John of the Cross once described the inner essence of monasticism in these words: “But they, O my God and my life, will see and experience your mild touch, who withdraw from the world and become mild, bringing the mild into harmony with the mild, thus enabling themselves to experience and enjoy you.” What John suggests here is that two elements make for a monastery: withdrawal from the world and bringing oneself into harmony with the mild (Rolheiser).
I came across an article, “The Domestic Monastery,” a year or so ago, and it’s popped into my mind several times since then, usually when I’ve hit the killer combo of sleep deprivation + the girls both waking up many times in a night. Or when I have things I want to get done and Zelie is feeling sick and wants to be held all day, or Evange wants me to play with her (how dare she). Basically, the times when I really crave extended silence and solitude. Like being a monk in a monastery.
The thesis of this article is that the contemplative life can be lived in the domestic sphere. That a stay at home mom actually lives in a type of monastery, primed for deep experiences of God. “A monastery is not so much a place set apart for monks and nuns as it is a place set apart (period). It is also a place to learn the value of powerlessness and a place to learn that time is not ours” (Rolheiser). This notion intrigues me to no end because the contemplative life is the life I long to live. Me, on a mountain, praying and working in a garden. Me, in a cabin in the woods, reading my books. Me, living my best life as a monk.
Really, it’s me wanting what I want. It’s wanting control over my time, to do whatever I want for as long as I want. Which really isn’t how monks live at all.
All monasteries have a bell. Bernard … told his monks that whenever the monastic bell rang, they were to drop whatever they were doing and go immediately to the particular activity (prayer, meals, work, study, sleep) to which the bell was summoning them … The idea in his mind was that when the bell called, it called you to the next task and you were to respond immediately, not because you want to, but because it’s time for that task and time isn’t your time, it’s God’s time. For him, the monastic bell was intended as a discipline to stretch the heart by always taking you beyond your own agenda to God’s agenda” (Rolheiser).
Ah, the monastic bell of motherhood. For me, this articulates the first and most painful lesson I learned upon becoming a mom. Time isn’t your time. My memories of the first few weeks of Evangeline’s life are sitting on the couch ALL DAY, nursing her ALL DAY, and accomplishing very little other than keeping us both alive (and I had a lot of help). I remember thinking, wow, somehow, for my whole life up until now, I really thought I was in control. HA HA HA. Motherhood from Day 1 has been poking holes into the understanding I have of who I am and what gives me value. In those first months, it was a triumph to get out of the house and go somewhere, once each day. Grocery shopping took a herculean effort. Dinner was pasta, pasta, and more pasta. (When I really stretched myself, I’d sauté some vegetables on the side. We walked to the taqueria a lot.) I had never thought of myself as achievement oriented, but when I could not point to one single thing I had done that day (outside of keeping me and E alive), it really started to frustrate me. What is this?? I’m a competent person! Who am I if I can’t do anything??
I’ve come a long way in the two and half years since then, but the monastic bell imagery is still super helpful. It reminds me that it is actually reality that time is not my own and that I don’t have control. That I can lean into that reality and trust, instead of fighting it. It reorients me back towards my girls and their demands. It helps me find meaning in all the small, daily sacrifices. The nighttime wakings become a call to prayer (like a real live monk!) even if the prayer is, “Help me, Jesus.” The interminable bedtime routine – read this book one more time, I have to pee one more time – where I most tangibly feel the discomfort of my heart being stretched because this is definitely not my agenda for the evening can become a discipline, a place for me to practice patience. (Currently, I am terrible at this. Bedtime is where the most ugly parts of me are revealed.)
The domestic monastery somehow came up in one of Chris’s classes and he was trying to explain the idea to his classmates, some of whom are seminarians (studying/training to be celibate priests). I told him he could share my example of the bell for that day. I was interrupted from reading emails by Evangeline yelling from her room, where she was supposed to be napping, “MAMA, I NEED HELP! I DID A POOP!!”
The bell indeed doth toll.