Monasteries are very cool places, and indispensable to my spiritual life.
My first visit, to a Trappist monastery no less, was a bit of culture shock at first. Long black and white habits, silence, prayer five times a day, a spartan diet (“No pizza? my incredulous son asked), and limited contact with the outside world, except, of course via the gift shop and a brisk business in bonsai trees.
What intrigued me that first time as well, was the dynamic I sensed that was actually rather familiar: the rhythms of a family that didn’t seem so different from mine, when you got right down to it.
There was, first of all, the family itself, spanning generations and embracing its eccentrics, among whom we’d have to include the elderly priest who, like countless Aunt Tillies dreaded by generations of children, invariably greeted me with an insistent pat on the cheek and vigorous squeeze on the arm. There was the brother who jauntily made his way to the back of the church after night prayer and invited the retreatants to be sprinkled with holy water before we retired. Winking and jerking his thumb toward the front, he urged, “Go get the abbot’s blessing, folks It’s a good one!” The same brother closed a small group’s recitation of the rosary with hearty congratulations: “Good rosary, gang!”
Family members here have chores, some of which I assumed are more or less permanent and matched to one’s particular talents, and others that are rotated among individuals who obviously have varied levels of interest in the job of the day. One evening on this first visit, the dinner bell, scheduled to ring at five, started buzzing insistently 10 minutes early. Hurrying downstairs, I accepted my enticing dish of (gulp) creamed onions from the monk on duty who, minutes later, poked his head into the dining room, assured himself that we were all taken care of, and sauntered back to the cloister at 5:05. He’d fulfilled his duty and finagled a few extra moments to himself before evening prayer in the bargain. I live with a couple of similarly crafty souls myself.
Like any family, the Trappists have an identity that others may observe and even attempt to imitate, but will never fully share. They’ve got areas of their life together which are private, like the doors to the rooms in your house that remain firmly shut when company comes to call although I sincerely doubt their reasons for privacy have anything to do with the piles of stuff sitting on the bed that’s been hastily shoveled from the front room into the back, when the company’s heard driving into the driveway.
Their private space is the cloister, but even within the church, the monks sit apart in their stalls facing the center aisle. During the time of my first visit (this subsequently changed), male retreatants could request to sit with the monks, but any other outsider attending prayer and all women must remain in pews located behind a rail at the rear of the chapel.
Now the young guestmaster monk kept apologizing for this inconvenience, but to tell the truth, I didn’t mind, nor were my egalitarian sentiments offended in the least. When I go into another family’s home, I certainly hope to be treated hospitably (which I was), but I don’t go to subvert their routines and impose my own sensibilities on them. No, I was content to sit at a distance, especially as I fought sleep at four o’clock in the morning, which may be the beginning of the happy monk’s day, but is still the middle of the night to me.
Every family has a pace at which they live most today are hopelessly, endlessly frantic, rushing from the homeschool meeting to soccer practice to Taco Bell and then to gymnastics for one kid and trombone lessons for the other.
The monks live on a schedule too, but the pace is anything but frantic.
Take the monastery liturgies.
As the monks materialize from the shadows on a summer evening and make their way towards their stalls, they cast a practiced glance across the visitors seated in the back row, checking to see if any of us needs assistance in making our way through the complexities of vespers.
Despite the monks’ solicitude, one minor mishap seems to occur, without fail, every time newcomers attempt to participate in monastic prayer. During the first exchange, and usually for several afterwards during prayer, one hears something like this:
Presiding monk: “The Lord be with you.”
Non-monks: (without hesitation, almost before he finishes the “you”) And also with you.
Two seconds pass.
Monks: And also with you.
We wonder for a brief moment, what’s wrong with these guys? Why are they so slow on the draw? Then it occurs to us that perhaps something is wrong, but with us. We’re moved to ask, why are we in such a hurry? When we’re outside the monastery, why do we judge a Mass by it’s length? Why do I find myself tripping on the words of the Creed during a parish liturgy, racing to keep up with a congregation that recites it as if NASCAR points are at stake?
Every time I spend time at a monastery, I’m struck by how similar religious communities and families actually are. Knowing that the challenges and joys of these two ways of life had more in common that I ever imagined served to humanize the monks and made me more aware of the spiritual roots and end of my own family’s life. For we too, are a community bound by love, formed by tradition and ritual, directed towards the end of praising and serving the God who gathered us, no matter our idiosyncrasies and tensions.
Of course, with one fundamental difference.
We get pizza.