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.
An old friend got in touch with us recently, and his experience was proof that trying to contact one of the Fulwilers by telephone often yields different results than you would expect it to. Below is a transcript of our friend Sandeep’s experience with this endeavor.
Before you read it, there are three things you need to know: 1) As part of his never-ending quest to thwart The Man, Joe is constantly switching to new, cheaper cell phone plans, which always involves changing his mobile number. 2) He recently switched our home service as well (see #1 re: The Man), which involved losing our longtime home number. 3) Joe sees answering phones as a completely optional activity; if a phone rings near him, he feels no particular compulsion to turn his attention to it, and usually keeps his cell phone turned off.
SANDEEP: Hey, Jen, how’s it going? Could I just get Joe’s cell number from you?
ME: I don’t know it.
SANDEEP: You don’t know it?
ME: No, but it doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t answer it anyway.
ME: Yeah, he never answers it.
SANDEEP: Oh. Wow. Okay, do you know if he’s at work right now?
ME: Actually, he’s at home.
SANDEEP: Oh, great! What’s your home number?
ME: I don’t know.
ME: He doesn’t answer that number either though.
SANDEEP: Okay. Well, I’ll just leave him a voicemail.
ME: We don’t have voicemail. Or, maybe we do, but we’ve never figured out how to check it.
SANDEEP: [More stunned silence.] Okay, so, I guess I’ll just send him another email and wait to hear back?
ME: That would probably be best.
And I’ve told you before about this exchange, which I had again recently:
FRIEND: Did you get my text?
ME: I never check texts. You should email me.
FRIEND: I did.
ME: Oh, that’s right, I avoid email. It stresses me out.
FRIEND: Did you at least get my voicemail?
ME: I hate checking voicemail. It takes so long, you know? You have to sit there and listen to that voice say, “At…three…twenty…two…on…Friday…” [Shuddering.] I only do it about once a week.
FRIEND: So, I guess I need to come to your door if I need to get in touch with you?
ME: I guess.
FRIEND: Okay –
ME: But sometimes I hide behind the couch when I hear a knock.
Sandeep, who is evidently more of a phone-answering, cell-phone-number-knowing kind of person, finally caught Joe on the phone later in the week and asked in bewilderment if this was some kind of Catholic thing (wondering also if we were perhaps in a witness protection program).
I would like to think that it is a Catholic thing: we have cultivated a domestic monastery for our house, and a big part of creating a prayerful, focused environment is limiting sources of external distractions.
…Or maybe we’re just annoying introverts.
Back in July of 2006 I wrote a post marveling at a family friend who always managed to be cheerful and loving, even though she worked five times as hard as I did and had significant problems in her life. I didn’t have a take in the post; I just relayed the story, and promised at the end that I would write a Part 2 with further thoughts. I have never forgotten that I didn’t write that second post. By Grabthar’s Hammer, when I say that I will write a follow-up to a post, I SHALL DO IT!
…Sometimes it just takes me six years to get to it.
I was reminded of this subject last weekend when my husband and the four oldest kids took a weekend trip to visit his dad. The baby spent quite a bit of time visiting her grandmothers, and so I basically had the house to myself.
When they first pulled out of the driveway, I walked through the empty kitchen, the quiet living room, and took in the situation. This was the setup I had spent so much of my life yearning for: No commitments! No noise! No obligations! Just me in an empty house, free to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. It was everything I dreamed it could be…for about two hours. And then it got kind of lame.
Back when I wrote that first post, this was still my ideal setup. I thought that a perfect life would mean having perfect autonomy. I loved my child and was glad to be a mother, of course, but I saw the work that came with it as a downside to be avoided as much as possible. As I said back then, I was acutely conscious of any effort I had to put forth, and the harder I had to work, the less happy I became. I fought and fought to resist any losses of freedom or control, making myself miserable in the process.
My husband calls that old ideal, the life of perfect ease and freedom, a “museum life.” It’s a good description. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but I basically wanted to live in a museum: Everything in place, everything controlled, no noise, no chaos, nothing messy. Just a bunch of interesting stuff surrounding me that I could enjoy at my leisure.
But the thing about a museum is that everything in it is dead.
What I would eventually learn, that that friend of ours knew all along, is that a life lived to fullest will always involve service — and not just service like penciling in some volunteer work on your calendar, but melding your life with others on such an intimate level that you no longer have complete autonomy. Whom you serve may vary by your state in life (it may be family or your religious community or neighbors or a group of people in need), but whoever it is, if you’re doing it right, they will depend on you and you will depend on them to the extent that your life is no longer your own. When you think about it, it makes sense: Obviously there is no greater joy than unity with God, and we only need to look at a crucifix to see that the very essence of God is pouring out yourself for others.
