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.
This is my new friend, Sister Joeine Darrington, whom I met during the couple of days we stayed with the Benedictine Sisters:
She came over and sat with us during our meals with the sisters, and it was so much fun to chat with her. She’s 96 years old and has been a Benedictine Sister for around 75 years! We talked about how religious life has changed over the decades, what it was like after the sisters stopped wearing habits in the 1960′s, and all about the work they do with the elderly and the homeless. I was touched when she told me that she’d just finished writing thank-you notes to her doctor and dentist. “I was worried that they get complaints more than encouragement, and wanted to tell them how much I appreciate what they do,” she explained.
We spent a long time talking, but one thing she said stood out to me more than anything else:
She mentioned that each morning before she goes into the chapel, she carefully reads every single new prayer request, and then she prays for them at Mass and throughout the day. The sisters have a large book lying open in one of their main halls; it looks like a guest registry, but it’s actually a log for prayer requests. All the sisters pray for these intentions, but Sister Joeine emphasized how seriously she takes them. She spoke of her dedication to those prayers the way an investment banker might speak of his work on a multi-million-dollar corporate merger.
Her tone had been light and jovial, but she turned serious when she talked about prayer. “You know, prayer is very important,” she said.
Though Sister Joeine is in excellent health, as a nonagenarian she has had to slow down a bit. She mentioned that she doesn’t do as much work as she used to do, she can’t move quite as quickly as she used to, and I noticed that she uses a walker to get around. But when I considered how much time she is now able to devote to prayer, it suddenly occurred to me: This is a very powerful woman!
Especially after I set aside the first part of an afternoon solely to pray for your intentions in the chapel at Mt. Angel Abbey, I believe more than ever that there’s something special about focused prayer time. I know that the “prayers of the trenches” offered up in the chaos of daily life are great too for those of us who don’t have lots of time for silence, but it is a unique gift to be able to pour all of your love and attention into one prayer for one specific person.
I thought of all the times that other people’s prayers have impacted my own life (some examples here, here and here), and I was awed by what Sister Joeine does every day. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet could have pulled up chairs next to me, and I would have thought, “Wow! I can’t believe I’m hanging out with someone as powerful and influential as Sister Joeine!”
It’s funny how my perspective has changed since my conversion. In my old view I would have still seen my new friend as charming, witty, intelligent and an overall lovely person — but “powerful” is probably not a word that would have come to mind. Yet now that I am aware of the economy of love, where one person close to God really can change the world, I realize that my 96-year-old friend is a one-woman army; in fact, she’s one of the most powerful people I’ve ever met.
One of the most transforming aspects of this trip to Mt. Angel Abbey has been living according to the monks’ schedule of prayer. They pray the Liturgy of the Hours and have Mass every day, so every few hours the grand church bells start ringing to announce prayer time. The weekday schedule is:
5:20 AM: Office of Readings
6:30 AM: Morning Prayer
7:00 AM: Breakfast
8:00 AM: Mass
12:00 PM: Midday Prayer
12:20 PM: Lunch
5:15 PM: Evening Prayer
5:45 PM: Dinner
7:30 PM: Night Prayer
I admit that I haven’t made it to the Office of Readings, but I’ve tried to attend all the other prayer times each day. Though our household has a pretty solid schedule, it’s entirely different to have the “hard stops” of those church bells ringing. At home I can push back meal or prayer times if I’m into something, but I can’t very well call up the Abbot and tell him to hold off on Evening Prayer because I’m on Twitter. It’s been a fascinating experience. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
1. It makes it less tempting to procrastinate
The big blocks of time around here are the four hours between Mass and noon prayer, and the five hours between lunch and evening prayer. Because I know that I have a hard stop coming up in a few hours, I’m less likely to waste time on useless activities. This morning, for example, I went down to the lounge area to use the internet and check email, and started meandering aimlessly around the internet, as I often do when I get online. But then I remembered that when those prayer bells ring in a few hours, I’m done — I have to put away what I’m doing, whether I want to or not. The first couple days we were here I got caught completely off guard by prayer time and had to stop right in the middle of something I was interested in, which was painful. After that experience I’m much less tempted to procrastinate.
2. You use your time more purposefully
Similar to #1, because I know that I only have a finite number of minutes until I’ll be back in the church for the next prayer time, I approach each chunk of time much more purposefully than when I’m at home. Here’s an example of the way I might approach my morning in my normal routine at my house:
Before lunch I guess I should sweep the floor, and at some point I’ll take the kids to the park. I’ll try to get around to decluttering those toys, and maybe make those two phone calls. But maybe I’ll get online for a second and surf the web first…
…And all of that would be thought with a blasé attitude that if I don’t get that stuff done by 12:30, our usual lunch time, I’ll just push lunch back to accommodate whatever procrastinating I did. For contrast, here’s the way I approached my block of time this morning between Mass and noon prayer:
I only have a few hours until the bells start ringing to announce noon prayer, so I’d better make sure I get the highest priority things done first. As soon as I get back to the retreat house, I will:
- Take an hour for private prayer in the guest house chapel
- Do online check-in for our flights tomorrow
- Return my friend’s voicemail and let her know I’m out of town
- Buy a few souvenirs for our parents and my grandfather
And I’ll use whatever time I have after that for relaxation.
