The monastery

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 Find it here:

13 thoughts on “The monastery

  1. I loved every minute of the read. Having been in similar circumstances several times in recent years I was mesmerized by your story. What I eventually learned for myself was that practicing the Presence does not always mean that you need to schedule time in your day but can occur any time in the course of your day. I find it while doing dishes or when someone I haven’t seen in a long time comes to mind and I feel a need (call) to stop a moment thinking a prayer thought. Eventually, I simply call it living in grace and the realization that Life is living me in some very profound ways.

  2. I was raised a Catholic. At the age of six I was taught the reality of a fiery Hell and how easy it could be for me to fall into it. The local parish built a grade school while I was in fifth grade. I attended the sixth through the eighth grade. I led a very sheltered and religious life. My freshman year I was back in public school. As soon as I started to associate with the kids I felt like I was going straight to Hell. I struggled with this fear until during my sophmore year, while attending a Lenten service, I decided my only hope was to become a priest. Dad first laughed but soon realized I was serious. I left home and attended St. Anthony’s in San Antonio, Texas. My senior year I realized I wanted to have a family. I didn’t want to be wild, I just wanted to have a wife and children. I struggled and prayed most of the year because I was afraid God was going to “Get me” if I left. Nevertheless, I left, came home and a year later married. During that time my older sister left home for the Dominican Convent in Great Bend Kansas and became a nun. I understand the appeals that such settings hold but we have been called to be lights in a very dark world. A lady asked her pastor to pray that God would supply her a job. She landed one.
    A few weeks later she asked her pastor again to pray for her a job. He asked, “did you not just land a job?” She replied that everyone in her office were very ungodly and she felt very uncomfortable working there. Her pastor asked this question: “Where do you put a lightbulb?” Bill

  3. I read the whole piece on the other blog, Corinna – quite insightful. I don’t know if I could overlook the quirks of the situation to take away what you were able to take away from it. Oddly, the thing that most appeals to me about spending a week at a monastery, would be sitting in the chapel and observing morning Mass and evening vespers – not so much participating but rather watching and being there. Interesting thought. Thanks for continuing to write.

  4. Re: “prayer thought” ….It’s kind of how I feel when I think about practicing the Presence. This term comes from a book by mystic Joel Goldsmith. His book Practicing the Presence helped me to realize that the consciousness of God or Jesus is ever present and my job is simply to tap into it. I know…I know…it sounds a little exotic but at this point in my life God, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tsu and, in fact, all religious and spiritual thought seem to remind me that there is One Universal Power that they all speak from and that Power is in all of Life. I have done several life reviews in a variety of ways and each time I do it what comes clear to me is that it all happened as it was supposed to happen. Nothing was really a coincidence but simply a process of evolution bringing me to the present time. Prayer thoughts are just thoughts that come up about someone who, in that moment that I think could use a prayer. It doesn’t have to be wordy or profound but just a thought in much the same way as I am thinking about you, now. My daily life and work doesn’t have to be compartmentalized into religious and profane. It’s all one and includes the so called “good” and “bad”….laughter and sadness….ups and downs….the shit and the joy to me….It’s all God. I am at choice as to how I wish to express it. So….You wonder how your life was going to turn out? This is it.

  5. I am very interested in your search, Corinna. I have been on one myself with surprising results, more than I could have dreamed. Keep up the search!

  6. I am very interested in your search. I have been on a similar search with surprising results, more than I could have dreamed was possible. Keep it up! Looking forward to your next story.

  7. I will be praying for you daily that as you search, you will find the saving power of Jesus Christ. I wish you lived closer so I could take you to my church:-)

  8. Benedict was onto something in plain sight which we seem to miss every time we turn around, I as much as anyone….When a teacher of the law asked Jesus (in Matthew 22) what the greatest commandment was, he responded with two: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind. The second, he said, was “like it”–love your neighbor as yourself. Everything Jesus taught, it seems, was related to these two. Jesus was really quite radical in his simplicity. And the simplest is generally the most difficult.

  9. An amazing thing happens when Jesus Christ comes into your heart. I had been attending Mass and then my wife’s church every Sunday. I felt so empty inside; something was missing. Plus, I couldn’t stand most of the people in my wife’s church. But one night while alone in my bedroom, Jesus came into my heart. It was on a Saturday night in November. I was filled with a peace and joy I had never known. But the big surprise came the next morning. I didn’t go to Mass but helped get the kids ready for my wife’s church. We arrived just as everyone had gathered in the auditorium. I will never forget that moment when I stepped inside. I couldn’t believe it-I loved everybody. It was a love that surpassed anything I had ever known or experienced. I can’t say I have loved the Lord as I ought or others but His love has remained. Bill

  10. Brother Bill’s story is a fascinating one and he tells it with all the belief and passion that I hear from folks who have had a near death experience telling how they went through the tunnel and saw the light and knew the light was Jesus or those who have had a healing from a terminal disease through the laying on of hands. How can one dare to tell them it didn’t happen. I have come to believe them when they tell their experience but then I have to know for myself that it has not been my experience and that’s o.k.

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