosure is that which defines the space within. In Dwelling Places, the working title for the text that came to be called The Interior Castle (1577), Teresa details the seven places or stages through which the individual ascends to perfect contemplation of and union with the divine. In a vision where the castle metaphor of the book is revealed to her, Teresa sees
The outer wall of the castle, the body, must be quickly bypassed in order to enter the dwelling places which, according to editors Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriquez, reflect the diversity of ways and depths of the individual's spiritual capacities. Teresa speaks of many dwelling places within dwelling places "below and above and to the sides, with lovely gardens and fountains and labyrinths."27
In the seventh and ultimate dwelling place, the most interior of the rooms of the castle, Teresa finds the quiet and intimacy of the cell where "God alone and the soul rejoice together in the deepest silence."28 The encounter with the divine is also described as a spiritual marriage from which Teresa adamantly dismisses the body image that we had earlier seen denigrated in monastic writing:
The image of cloister offers one more transformation before we leave it. In an "Epilogue" to The Interior Castle, Teresa offers her text itself as a spacious room for those nuns in enclosure to enjoy:
These texts chart profound changes in the attitude towards enclosure, the methods of discipline, and the practice of cloistered devotion. Literally and metaphorically, the cloister expands from its tiny cell, emphasizing punishment, silence, and solitude, to a place of divine