Tag Archives: monastery

Being For Others

There’s something a lot of people talk about doing, especially here in the monastery and in my Jesuit school, but also very frequently in the “real” world that might require a little more examination. The way my school put it, “we want to be men and women for others.” A lot of people say it another way: we want to make the world a better place; we want to live God’s word; we want to do service; we want to go out and do good.

I once referred to my experience at the monastery as one of the most selfish things I’ve done—not in a negative sense, but in a practical, “this is really going to mostly benefit me” sort of way. Being here, I temporarily forgot about that realization until tonight. In evening prayer, I found myself combing through my day and trying to think of ways that I had helped other people, little ways I had made the world a better place. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t think of anything. Sure, I helped with dishes. I worked on projects to help promote the Monastic Immersion Program. And if I really wanted to stretch it: I smiled at people and said thank you.

But none of those really felt like they counted. I didn’t go out of my way to do them. They’re things that I kind of feel are obligations to living in a community, and most of them are technically assigned tasks. And did I really do anything to make the world better? Or did I just help the world continue on its normal track?

My days at the monastery often revolve around trying to find time to do things for me. I do my work quickly and plan time so I can pray, work out, have coffee, write, read, call friends, or send letters. I am constantly wondering when I’ll have time to sneak back to my room and write a few more sentences or do some more push-ups. No matter how I spin it, I can’t help feeling pretty sure that all of those things are not really helping anyone besides me.
What have I done for others besides loving and appreciating them as people—which may be a challenge sometimes, but I feel maybe ought to be the bare minimum?

And in thinking all of this, I began to look back at the last ten years (since I was 12 and slightly more aware of the world as an entity much bigger than me or my family) and ask the same kinds of questions. To my slight discomfort, overall, I don’t feel like I’ve done that much; I have consistently been pretty self-focused. I’ve focused on my own education, relationships, growth, work, and personal needs pretty exclusively, with volunteering thrown in every so often when I had some extra time.

I’m not ashamed of this. It’s not as though I think I’ve been a terrible person. It’s important for us to grow and learn in order to become the people who are informed and skilled enough to participate in positive change and to really be of service to others. It’s probably good that our early adulthood is driven by self-understanding and self-betterment. But, it does make me think.

What happens now? How can I truly be a woman for others now that I’m temporarily done with formal education? Most of the lives I’ve thus far imagined for myself don’t really seem quite up to that standard.

In our culture, we are trained to think that survival is really hard. Getting a good salary is really hard, finishing your projects on time is really hard, living a healthy lifestyle is really hard—we just don’t have the time to work for the good of others because we barely have time to take care of ourselves. How many times have I complained that I don’t have time to eat, or read for fun, or relax? (Quick note: I’m speaking specifically from an upper middle-class, white perspective, and I fully acknowledge that for many other people in our country, even simple survival can be incredibly more complicated and difficult than it has been for me.)

If we don’t think we’re taking care of ourselves, we feel fully justified in not doing things for others. Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. I don’t think that mentality is wrong. After all, it is true that we can’t really love others without loving ourselves; if we’re sinking, we probably won’t help someone else stay afloat. But I think we are too caught up in how hard it is to take care of ourselves; the oxygen mask bands need to fit perfectly around our head, and the oxygen has to be flowing at just the right level, and we have to make sure the color matches our outfit before we can even consider helping the person next to us. In real world terms, it ends up being about accomplishing a certain weight loss goal, getting above a certain income level, having a house, actually managing to take up yoga, meeting the right person, making peace with our parents… How many things do you want to make better in your life that you’d prioritize over spending a few hours a week volunteering?

I sincerely don’t want to call others’ lives into question. I don’t think anyone is less honorable for living life primarily for themselves and their happiness. I personally believe that the more happy people there are, the better the world will be. So by all means, please practice yoga and learn to love your mother and take that extra business class that will earn you a promotion. But for me, I think I may need a little more. They say that the call of a monk is to ‘seek God above all else.’ If you think of God as peace and love in the world, then I want to be a monk. I have a body that works, skills to rely on, and a whole network of people who would be willing to help me if I needed it. With all that, I’d say my struggle to survive isn’t too hard to start spending a bit more time on something greater than my own needs. And if I have the time and the resources, I don’t think I’d feel right not living for others.

 Of course, figuring out just what that might look like for me is an entirely separate issue and definitely another blog post.

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Spooky Stuff

In honor of Halloween, I’d like to take a moment to talk about something that came up briefly in class the other day–clairvoyance, intuition, spirits, and all that heebie-jeebie, potentially spooky stuff.