What’s amazing is how much less stressed I am when I approach each block of time with clarity and purpose — and it’s not just because I’m naturally more relaxed because I’m on vacation. It’s such a good feeling to examine the possibilities of what I could do, prioritize them, and then push through to get them taken care of. It really helps me enjoy my free time and live in the moment without lingering stress that there are other things I need to be doing.
3. It gives you a new appreciation for meals
This is an odd one, but I’ve noticed that mealtime is really special here, and not just because of the fantastic food and great company. Eating meals at the exact same time every day involves sacrifice: the meal takes precedence over whatever else you may have wanted to do with that time — i.e. lunch isn’t pushed back by 20 minutes because I wasn’t finished writing a blog post. The result has been that I approach the table each day with a renewed sense of gratitude, my small sacrifice reminding me that this is something special.
4. It makes you surrender your life to God at the micro level
I always try to better surrender my life to God, but I often think of it at the macro level alone: e.g. I’ll work on trusting him with what I’ll be doing 10 years from now, my children’s vocations, my writing projects, etc. But living according to a rule of prayer involves even deeper surrender. There have been quite a few times since I’ve been here that I was really into whatever I was doing, and the last thing I wanted to do was set it aside and go back to the church to pray. To let go of my activities requires an act of trust: trust that God will give me the grace to pick up where I left off if whatever I was doing was important in his eyes, that this “interruption” won’t irreparably derail whatever I was doing, etc. I find myself taking these little leaps of trust at almost every prayer time, whereas back at home I simply push back my prayer or meal times to accommodate whatever it was I was doing — no trust necessary.
5. It helps you put your plans in perspective
I do not handle being interrupted well. I have this tendency to hyper-focus on whatever it is I’m doing, and if something arises that tears me away from it, my reaction is something along the lines of, “If I step away from this project THE FABRIC OF THE UNIVERSE WILL TEAR ASUNDER AND ALL CREATION WILL CEASE TO EXIST!” I keep thinking that’s going to happen every time I hear those bells: I can’t go to prayer now! I think. I should just skip this one and finish what I was doing, you know, so that the world doesn’t fall apart.
Surprisingly enough, I keep setting aside my plans in order to go to prayer, and so far the earth still seems to be spinning, the planets seem pretty steady in their orbits — I’m even calm and happy. By living according to the monastery’s prayer schedule, I get five reminders per day that my little projects aren’t the center of the universe.
6. It helps you put God at the center of your life
Back at home, I do feel close to God much of the time: simply by being surrounded by the blessings of my husband and children I get regular reminders of God’s goodness. But I’ve also noticed that having regular blocks of time set aside specifically for focusing on him with 100% of my attention is incredibly helpful for keeping my priorities in proper order and putting God at the center of it all. It’s made me think even more about how I can include small pockets of silence into my weeks.
I haven’t put much thought into what, if any, elements I can incorporate into my life when I get back home tomorrow. Obviously my vocation is quite different than that of the brothers up here, and it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect to life a monastic life with four young children. The overarching themes I see in all these lessons is that the monastic schedule naturally brings order and obedience to daily life, so I’ll be thinking and praying about what I can do to increase those elements in my daily schedule. If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
I knew a little bit about the Order of St. Benedict before my husband and I arrived in Mt. Angel for our vacation this weekend. (If you’re not familiar with them, I highly recommend this brief explanation of the Order at Vivificat; I think it’s the most clear, concise summary of the Benedictines I’ve ever seen.) I knew the Order was about 1,500 years old. I knew that one of their vows was stability, and that they were big on learning and culture.
One thing that I’d forgotten until we arrived was that they’re known for their hospitality. In the Rule of St. Benedict there’s an entire section on how to best welcome guests, pilgrims and the poor, and St. Benedict writes, “All guests who present themselves are to be received as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Mt 25:35).’”
In our time here in Mt. Angel, we have truly felt welcomed as one would welcome Christ himself. Rather than write about it, I thought I’d share some pictures. (They’re from two places: we first stayed at Queen of Angels Monastery of the Benedictine Sisters, then moved over to Mt. Angel Abbey, our main destination.)
while some delicious lattes and Italian cream sodas were whipped up
One of the many reasons I will leave this place refreshed is simply that it’s been such a wonderful experience to feel so welcomed and well taken care of. Truly, I feel like I have been “received as Christ.”