On Sunday afternoon I heard the garage door open, and knew that my free time was over. An afternoon of toil was about to begin. Everyone would be tired and dirty and would need snacks and drinks and potty help and changes of clothes; the museum I’d had all weekend would be overrun by loud little people and transformed back into a crazy, chaotic home.
To be sure, it would be hard. I’d probably have to suppress the urge to scream “WHY CAN’T ANYTHING AROUND HERE EVER BE EASY?!?!?!” upon the second time I’d filled a drink only to have it spilled at the same time that someone knocked the tower of haphazardly stacked DVDs down behind the entertainment center. If my museum weekend meant experiencing pleasure on the surface but a dead hollowness underneath, this was the opposite: on the surface it’s sacrifice and challenges and the occasional feeling that I just might lose my mind, but underneath there is a glowing core of life-affirming joy. And as the kids came bursting through the door, tracking mud onto the carpet as they shouted, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”, I was overcome with gratitude that I no longer lived in a museum.
I didn’t choose a “word of the year” this year. The New Year happened to coincide a particularly low point in the book process, even by doomed project standards, and I scrapped the whole word choosing process when the only options I could come up with were:
Then last Tuesday I found myself at daily Mass, and I think I got my word.
My husband had kindly arranged to take a day off of work so that I could get some time to recuperate after a month that has so far been insane on a lot of different levels. Using a chunk of my precious free time to go to church was a move borne more of desperation than of pure holiness. I had really tried to keep God out of the picture and manage everything on my own, but, oddly enough, that didn’t work out so well. I’d been overwhelmed for months. Not “life-shattering crisis” overwhelmed, but just the slowly soul-sucking, “do I really want to live with this low-grade stress every day?” overwhelmed. I knew I needed to do something about it, but I was too busy treading water to figure out how to swim to shore. Meanwhile, I barely noticed that I was gradually sinking…until after the accident, when I started to drown. And so I found myself sitting in a pew on a Tuesday afternoon, not even knowing what to pray for, but just kind of hoping that if I sat there and looked extra pathetic God would notice and feel sorry for me.
I should have known that it would be an occasion of transformation, because it was the first time in a while that I had actually put God first. In contrast to my recent behavior, going to that Tuesday Mass was a radical act of faith, a routine-shattering occasion of declaring that God will work everything out if I actually give him a few moments of my attention. And sure enough, when I returned to the pew after receiving the Eucharist, there was a message for me. When I knelt in prayer a single word came to me, stopping all other thoughts and filling my mind as if I’d heard a loud roll of thunder:
I figured it was pretty safe to say that this was from the Holy Spirit and not from the Jen’s Crazy Ideas grab-bag, since it was a) clear, b) not related to anything I had been recently thinking about, and c) carried with it a feeling of great peace. As I unpacked this word and all the messages that came with it, I became more and more convinced that this was the answer that I had been looking for — as well as my guiding word for the rest of the year.
The issues I’d been having with feeling overwhelmed could be framed as an issue of authority: When I wake up each morning and start dancing like a trained monkey in response to all the requests that wait for me in my email inbox, without once considering if this is really what I should be doing at this moment, I am essentially saying that my email inbox is my authority. When I dash around trying to do X, Y, and Z because that’s what Mrs. So-and-So down the street does and therefore everyone will obviously think I’m a terrible mom if I don’t also do X, Y, and Z, I am making poor Mrs. So-and-So my authority (and she doesn’t even know me!) When I feel like I must check Twitter or text messages or whatever before I can do anything else, that media has become my authority.
Thinking about my situation this way not only helped me understand how I got into this mess in the first place, but now I know what I need to do to get out:
Place my life under the proper authority.
That doesn’t mean that I’ll cut out all of the activities that have been overwhelming me; I may even do some of them more. But instead of rushing around at the beck and call of whatever “urgent” item has popped up on my computer or smartphone, I’ll pause to ask myself what I am really serving here, and whether it should be my authority. If the task at hand seems to be from God, either because I feel peacefully led to do it, or because it falls into the category of “One of Those Things I Know God Wants Me to Do — no discernment necessary!” (e.g. feeding the kids once in a while), I’ll do it. And — here’s the key — I won’t worry about what is meanwhile not getting done, because I will understand that those tasks have no authority over me.
We’ll see how it goes. It seems to be a natural part of life that we find ourselves in a constant ebb and flow of getting overwhelmed, fighting back the chaos, then drifting into Crazyland again. So I doubt that this will be the final solution to my tendency to get myself in over my head. But it is really helping for now — and, if nothing else, it has kindled within me a burning and passionate desire for daily prayer. Setting aside a few silent moments for God each day is a good thing for a lot of reasons, but right now, the biggest one for me is that these are moments of re-orientation, of aligning my life according to its real Authority.
UPDATED TO ADD: Don’t miss Marissa Nichols’ great post on a similar subject, in which she talks about how she’s been having a tough time lately, and offers a powerful and eloquent prayer for those who are going through Hell. Beautiful stuff.