In hindsight, I see that my notions of what to expect at the monastery were naively romantic. I thought I would be a sort of “temporary nun,” one of the gals making my way down the monastery halls to the light of a flickering candle. I would eat my meals sitting elbow to elbow with the sisters; we would work in the garden side by side, fast friends giggling at the absurdities of the world. The nun atop a tractor in the picture from the website? I’d be sitting right next to her, her field-plowing co-pilot. All the while, they would take me under their billowy sleeves and teach me the divine lessons they had gathered over a lifetime.
This is not what happened.
The monastery itself—where the nuns lived—was behind a high wall. The guest quarters were located down the road in the original house built when the property was a secular farm. My companions for the week were not nuns at all, but other visitors staying at the guest house: two young women interested in organic farming, a middle-aged woman contemplating whether to become a nun, and a teenager from Seattle trying to kick drug addiction.
Between the nuns’ quarters and the guest house was a little chapel, the interior made entirely of wood harvested from the nearby forest. Big windows overlooked the sheep pasture. I only saw the nuns at the two daily worship sessions I was invited to observe—morning mass and evening vespers. (Occasionally, I spied a nun as she drove by in a pickup truck.) After mass, I waited at the door of the chapel to receive my daily assignment. My days were very structured: two hours of morning chores, two in the afternoon, time for silent contemplation (a walk was encouraged), and meals to be shared communally among visitors (the nuns ate the same food together up at the monastery).
It was not at all what I expected. It was uncomfortable to be living among complete strangers. We shared a bathroom. We did awkward little dances around each other in the kitchen. Conversations at mealtimes felt forced. I would laugh hysterically at what I thought was a joke only to realize it wasn’t. Had I come all this way to be an ill-at-ease farmhand whose most transcendent moment was sifting compost? The nuns seemed unconcerned about the state of my soul.
It wasn’t until later that I realized the experience I sought had been hiding in plain sight.
Saint Benedict, the patron of this Catholic order, insisted that the path to greater spiritual awareness is paved in mundane interactions with the people of our own communities—not necessarily those with whom we intentionally spend time—but the acquaintances and strangers we see at the post office or walking down the street, those with whom we rub shoulders day in and day out whether we want to or not. In these relationships we practice the patience, love, forgiveness that are essential to developing our best selves. That’s precisely why nuns live together: to get on each other’s nerves until irritation transforms into illumination.
By the time I got home, I could almost hear Saint Benedict. “Stay firmly planted in your own life,” he whispered across the centuries, “to find what you are looking for.”
Are you interested in reading more about my stay at the monastery? A photo-illustrated essay lives on the Prayables blog at Beliefnet.com. Find it here: http://blog.beliefnet.com/prayables/2012/06/the-true-monastic-adventures-of-a-recovering-city-girl.html.