Most of the experience here at St. Gertrude’s isn’t focused on honing those skills, probably due to the fact that a large number of people discredit these sorts of things. But, I think it’s all fascinating, and I can certainly see why someone who is incredibly in touch with God (or the divine or the energy of the universe) wouldn’t have a certain extra level of perception. In fact, I almost feel that it’d be inevitable. I think of it this way: when I learned about typography, I couldn’t stop myself from noticing tiny typographical victories (or mishaps) in my everyday life. People often don’t think twice about tiny things like typography because we tend to see the broad, practical purpose rather than the underlying, essential ‘why’ of how things affect us. But because I understand why typography works the way it does, I can better predict whether an advertisement will get read, what program it was made in, and what audience the creator was targeting. Physics is much the same way. Once you understand physics on a deeper level, you would be much more equipped to figure out what the results of a motion will be.

But to get back to clairvoyance.

Today I had the oddest thought while I sat in chapel. I thought about hard-boiled eggs. Now, there are plenty of reasons I could have thought about hard-boiled eggs. Usually, I’d assume I was hungry or that I was craving eggs. However, neither of those things was particularly true. The thought came and passed, fleeting and inconsequential, and I went on to think about other things, namely the people I love and how I want good things for them.

The only reason this makes an interesting story is because tonight for dinner we’re having deviled eggs. First of all, this makes me happy because I do really like deviled eggs. But second, when I found this out, I couldn’t help remembering my random thought. The logical explanation could be that somewhere my nose detected a tiny trace scent of eggs. Or maybe we want to get spooky and say that my intuition is being heightened, and somehow I tapped briefly into the happenings of the kitchen a couple floors away. Either my ‘real’ senses were bringing in extra information, or my ‘spooky’ senses were. Either way, I think it’s kind of cool.

Now, this is a silly experience and makes no real difference in my life. But, I like to think that we can work to hone our ability to perceive the world, the people, the energy around us by being more mindful and aware. Why would we want to do that? Well, I suppose that might depend on each person’s beliefs. But since I think the universe often works in the favor of the good and peaceful, I’d rather be more in touch with it so I know when I’m on the right track. I think listening to that deeper essential part of life can only lead you to a better place.

And that may be kind of superstitious, and it may be kind of spooky, but it works for me.

I guess that’s why I like Halloween!

 

Praying for Rain

Prayers are, as I may have mentioned before, not exactly my forte. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of praying for something specific, like getting a job, clear skies, or some other particular outcome. It seems to me like prayer is not supposed to be about asking God for something specific to happen or not happen. That sounds simple enough, until you realize… What exactly do you pray for?

For instance, my personal qualms at the moment stem from my dad’s health. As much as I would love for my dad to not be going through what he is, and as much as I don’t want his life to be shortened, I can’t bring myself to pray for those things. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t see God as a master planner who can change the course of events at will. And, as counter-religious as it may sound, I don’t think of God as a ‘he’ who ‘answers prayers.’ Results-oriented prayer doesn’t seem too logical if you don’t think the force you’re praying to has direct control over results. So who am I asking? And what do I really expect to get from my asking?

Well, the best way I can explain it, I think, is in terms of the Spirit. I pray to the spirit, or the force, or God, that exists in and around all of us. So, in a way, when I’m at my most prayerful, I’m really asking myself for help–my innermost, intuitive, inherently natural and good self. When I ask for peace, I somehow know that I already have that peace within me. When I ask for love, I am tapping into the deep capacity I have for love as a spiritual being. And when I pray for other people… I suppose most of all I am hoping that they will be able to find the peace and love inside themselves that will make them happier and healthier individuals.

I believe prayer is really about being a better person and cultivating peace and love. That may sound hokey. But I do believe that energy is a powerful force and that the Spirit (or God) thrives on positive energy. And since I want to feed the good of the world and the good in me, I pray.

I don’t know what most people do. I am actually very curious about it, since most people don’t say their most personal prayers out loud. Plus, most people at the monastery have been praying their whole lives. It’s kind of assumed that everyone already does it. Admittedly, I don’t know how much my prayer style has in common with the Sisters’. Maybe soon I’ll pluck up the nerve to ask.

The Monastery has been Invaded

It’s called the invasion of the slow-walkers.

I sincerely wish I’d come up with that name, but I can’t take any credit. These beautiful old women coined that term a long time ago when the first Mindfulness retreat came to the Spirit Center.

Thanks to this particular retreat, the monastery grounds are teeming with near-statues of people. My first experience with them was in the dining hall, where all of our meals are now being held in silence so the retreatants can be uber-aware of how and what they are feeling and thinking while they dine.

