How to Live a Monastic Life (Minus the Monastery)

I may not be able to grow old in a monastery, but I can discover its beauty in my life today.

It’s a sad fact that increasing age means decreasing career fantasies. I knew at 17 that ballet stardom was not within my reach. For sports fans, there’s the day that Super Bowl fantasy dies, then the World Series, then the Masters.

Recently, though, I aged out of a career goal that I thought would always be waiting — my go-to fantasy of solitary old age. Having experienced the worlds of theatre, education, travel, and parenting, I would, at last, retreat to the monastic life that has always called to me.

As a child, I thought of monasteries as otherworldly, like Narnia and Middle Earth, or as living relics of medieval legend. Growing older, I read Thomas Merton, studied the life of Saint Francis, and sought out actual cloisters where I could write in contemplation. I have journal entries from Valaam in Russia’s wild Lake Ladoga and from Francis’s own San Damiano in Assisi.

My old-age fantasy wasn’t entirely unreasonable. I wouldn’t wait until the last minute just to become a burden on my brothers. I pictured myself in an urban setting, teaching during the day, retreating to the refectory with my brothers in the evening, and welcoming with gratitude the Great Silence that concludes the day.

Of course, there were stumbling blocks. Given our family histories, my partner Gary will probably outlive me, making this particular scenario genetically unlikely. There’s also the minor issue that I’m a Unitarian Universalist and we don’t really do monasteries. There are Episcopal houses, though, and I figured an honest conversion well in advance of my novitiate might do the trick.

But one obstacle proved insurmountable, even in fantasy. I discovered the ugly truth when I happened upon my dream monastery. The Episcopal Society of Saint John the Evangelist, near the Harvard campus, performs meaningful work in the community and maintains the monastic traditions I love. Its website also specifies that candidates must be between 22 and 45. A quick Google search revealed that similar limitations are standard across the board. Like my ballet career, my dreams of a monastic maturity were dashed.

I’m not alone in my longing. Monastic retreats are increasingly popular. But what draws us so strongly to that world? More important, how might we experience those monastic values from outside the cloister? For me, the answer falls into five categories:

1. Structure.

I’ve always enjoyed routines — structured time that provides a launching pad for creativity. So why not shape the hours of my life around a Daily Office of my own making? It might be built upon traditional prayers, or on readings from the literature I love — George Eliot, John Steinbeck.

2. Work as prayer.

As a writer I have the good luck to choose work that is meaningful. My freelance clients focus their efforts on civil rights and arts advocacy. My work for the theatre explores issues that I find both enriching and challenging. Why not start treating that work as a form of prayer, as monks do in the garden, the kitchen, and the scriptorium?

3. Community.

I have a rich circle of friends — a small group of writers who meet regularly and occasional visitors to my front porch who enjoy a cup of coffee and good conversation. It might be interesting to start seeing them as brothers and sisters. And, down the road, what senior community couldn’t use a weekly gathering that explores questions of spirituality, religion, and the end of life?

4. The cloister.

I actually have a cloister of sorts — a tiny house in the mountains of West Virginia with beautiful views. But what draws me to the traditional cloister is its containment of beauty. Like the monastic day, the cloister has limits and structure. Why not find those elements in non-religious spaces? Why not see every park bench as the corner of a cloister?

5. Contemplation.

I’ve always found it challenging to distinguish between contemplation and napping. I love to stretch out on the couch with a good book. Before long I close the pages and carefully lay the volume on my chest, enjoying its weight as I drift into sleep. With increasing age it seems I’ll just get to do that more often, with lessening guilt and a longer personal history to feed my dreams.

So there’s potential here. There’s a path to the riches of the monastic tradition that deepens the experience of life even as that life slows and grows quiet. And I don’t have to outlive Gary to make it happen.

I can’t help mourning the long-held fantasy of spending my waning years in a monastery, but letting go of those dreams might result in enjoying the gifts of a mindful, productive, and contemplative life sooner than I expected.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

Norman Allen
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