Life as a Monastery
This post first appeared at Contemplative Journal in August 2015.
For almost two years I’ve lived alongside four women, sisters in an Episcopal religious order, who graciously took me in as a young priest fresh out of seminary. Ten years ago the sisters of The Community of the Holy Spirit started Bluestone Farm, a ministry rooted in their vision of sustainable living and healing the Earth. I came to them starry-eyed about spiritual community, with the belief that monastic life held in trust the sacred rhythm so desperately needed by the human family today. A balanced life of work and prayer held in community. A rhythm that our busy lives—anchored in the realities of the modern work week, the breakdown of the neighborhood, and the loss of a collective spiritual worldview—are starving for.
Well, life changes, and this weekend my experiment with these four women comes to an end. As our time together closes, I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned here, and I’d like to share some of those lessons. The good news: I still think I was right. We do need this rhythm, we do need a balanced life of work, prayer, and community for our human being to truly flourish. The better news: you don’t need to live in a monastery to get it (although you may need to go to one to learn it!).
Through the sisters, I stepped into an ancient lineage of sung prayer—the recitation of the Divine Office (made up largely of psalms, canticles, and versicles from Hebrew and Christian Scripture), which we gathered four times daily to chant in Gregorian plainsong; in the early morning, at noonday, in the evening, and at nightfall. I came to think of this ancient chant tradition quite literally as food for the devotional heart.
As a practice, I initially found plainsong overly wordy and complex—why not sing those simple, repetitive chants that allow you to “drop in deep”? The sisters encouraged me to stick with it. Slowly, it began to pay off. I began getting the hang of those complex chants, and started to experience the deep beauty and nourishment they conveyed. I began to feel the amazing syncing of our voices when we were really “in it” together. I began to discover the way the offices gentled the soul and fed the heart.
And so, lesson #1: things of great beauty, more often than not, take time, patience, and commitment. This lesson would come home to me again when, in the course of my stay with The Community of the Holy Spirit, I met my fiancée. Yanick (yuh-neek) came to the farm as a volunteer, taking a weekend away from her job in New York City. That turned into another weekend, then a month’s vacation, and then a summer internship which became a long-term residency. Somewhere along the way, we noticed each other.
I’d been waiting for love to strike like a lightning bolt, but instead I found it much more like the slow and steady pacing of monastic life itself. Slowly, slowly, something began to take hold. Like plainsong chant, our friendship began to take on depth and become food for the heart. As we moved into deepening levels of commitment, our relationship was given the freedom it needed to flourish. More and more I found that love was like the rhythm of daily prayer, polishing our rough edges through the commitment we gave to each other.
And so, lesson #2: relationships are (or can be) monasteries. At first blush, two people, romantically involved, may look a good deal different from a community of celibate nuns. But look a little closer, and you may find that the differences are a lot smaller than you’d think. As I watched the commitment of the sisters I live with—to one another and the hard work of transformation—I began to see that it was more or less the same work taking place between Yanick and me, and that this work needed a context of trust and commitment to happen. We (like the sisters) lived together, and so we couldn’t run away when things got hard. We loved each other, so we couldn’t withdraw and become distant. As for the sisters, so for us: the only way forward was through.
But it wasn’t the interpersonal work alone that made our relationship a monastery; it was also prayer. In addition to the rhythm of monastic prayer held by our community, I had my own devotional practice from the Sufi tradition that I took time for every morning before chapel. Quietly, Yanick began to join me, drinking her morning coffee in the same room while I prayed. She just liked being there, she said. I liked her being there, too.
And then one morning I noticed she was praying the rosary while I chanted with my Sufi prayer beads. The next morning I threw down a second prayer rug, and while I prayed my practice, she knelt beside me and offered hers. Without ever planning it, we’d stumbled onto a shared, daily ritual. Eventually we began ending this shared time with a prayer to the Virgin Mary from Mirabai Starr’s Mother of God, Similar to Fire (Yanick grew up Roman Catholic and takes Mary as her preferred face of God) or a poem from Jalaluddin Rumi (my Sufi practice hails from Rumi’s lineage). We’d then sit together and drink our coffee in the morning quiet.
We later identified this organic development as one of the anchoring forces in our relationship; it told us that we might really be onto something as a couple. It was also exciting to discover how well practices from different traditions could share the same space and rhythm—good news for interfaith couples, friends, and families looking to share spiritual practice together. There was no need to merge or collapse our prayer forms into each other; only to hold the same space and commitment.
I encourage those of you with different devotional styles or spiritual traditions to experiment along these lines, not simply looking for shared practices (where our minds often tend to go—“We have to do the same thing!”), but finding ways to share practice time and space without the need to share practices. It can create a very intimate container in which different energies of prayer are allowed to touch. And for those of you who wish you could run away to a monastery in order to pray, I offer the simple reminder that sacred rhythm can be created, and it doesn’t have to look like Gregorian chant (although it certainly can!).
As I prepare to leave the monastery, I carry the monastery with me. Or rather, we carry the monastery with us. Because, as Yanick and I have discovered, our relationship is the monastery. Our commitment to the work is itself the path of transformation, and it need not look the least bit spiritually exotic. As for abbot, guru, or guide, we have been humbled (and relieved) to find that neither of us holds down that role; we are merely the students.
And so, lesson #3: relationship is the teacher. Whether it’s an intentional community or a group of celibate monks, marriage vows or monastic vows, relationship mutually committed to is the context that allows spiritual work, learning, and growth to happen. At the end of the day, it seems to me that monastic spirituality is not really about celibacy (although we often imagine that to be the case), but rather community, commitment, and prayer. These three form the crucible in which authentic transformation takes place. Celibacy is rather a helpful tool (and unique vocation) that allows certain models of life-together to flourish, and is not itself a staple for the deepest spiritual journeying. Fear not: single folk, couples, and communities of all kinds already possess within themselves the raw materials needed to build their own monasteries.
Above all, the monastery has taught me about love. It has taught me that love, real love, is a thing grown slowly, like the day-in, day-out rhythm of monastic life itself. It is not a lightning bolt, but rather the slow, daily work of tending a garden. It is the singing of plainsong that gradually gentles the soul and becomes sweet food for the heart.