Visitors are welcome at most monasteries. After my first day, new people arrived and the three men, who had been there a week, headed home.
We had all come to Our Lady with different stories. P. (I’ll use only first initials) recently left a ministry in upstate New York and was spending a year in discernment. She lived mostly in a retreat house in Arizona, and came to Our Lady for one week. D. lived locally, helping care for her aging parents and managing a store owned by her brother. She needed a break and wanted prayer.
K. lived in Albuquerque, was married and had two children. He was unemployed and a little anxious. He mentioned wanting a new path in life. A. was a Deacon in a parish in Ohio; he had a wife, children, and a job involving travel. His church paid for one or two retreats a year, and he wanted to see New Mexico.
Finally there was L., a local hermit who live without electricity and running water in a nearby cabin. She prayed, studied art and painted. The monks allowed her to get water and food at the monastery.
We were an odd assortment and we shared only hints of ourselves, yet we came to understand one another on terms we might not have offered in another environment. Soon we looked forward to one another’s company.
My own story concerned my practice in the Catholic Church: I participated for 36 years until 2014, when, without apparent reason, I stopped. This was a crises of sorts in my life and I discussed it with a Benedictine priest at the monastery. He suggested trying a different Catholic church; maybe a new priest or style would help. He also suggested reading scripture every day. I vowed to try.
Benedictine monks take vows. The first is a vow of stability that pledges them to their original monastery for life. They live for years with the same small group of brothers and priests.
I wondered about the stable themes in lay life. Among lay people, marriage may be the closest parallel to a monk’s stability, though marriages often break. But monks too, sometimes switch monasteries or leave the religious life. Stability is a tough vow to keep.
Besides stability, Benedictines pledge obedience and conversion. Obedience binds monks to their abbots, the Rule of St. Benedict, the Catholic Church, and the Gospels. Conversion centers monks in lives of constant transformation toward union with God. Although lay people don’t have an abbot and aren’t pledged to the Rule of St. Benedict, they often follow particular practices or pledge to religious or professional rules. And Christians intend to live in the Gospels. Like monks, that life is one of gradual conversion toward union with God.
At first glance, Benedictine and lay lives appear very different, but maybe there are more parallels than meet that initial glance.
Still, the monks formally pray together several hours a day at prescribed times. After only a few sessions, I was taken by the power of these prayers to bring humility and peace.
Humility probably comes from the constant subservience to God, who embodies all truth and love, as well as more worldly virtues like courage, prudence and justice. Abiding humility is a natural reaction to the presence of God.
Coincident with humility, religious people find sanctuary in God, a place to rest and be unafraid. For most who pray The Liturgy of the Hours, this sense of peace is deep.
There is a material difference too: a prayerful life probably impedes significant occupational achievements; it is hard to become a successful writer, nurse, plumber, lawyer or professor if we interrupt our activities several times each day to join our brethren in prayer. Perhaps because of that, monks lack wealth and seem to constantly struggle against material needs. Of course, many lay people struggle similarly.
Yet in their prayers, which visitors can join, they invite us to connect with a spiritual-life that potentially threatens our turmoil, the fear, anger, or anxiety that seem so common in lay lives.
Monasticism is available to us all, and it offers a good chance at peace. We can pursue it through Christianity, Buddhism, and maybe other religions, and we can of course pursue it as individuals by radically simplifying our secular entanglements.
Yet most of us will never pursue it. In lay life we have so many spiritual and material opportunities and freedoms that are so appealing, so much a part of our personal histories, that we will never seriously entertain removing ourselves from them. They are, of course, peppered with emotional costs like pollen in the wind, and as with pollen, some of us are more affected than others.
Fortunately, the choice between monastic and lay life is a false one: both lives are subject to small adjustments toward or away from the other. Any person who is severely affected by the tensions and anxieties of lay life can dial back that life and spend more time in prayer or meditation.
Four days at Our Lady of Guadalupe gave rest and renewal, and those days will stay distinct in memory long after most days fade into life’s continuum.