Now, there’s something very interesting about these people, not because they are moving so slowly, and not because they’ve chosen to go on a retreat, but because they are mixing into a pre-existing community and altering the environment. I am not a part of the retreat this time around, but when I’m around them, I immediately enter a more mindful state. (How can you avoid it? No one is looking at you or talking to you or anything…) For instance, at dinner (lunch), I noticed that even though I have been eating more slowly lately, I still often take another bite of food just before I’ve finished chewing the last. Before you go, ‘eeew,’ try paying attention to how you eat. While walking back from my work at the museum this afternoon, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw one of the women crouched in the grass just behind a bush. But, I tell you what, it made me remember to walk slower and look around.

So, as odd as it is having half-zombies slowly wandering around each corner ready to startle you, it’s kind of great, too. Because they serve as a living (though at remarkably slow pace) reminder to be present to your surroundings. And really, with such beautiful surroundings we have here on the Camas Prairie, it would be shameful to do anything less.

Building A Habit of Being

It’s officially my fourth week here at the Monastery, and I am surprised to admit, I actually feel less peaceful now than I did when I arrived. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why that is. Supposedly, a habit takes 21 days (three weeks) to form. I would have thought that three weeks of a more relaxed and simple lifestyle would leave me feeling, on the whole, more mindful, more content, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I did not expect to suddenly be some Yoda-figure, but given how comfortable and relaxed I felt initially, I think I had some expectation that my base-line peacefulness was going to remain relatively high.

But during the last week, I’ve found a lot of resistance to that sense of peace. My brain is constantly bouncing all over the place, during work, prayer, and even during my free time. In fact, the only time I truly feel at peace anymore is in the morning right after returning from a (very brief) trail run. So I ask myself, why is it that I am losing focus so easily?

In being honest with myself, I think a large part of it lies in all the goals I had set for myself for this 9-month period. I have become a little obsessed. It’s completely true that people who are used to being stressed will find things to stress about, even when they aren’t important or have no deadlines or are 100% self-imposed (#AllofMyGoals). While sitting in chapel, I’m thinking of song lyrics. While sealing envelopes, I’m memorizing names to add to my character-name document. While doing the dishes, I think about all the things I want to look up, from potential future jobs to symbols of the saints (I am very far behind on that particular area of knowledge). To reference Miley, I can’t stop.

But then, that’s the thing, isn’t it? I can stop. And I want to. The goal isn’t necessarily to stop doing those things. It’s okay with me if my mind is constantly producing new potential story ideas. But I certainly don’t want to be stressed about it.

Right now, I think that part of the answer to this for me is not forcing myself not to think about my goals. Rather, I think I need to place more focus on the ultimate, overarching goal—finding peace, being present, and appreciating each moment in an attempt to better connect with the people and universe around me. To do that, I think I may limit some of the things that feed my other goals at the expense of the bigger picture. This might mean less time online—but don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll still post once a week, as planned. It also might mean actually trying to concentrate more on meditation. But most of all, it’s going to be me giving myself the gentle reminders every time I lose track of the moment: Take a deep breath, look around, and be.

Daily Life

So, I kind of mentioned that the sisters do more than just lock themselves in their towers all day, but I wanted to elaborate a little on what daily life here at the Monastery is like. Of course, this is coming from an outsider perspective, and I actually don’t know most of what goes on, but I’ll do my best.

5:00 AM – Apparently this is when 80% of people here wake up. They often can be found roaming the halls, drinking tea or coffee, and disappearing to do who knows what. Perhaps getting a jump start on their daily work, maybe doing personal contemplation… But the fun part of this is that no one can ask because the monastery holds silence between 9 PM and 9 AM.

7:00 AM – The sisters can begin to eat breakfast. In silence.

7:30 AM – The volunteers can begin to eat breakfast. In silence.
7:45 ish – I usually try to go for a short walk or a run. Though it’s reeeeally chilly outside.

8:30 AM – Morning Praise, consisting of lots of scratchy singing (because no one has spoken yet!) and reading psalms in unison. You’ll have to figure out if you’re part of Chorus 1 or Chorus 2, but that’s not too hard. It switches weekly.

9:00 – 11:30 AM – Work time, mostly. For me, it usually involves scrambling around trying to figure out if there’s someone who needs help somewhere, which almost always lands me in a cleaning project. A lot of sisters do their own work, either planning retreats or events, cleaning up from breakfast, taking care of the sisters in the infirmary, running errands in town, gardening, working in the museum, gift shop, inn, etc.

