Attend all the hours, meditations, or whatever services are available. Find out why you could or could not ever live that kind of life. Are you willing to give up everything for a life of contemplation and spirituality or do your gifts belong in the world? (A and J)
I had been curious about what it would take to live the monastic life, especially after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. Both J and I were raised Roman Catholic, went to Catholic school through high school and were raised on the lives of the saints, who included a fair amount of men and women who lived cloistered lives. I was at a period of my life where I was feeling very confused about relationships – both interpersonal and romantic and I thought it might help me figure things out to go away somewhere to think in silence for awhile. Thomas Merton was a Trappist and from what I had read about his life, they lived simple quiet lives based on work and prayer. I found out that there was a Trappist monastery, New Melleray Abbey, in the farmlands near Dubuque, Iowa and they had a guest house. So I decided to go there for a couple of days after Easter. It was perfect. While I would by no means consider myself a devout Catholic (or even if I could call myself Catholic at all these days), Easter has always been my favorite holiday with its themes of rebirth and renewal. It was still chilly, but spring was definitely in the air and new life was already stretching up in tiny green buds from the fields.
It was one of the best things I have ever done for myself! I did quite a bit of writing, thinking, and praying and left with a great deal more tranquility in my heart than when I arrived. The food was simple but good, the dorm rooms sparse but comfortable, and you were left to your own devices. Here is a room, here are the guest house rules, here is the schedule of religious services, go in peace as you will. There were some surprises – the monks get up at 3:15 am and go to bed at 8:00 pm. This was quite jarring to someone who usually goes to bed at midnight, but since I decided to attend all the services (Gregorian chant in a high ceiling stone chapel at 3:30 in the morning is amazing!), I found myself quickly adjusting.
They have a very structured life there. Here is a sample weekday schedule for the monks with time in between all of of it for spiritual reading, private prayer and meals:
3:30am Vigil – chant
6:30 Lauds – chant
9:15 Terce – chant
11:45 Sext – chant
1:45pm None – chant
5:30 Vespers – chant
7:30 Compline – chant
8:00 Go to bed
While I could not see myself living this lifestyle, it was a welcome respite from the hectic hubbub of my everyday life and all of the noise and demands of the modern world. I cannot explain the way the silence felt (silence was requested in the dorm rooms and the other guests I met only talked at meals or sometimes upon meeting outside) – it was a profound, peaceful silence of contemplation, not of stifled thoughts. I was surprised that New Melleray library contained books from many monastic traditions, not just Catholic. It was there where by chance I ran across a book that has since had a great influence on me: Awareness by Anthony de Mello.
In between meals and services, I spent my time walking through the fields and writing. Here are a few excerpts from my journal during that time:
“A deep silence pervades here – not sad, but contemplative in keeping with the spirit of the place. I have already broken order once in issuing a fellow guest a cheery “good morning!” before reading in the rules that this should be a place of no talking. Oops. Well no harm done I suppose, but now I will know to keep silent. Can I do it for even two days? It’s like a fast for the tongue…I can understand how monks come to think deep thoughts in this well of silence. I think it would be healthy for everyone to spend two or three days at a time, two or three times a year, in stillness and some degree of solitude. Clears the head and quite calming for the soul.”
“I am complicated, difficult, questing for truth and beauty, trying to outrun my skin, sometimes small and lost, always great and terrible. I don’t think this life is one that would suit me long term. My mission seems to be to interact. One thing I realized at 3:30 this morning was something about the character of love. If one is to be truly “awakened” one needs to give love but realize that it is a want to get it back. It’s more of the whole “If you expect someone to love you back, you are not loving them, you are in love with the idea of love.” Love is FREE. Freely given with no strings attached and no expectations of getting it back. In a marriage you might love someone but there is also a certain obligation of character that you have to expect from your partner in order to get what you need done. You love but you choose wisely the person whose character has revealed that they are ready and willing to provide the obligations that go along with being a partner and a parent.”
“So here is how ‘goodness’ is like ‘light’ or maybe they are the same thing because they both make the grass grow. I read something that said “A saint is a saint until they know it” – much like light’s observed properties change from wave to particle nature and vice versa depending upon the expectations of the person studying them. That goodness IS goodness until inflated with the puffery of “I did a good thing. Look how wonderful I am!” But we want to be important and loved and admired. It’s very difficult to let go of that and just be who and what you are called to be: your bliss in the moment, your living and dying, your dealings with your frightful ego.”
“It is 4:00 am and I have just returned from Vigil. I learned that Vigils are supposed to be the prayers that are said for all the people who can’t sleep because they are worried or their conscience is troubling them. It is for those who have to work nights and the people staying up with the sick. As tiring as this is, I think I like this prayer the best. Although the Compline at 7:30 pm with its end of the day blessing and a kind of “if you die in your sleep, die blessed” has a certain peacefulness as well.”
I would highly recommend this experience to any seeker, anyone tired and lost, the spiritual and those just wondering what they are supposed to do now.
You can find out more about the New Melleray Abbey at: http://www.newmelleray.org/