Where to begin a journey into religion? How was I, a second-generation None married to a fellow None, supposed to make sense of the sea of choices without benefit of having been handed an affiliation by birth, marriage, or some other unique circumstance?
I wasn’t sure, but after a few months of living in my new hometown, I started to notice the churches. Almost like one of those digitally-patterned images in which a prominent shape emerges if you stare with eyes relaxed, the churches in my neighborhood began to stand out against the backdrop of the town. Maybe it was sensory deprivation, as there wasn’t much else to look at, or perhaps it was that God-nudging thing I’ve heard about. I counted six churches within a mile radius of my house—three if I went one direction and three if I went the other, each housed in a variation of the late 70’s/early 80’s architecture of my neighborhood. The older part of town was peppered with churches, many in beautiful old stone buildings. But driving past, their entrances looked distant and darkly sealed.
I thought I could satiate my curiosity and avoid the church-going issue by taking a page from the life of a poet I admire: Kathleen Norris. She writes about moving back, in her 30s, to her ancestral farming town in her home state of South Dakota after living in New York City for many years. I was drawn to her story because it seemed like an extreme version of my own—her urban experience more urban, her small town experience more rural. Her relocation was accompanied by a spiritual shift as well. Raised with regular church attendance, she had come, for a time, to consider herself an atheist. Her pull towards home was more than an attraction to her family homestead; it was also a return to her religious roots. She rejoins her grandmother’s Presbyterian Church. In addition, she takes her first sojourn to a Benedictine monastery, staying for several weeks with contemplative monks who practice Catholicism.
Instead of attending the churches in my own community, which seemed like a daunting task, I decided to borrow a page from Norris by seeking to stay at a monastery. Preferring my destination to be within a day’s drive of my house, I went online and searched “Benedictine Monastery Washington State.” This little “spiritual vacation” wasn’t meant to be the beginning of anything; it was supposed to be the entire journey. I imagined it as a divine car wash: in one end I would go with the jangled nerves and disconnectedness of modern life, out the other I would appear with the serene smile and beaming aura of the Virgin Mary. What were the events that I thought would transpire in between? I had no idea. But I was pretty sure angels would sing.
Immediately, I hit upon the website of a monastery that fit the bill. Unlike the one Norris visited, this was a 300-acre farm and the “monks” were all nuns. It was as far away from my new town as possible while still being part of the same state; though, technically, it wasn’t even touching the state—it was a few miles off shore, on a small island. Online photos showed habited ladies atop tractors and lippy llamas smiling for the camera. I read that visitors were welcome, especially when they help with chores. I loved the idea of working on a farm, especially if what the website said was true—that it was a “form of prayer.” That this opportunity for a monastic retreat should be an absolute perfect fit for my purposes did not surprise me; as far as I was concerned, the monastery had been founded in the 1970s for the sole purpose of being at the receiving end of my internet search.
To arrange a week-long visit was simple enough: click a link to email a nun. So I did.