11:30 AM – Eucharist, almost always punctuated by a strange buzzing sound that you’ll eventually realize is the wireless earphones that the hard of hearing wear to hear the homilies. On weekends, I get to see some community members in their flannel and large belt buckles. We are definitely on the prairie.

12:10 PM – Dinner (Not lunch.)
12:40 – Dishes. I do ‘light’ dishes half the week and ‘dark’ dishes the other half. Which really just means I either put away lots of plates and cups or I put away a billion pots and lids.

1:00-5:00 PM – More work time! I generally spend this time either helping catalog for the museum, making cards for the gift shop to sell, changing sheets at the Inn, or again, looking around for work to be done. Sometimes I hide away and read or write for a while.

5:00 PM Evening Praise

5:30 PM – Supper (note the difference between supper and dinner)
6:00 PM –  Dishes. I have been helping with dishes almost every night, even though I’m not technically scheduled to. I’m not sure how this works.

7:00 PM – Tuesday nights, I’ll have my Benedictine spirituality class at this time. Sometimes there are historical talks or community night events, which I try to go to, since it’s nice to talk to people when you’re not working. The sisters generally watch the news (and sometimes sports) and play games or knit. One night, I learned how to play 5-card pinochle, which is not very similar to regular pinochle… If there isn’t something going on, I enjoy an evening doing my own thing.

9:00 PM – Quiet time. AKA, time when I usually try to write. I am not sure what the sisters do. It’s likely that they read and/or study. If you take a shower, you’ll be asked to ‘squeegee’ the shower once you’re finished. I have not yet mastered this skill.

10:30 PM – This is when I try very hard to fall sleep! My brain hasn’t quite gotten into this routine yet. I generally end up lying awake for a long time. I also suspect it has a little to do with the fact that I, for the first time in my life, have been trying to sleep on my right side. It’s very odd that this makes a difference, but it truly does.

So there you have it. I’ve found that for me, at least, it’s a huge contrast between scheduled time and flexibility. I know exactly when and where I’ll be praying, but my work could change almost any second. It’s bizarre not knowing what to expect. But It is also nice to have time to do my own projects and to be alone.

Ultimately, I’m still getting into the swing of everything. We’re only just getting started with classes, and my work ‘schedule’ was only just sort of decided. So, who knows how things will progress. But for now, this might give you some idea of what my life has been like in Cottonwood.

A Non-Religious, Semi-Agnostic Walks Into a Monastery…

…and decides to stay for 9 months.

If that sounds a little odd to you, you’re not alone. My decision to enter the Monastic Immersion Program at St. Gertrude’s in Cottonwood, Idaho seemed a little out of the blue for a lot of my family and friends. To be honest, it even surprised me. But here I am, about to begin a yearlong program with two other women, working, praying, living, and studying as the sisters who live here do.

The assumption a lot of people make is that I must be thinking of converting to Catholicism or considering becoming a sister, but neither of those things is true. Although I am not affiliated with any church, I am, for the most part, comfortable with what I believe. Entering this experience, I have resolved to be open to the possibility of an epiphany or a sudden altered paradigm, but I also do not expect or even hope for it. So, what am I hoping for?

I’m hoping that being here will teach me about living out the values that underlie the Catholic religious practices. I hope to experience another way of life—one dedicated to faith, community, compassion, and simplicity. I am hoping to find a way to carry the peace that I feel here with me into the rest of my life and the rest of the world.

I have always been an introvert—a fact that I’m sure makes this yearlong stay much more possible. I am fascinated and compelled by simplicity, a life unburdened by unnecessary things and unhelpful negative emotions and thoughts. I love Seattle, and it will always be a home to me, but any city over stimulates me. I have lived at my current pace, chasing after cheetahs, for a long time, and I am ready to slow down and have the time to think everything through. It’s time to breathe and imagine a life where I feel at peace, maybe even in the midst of chaos.

Of course, it’s incredibly hard giving up all that I loved about my life: late night Thai and pizza delivery, the clothes I love but will never wear in a monastery, the friends who drink wine, watch scary movies, and laugh with me, the smell of Starbucks on a wet fall day. But on the other hand, it is so freeing to be in a place where I realize I don’t need any of those things to feel complete and happy (except the friends, but letters are a relatively good substitute). No pressure, no money, no TV, no crazy boy drama.

So this blog is to keep everyone who is interested in my journey here updated, intrigued, and maybe even inspired, if I’m lucky, to lead a more thoughtful, fulfilled life. And my hope is to prove that you don’t have to be in a monastery—or religious—to do it.