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:

The other nuns

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.

A turbulent sea

The “stations” here are not carvings like the pictures I saw online. All but the last one, which is a life-size crucifix, is a sheet of paper with illustrations and words, laminated and taped on the walls at various intervals. The course starts on one side of the altar and takes us around the perimeter of the sanctuary until we end up on the other side of the altar. When I join the group members, they are standing at the first station: Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. The minister reads a short paragraph about the brief respite that Jesus and three of his disciples take as they are walking into Jerusalem.

In the garden, Jesus is suddenly overcome with grief, realizing he will die soon. Until this moment, he had been stoic about it. Now he tells his companions, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch.” He asks them to stay with him while he prays for one hour. When he looks up, his friends have fallen asleep and, for the first time, Jesus seems deeply hurt. In this personal moment, he expresses his disappoint to his friends. “Sleepest thou?” he says to them, “couldest not thou watch one hour?” The minister finishes reading and our little group stands quietly, letting the words sink in. I think about the complexities in this simple event: Jesus wanting companionship as he struggles to accept his fate, and his friends, despite all good intentions, encountering their own human frailties.

Over the next several stations Jesus is arrested, betrayed, judged, and condemned. It occurs to me as we’re going through these steps that the real crime here—the reason Jesus faced such a harsh consequence—were the beliefs others had about him. Anyone can claim to be divine and simply be dismissed as a lunatic. What set Jesus apart—what made him a threat in the eyes of the leaders of his day—were not the claims he may or may not have made, but what existed in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he touched.

My little group is now facing the grim descent. I offer my companions a wan smile. If I were alone, I would race through these last stations and make a beeline for the exit, but I’m forced to slow my pace to that of the group’s. I recall a statement made by a preacher at an Episcopal church I visited a few weeks back who talked about how she understood why some people didn’t want to focus on Jesus’ death. She said, “But if you’re willing to look directly at it, you’ll find it creates spaciousness in your heart.” What a strange and mysterious thing to say, I thought. What did she mean by it?

Then, like a motley crew on a turbulent sea, we forge ahead: Jesus is scourged, crowned with thorns, forced to carry his own crucifix, and, finally, is crucified. From the other side of death, Jesus says, “Be not afraid.” It is the same message he has offered on many occasions over the course of his ministry. Here he offers it one last time. I feel a knot of anxiety in my belly. Is this what religion is about: soothing the fear? Ultimately, aren’t we all in need comfort?

The last station is a huge wooden cross, made from two pieces of tree trunk, placed in the middle of the altar. The accompanying printout, taped to the cross, explains that this represents the part of the story in which Jesus is laid in his tomb, which is why the cross is draped in a black sash. I stand directly in front of this make-believe crucifix. “I am the door,” Jesus said. I smiled when I read that statement in the Bible because it seemed like funny thing to say. The door to what? The cross is about the size of a doorway. I close my eyes and imagine the cross as something I can open. What’s on the other side? Is it as expansive as the Episcopalian preacher suggested? I picture my hand on a knob as I twist and push.