As some readers of the blog may remember, one of the first steps I took on the journey detailed here (and now in the book A None’s Story) was a week-long stay at a Benedictine monastery. I was inspired by the example of Kathleen Norris, a poet and essayist, who beautifully recalls the periods in her life that she lived among Benedictine monks. She writes about this and other subjects in The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.
I decided to copy Norris. 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.
This did not happen.
I stayed for a week in the guest house of the monastery along with a ragtag group of other visitors. I did hardy chores (this monastery was also a farm and the “monks” were all nuns), dutifully took a contemplative walk every afternoon, and sat in the little chapel twice a day as the nuns sing-songed their prayers. I returned home with a sense that religion may offer something substantial, enough to sustain these women on this remote farm, but I had not grasped what it was.
As is often the case, failure was a launching pad.
The truth was, by duplicating Norris I had hoped to bypass the hard work of a spiritual journey that would be authentic to me. It was dawning on me how much effort it would take to chart my own path. I thought my lack of religious inheritance meant I could adopt anyone’s I wanted. What I couldn’t see at the time was that, as a None, I had my own inheritance, as complicated as any other. The way to understand Norris better wasn’t to reproduce her actions, but approximate her intentions.