How to establish a monastery in one’s heart
Three-and-a-half months have passed since I left the monastic enclosure and began asking what do I do now. It was not a lack of vocation that drew me out, but a crazy idea to live a monastic vocation in the world. I left the enclosure to share the beauty and power of a monastic way of life with everyone I know. This is not to say there were not real struggles in my monastic experience. There were, but these difficulties were indicators that helped the community and me to discern my call; they were not the reason I asked to leave. In fact, it was not until I had worked through the difficulties, with the help of God in prayer, that I felt free to go.
During these first months home, I have often felt like the main character in an old comedy I once happened upon on TV – regretfully, the title is lost to me. In the movie, while directing his orchestra, a cuckolded conductor imagines three elaborate scenarios in which he successfully confronts his wife and her lover. After the performance concludes, he attempts to follow through with what he has imagined. But real life is not so clean and cool as imagination, and the attempts prove hilariously disastrous. While I would not quite call my last three-and-a-half months hilarious or disastrous, it has not been what I imagined before exiting the cloister. I seem to have forgotten, or perhaps it is better to say that I am no longer able to articulate even to myself the many insights with which my Divine Spouse lured me out the monastery door.
So today on the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, patroness of the Dominican Order, I am taking stock. I began on Palm Sunday with the plan to go on living monastic life as exactly as possible at home with the expectation that adaptations would necessarily occur.
Dropping a strict monastic horarium, or daily schedule, was among the earliest alterations. First, it failed to factor in my parent’s habits. Second, I don’t function well on a tightly structured schedule and have never been able to keep one on my own. Third, it is difficult to wake up at five in the morning when there is nothing to else do at that early hour but go back to bed. Drawing up a more open, flexible schedule proved equally ineffective. Despite abandoning hope of a formal horarium, a general routine that fits me and my current situation has gradually taken its place. There are always adjustments for balance, but more and more consistently I have daily times of prayer, study rest, meals, work, recreation and family bonding. I'm even learning Vietnamese.
The Divine Office remains an anchor both for my daily routine and my prayer life. However, that has not prevented alterations in how and when I pray it. From the lofty ideal of praying at exact three-hour intervals with all the chant tones, bells and whistles, I am currently content to get near the appropriate time of day and pray it very simply. On solemnities, I might dress it up with a bit of chanting or singing aloud. I often pray vespers on my evening walk using an iPhone App.
Many habitual vocal prayers were lost with the loss of routines to which they were attached, but I eventually realized that when I need one, it is there like an old familiar friend. Short prayers pleasantly pepper my thoughts and I pray the rosary daily, usually walking. Recently I began to help lead a Rosary for Eucharistic adoration a few days a week. My heart longs for adoration! I am still searching for the right balance of available adoration opportunities and of daily Mass. Having to long for Jesus has proven healthy for my spiritual life. It is about turning heart and thoughts frequently to God and daily giving time for Him at the two tables of Eucharist and Scripture.
I admit I was grateful back in April for Shelter in place. It was a perfect transition after three-and-a-half years living within enclosure walls. Nowadays, I, like most everyone else, long for closer communion with my fellow human beings. In fact, it was this longing that drew me back to the world in the first place. That is why the monastery is in my heart and not in my house! In my innermost heart, I am cloistered with Jesus, his alone, but that intimacy is meant to open the rest of me to community.
Trying to cope with prolonged social distancing has also helped clarify another valuable principle underlying monastic enclosure. Even in the midst of the wide world, we do well to cultivate an interior stillness, or stability, that allows us to be present to our present circumstances without searching about to fill that gaping hole that longs for God but which more immediately craves whatever is interesting, exciting, or pleasant. God meets us in the present moment. (I still have much work to do in this area as the hour-and-a-half wasted the other night pouring over a Uline shipping supply catalogue proves. I am very aware at present how much I like getting new things even though I don't need, can't afford, and don't even really want them.)
Eagerness to share the beauty and wealth of our Catholic faith has ended up eclipsing prayerful study of that beautiful faith. A two to five minute Catechism daily reading plan soon became a burdensome twenty to fifty minutes when turned into a blog. And the habit of writing Gospel reflections almost instantly fell off with the additional pressure of making them shareable. Consequently, I have decided to try a new direction in blog writing. It finally occurred to me that I could write more directly about my adventure of founding a monastery in my heart. What I have always wanted for this website is to offer the example of an actual and very imperfect person trying to live a holy life. There will still be meditations, musings, Church teachings and plant pictures. Additionally, I would like to add fiction stories and eventually also my novel about the Holy Family. Hopefully, less frequent posts will lead to more meaningful writing and more time for fruitful study to share.
I hope you will continue to journey with me.
(For those who enjoy daily Catechism posts, the Catechism itself is even better! It really is an easy habit to form, as long as you don’t start a blog. I’ll even excuse you from the cross-references even though they do add richness and review.)