The secret of a domestic monastery
The kids running around Mt. Angel Abbey
For years I’ve been fascinated with the idea of creating a “domestic monastery.” To me, that concept evoked a home that’s orderly and prayerful, a haven where you could go to retreat from the stress of the world. Something deep within me yearned for this kind of life — and, even though it might sound impossible to the modern mind, my gut told me that this concept is attainable. Especially after I started thinking about hard stops and balance and sacrifice, I became more convinced than ever that family life — even big family life — does not have to be all insanity, all the time, that we really can transform our houses into domestic monasteries.
I’ve been asking that question for about five years now. I would ponder it as I watched toddlers jump around in corn flakes that they had poured onto the floor; I’d meditate on the essence of what a “domestic monastery” is as I turned around to yell at the kids for yelling in the car and noticed that only one of them had both shoes on; I’d wonder how often the average monk had thoughts like, IF ONE MORE PERSON ASKS ME FOR A SNACK MY HEAD IS GOING TO EXPLODE!!!!
I always felt like I was close to an understanding of what this concept really meant, but couldn’t quite get clarity on it. Then Joe and I had the crazy idea to spend a week at a Benedictine monastery and take our kids with us, and things finally clicked.
For a week, we lived on the same grounds as the monks of Mt. Angel Abbey. Our guest house was right next door to their church, and their attached cloister. The monastery is perched on a hilltop, the buildings (which include a library and a seminary) facing inward to enclose sprawling, tree-lined grounds. We had had visions of doing a bunch of Oregon sightseeing while we were in the area, but we never left Mt. Angel. We fell so quickly into the daily routine of work and prayer and rest, and felt so deeply at home, that the idea of going back out into the world felt painful.
The monks gather in their church for prayer six times a day; five of those prayer times are part of the ancient Liturgy of the Hours, the other is a Mass. Vigils is at 5:20 AM, followed by Lauds at 6:30. Then a breakfast, followed by Mass. The monks go about their work until noon, when they pause for midday prayer and eat lunch. Then they return to work until the bells ring for Vespers shortly after 5:00 PM. They have dinner, and then the day draws to a close with Compline at 7:30.
Anyone is invited to join them in church for their Masses and prayer times. The monks in their hooded black robes sit in the choir stalls at front, near the altar, and visitors sit in the pews in the nave. Their magnificent pipe organ is used every time, and the monks chant each of the prayers, which lends a sense of timelessness to the sanctuary. Vespers at a Benedictine monastery today does not look much different than it would have a thousand years ago.
We took the kids to most of each day’s Hours (though it probably goes without saying that I did not even try to make it to Vigils). I had suspected that we might get caught up in whatever we were doing and resist the effort to drag the kids down to the church every few hours, but that wasn’t the case at all. The sound of the bells announcing prayer time filled the entire hilltop, and you couldn’t help but pause whatever you were doing when you heard their noble ring. Also, since the prayer schedule was so regular, and we always knew when the next Hour was rolling around, we would naturally go into wind-down mode on whatever activity we were doing as the time approached. “Let’s not get out that board game right now, we only have thirty minutes until Vespers,” we might say to the kids.
We both had some work to do while we were there: Joe had to review documents for a client, I had a couple of small writing deadlines to hit, and we had to do a big load of laundry to keep the kids in clean clothes. I think this was a blessing, because it was a chance to work on a monk’s schedule. And it was in these semi-normal days, where we were balancing work and the demands of parenthood, all within the rhythm of life at Mt. Angel Abbey, that I think I finally came to understand the secret to creating a domestic monastery.
It doesn’t have to do with getting the kids to walk around in silence (though, boy, that’d be nice if I could pull it off), nor is it about observing the exact same prayer times as consecrated religious. Boiled down to its core, the hallmark of the monastic schedule is that the way you use your time reflects your true priorities. Your daily life is one of constantly pushing back against the world’s expectations, making real, sometimes difficult sacrifices so that your time is not swept away by the current of the world’s priorities.
My cousin, Br. Claude (whom we were visiting), creates icons for churches and organizations all over the world. When a new client asks him how long it will take to create something for them, the estimate he gives them assumes that his only worktime will be those slots on weekdays between Lauds and noon prayer, then from lunch until Vespers. It takes him a lot longer to complete a project than if he were to pull all-nighters, eat in his studio instead of in community with his brother monks, and blow off prayer times so that he could work more. I’d imagine that he sometimes encounters clients who wonder why it would take X weeks (or months) to create one piece, or hint that they’d like it done more quickly. But that’s not how it works when you’re a monk: outside of special circumstances, you work only during the designated times. When it is time for prayer, you pray; when it’s time to rest, you rest — even if the world is telling you to do otherwise.
I’ve been experimenting with this principle since I’ve been home. It’s been a process of freeing myself from the tyranny of false “have to’s”, of realizing that I really can take that 10 minutes to pray Vespers without the world falling apart, that it will work out just fine if I relax in the living room with my family in the evening instead of rushing off to get that one thing checked off my to-do list, that nobody is going to hate me if I say that I just can’t go to that Wednesday night meeting because of commitments at home. It’s one big exercise in that idea of saying NO to protect what you’ve already said YES to. Our house is still messier and crazier and about 100 times noisier than any place that you’d typically associate with monastic life, but ever since I’ve begun the simple but difficult process of tying to make our family’s use of daily time reflect our true priorities, I feel closer than ever to creating that domestic monastery that I’ve always craved.