Published in Soul Gardening Journal: My Home is My Monastery

[Editorial Note: Now that this essay has come out in the Summer 2015 edition of Soul Gardening Journal, I am republishing it here]

“Removed from temporal concerns.” That is how life goes for monks and nuns of religious houses. I’ve always been attracted to that, perhaps romanticizing their lives at times. As a mom, I sometimes lament that this quiet calling is not mine. Even before I became a Catholic, I admired monks and nuns in their picturesque cloisters praying and working gently with a devotion to last a life time. There is something compelling in their ascetic life of reading, gardening, praying, working and other past times that deeply resonates with human nature and makes it appear (and actually be) so fulfilling.

Now, of course, like all ideals, I’m sure the reality is much more fraught and difficult than the pastoral picture in my head of monasticism. Still, when I visited Ireland and the stone, beehive shaped huts of the monks on the Skellig Isles, their radical commitment to holiness and simplicity struck me and continues to inspire me.

Sometimes I wonder about the possibility of truly attaining holiness in my relatively comfortable, middle-class, American life. Somewhere inside, I harbor the fallacy that the religious life is better or holier than the life of a layman. I’ve even written about wanting my house to be like a monastery: a place of peace where people grow in love of the Lord and His goodness. I envied the reprieve that religious men and women have from worldly concerns.

Well, here’s a revelation that struck me today: my home is not like a monastery. It IS my monastery.

And just like the messy reality in the lives of actual monks, my life is pretty messy.

But my home IS the place where I pray and work (ora et labora, the central tenets of the Benedictine Rule). It is the place where I serve my family and where I aim to raise up children of God.

And while I envied the “reprieve” from worldly concerns, it turns out that I have that too—in an unexpected way.

You see, one day I was complaining to my darling husband about my annoyance when my little sister said to me “you’re such a mom,” because the implication was that moms are “messy, pudgy and uncool,” a trifecta I invented myself (how flattering, right?).

Of course, many moms are beautiful, fit, put-together and chic, but I am not. In my uncharitable self-analysis, I reasoned that I am messy because I have toddlers and babies sloshing food and pulling my hair out of ponytails all day; I am pudgy because I’ve carried two humans in my abdomen (on separate occasions) and have not quite recovered yet; I am uncool because I have little free time to spend consuming pop-culture.

Grilling my kind-hearted husband, I asked him “How do you see moms? Messy, pudgy and uncool?” He thoughtfully responded with a phrase that held more meaning than I first understood: “No,” he said, “In moms, I see women who are removed from temporal concerns.”

Wow. “Removed from temporal concerns.” He did not mean that I don’t have to worry about food preparation, dirty diapers or crumb-covered floors. Those are very temporal. (At least I hope they won’t be in heaven). What he meant was that moms are removed from that deadly worldly striving of constantly trying to get ahead, get noticed, and “make it” in secular terms of success.

Instead, moms embrace sacrifice. We give of ourselves for the sake of those in our charge. And in my case, I spend so much time chasing my little boy, cuddling my infant girl and cleaning up in between it all, that when I get free time, it is a precious tiny moment that I typically do not use to say, browse Youtube or catch up on the latest movie releases, TV shows or hit songs. So more and more, I am starting to miss pop culture references that my younger siblings or single friends make.

But this is what my husband meant when he said I was removed from temporal concerns. Those negative attributes I associated with my “mom-ness” (messy, pudgy and uncool) come about precisely because I am living a life without substantial concern for outward appearance. Consider the adjective “messy.” Now, this isn’t meant to excuse laziness or to say that looking nice is bad or inappropriate. Rather, the point is to make an analogy between the sometimes unkempt clothing of a mother and the religious habit. Both are humble forms of dress that send the message that the wearers primary concern is elsewhere and that his or her clothing is a tool for work, not an instrument to impress others. (Again, mothers have many occasions to get dressed up—even for the return of the husband from work. This is just meant to say that in reality, I do not dress as stylishly as I did before I had children and that there is a valid reason behind it).

And “pudgy” because even a mother’s body is put into the demanding service of others. The last adjective is “uncool.” Like monks and nuns, a mother’s time is spent so fully in service that trendy entertainment and “cool stuff” tends to get squeezed out of the schedule. While sometimes I wish to see the latest superhero movie in theaters, generally, I’m OK not knowing the top 40 billboard list.

And this, I think, is the biggest reason that my home is my monastery. As I care for my babies, husband, friends and the home itself, all the noise from the outside world slowly filters out. Like the monks, I remain in my abbey. I perform works of service and small works of love. I am reprieved from worldly concerns: we are in the world but not of it (for this season, at least, of having young children).

I can’t say I know as much about religious life as I ought to, but I’m starting to think that my family’s little suburban homestead is not so different from the serene convent.

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One more from The Once and Future King

When young Arthur is sad that his best friend is being knighted and is no longer much interested in him:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of lesser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.” (Once and Future King by T.H.White, p. 183)

This resonated so deeply with me. To figure out why the world wags and what wags it is one of my biggest motivators; it’s why I write this blog where I publish fewer posts than I have readers. But it helps me keep track of my thoughts, and I like that.

What motivates you? What drives you? Please someone say “love.” It’s a biggie. I chose not to explore that line here in this post, but it’s enormous.

Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

This really was an excellent book, very insightful and inspiring. It motivated me to view my responses to events as more active than I often was inclined to view them. The author, Viktor Frankl, was a psychotherapist and a prisoner during the Holocaust. He recounts his experiences then draws on them to explain his psychological theories about human life and what gives us meaning. It’s a surprisingly easy read given the subject matter. He deals especially well with the meaning of suffering.

Here are some demonstrative quotations:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” (105).

So true, right? In school and growing up, we were always promised that there would be this moment of arrival, after graduating college and nabbing that perfect job or getting married, when everything would make sense and be happily ever after. But surprise, we never arrive. Marriage is good; good jobs are good, but nothing is ever settled. We are always striving to be more, to be better. This struggle can wrongly take on the consumerist edge, but it needn’t and shouldn’t. We must strive to be better human beings, to love better, to fulfill our specific task as well as we can. Which leads to…
“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
“These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to describe the meaning of life in a general way…No man and no destiny can be compared with any other destiny…Sometimes the situation in which a man find’s himself may require to shape his own fate by action. At other times, it may be more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required to simply accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
“When a man finds it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden” (77-78).
We each have a unique set of circumstances that is always shifting and changing, and we must strive to meet this in the best way possible. Frankl’s account of suffering, to enter into it and bear it instead of to flee from it is, deeply touching coming from his personal experience in the holocaust camps; it simultaneously reminded me of how good I have it while encouraging me to face difficulties and grow through them instead of trying to push the eject button, which says “I shouldn’t have to do this or go through this.”
And finally, I think Frankl’s philosophy is good too, very resonant with virtue ethics.
“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism…the contention that being has no meaning” (129).
“One is commanded ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue.” (138).
So what do you think? What have you been reading recently?