Monastic Longings: On Laziness, Discipline, and Devotion

“You would make a wonderful nun." Katherine said this to me with a grin, and I acted insulted because I felt her teasing me. Coming from a confirmed atheist, this was not meant to be high praise, and my 13-year-old ego was fragile. Nonetheless, her comment stayed with me on some level. I knew that I wanted to raise a family, so becoming a nun did not seem appropriate. When I left the Catholic Church at age 15, this seemed even less likely an option. However, the idea of religious community, and living a life structured around religious discipline, has been a longing of mine for many years.

Twenty years after Katherine’s comment, I must acknowledge that I have carried a persistent longing to spend time in a monastery. This conflicts with my life commitments—I have a spouse and a young daughter. Still, the desire pulls at me.

For a time, I read everything I could get my hands on relating to monastic life, across the Catholic tradition of my childhood and also within Buddhism. I have treasured writings by Friends like Kathryn Damiano, a founding teacher of the School of the Spirit, who highlight the contemplative aspects of practice within the Religious Society of Friends. I remember when I first heard of Pendle Hill; I had a sense of relief: a Quaker community, grounded in spiritual discipline, exists. Yet I could not pack my bags and move in. Marriage, motherhood, and student loan debts prevented me from living in community at this time. But prior to my daughter’s birth I spent a couple of weekends on retreat, and when it is practical I will take a longer retreat. Meanwhile, I have been turning over this longing, examining it from many angles, and wondering what lessons this desire might reveal to me. What is it that I long for in the monastic life? What does this impulse toward monasticism mean for me as a Quaker and the mother of a small child? What can this longing teach me?

In a recent meeting for worship I spoke of this insistent desire, which at that time I felt was a longing for discipline. As great as my aspirations may be, I am inconsistent in carrying out the various practices I long to have in my life: blessings before each meal, daily retirement for prayer, spiritual reading. I wondered aloud how I might now enjoy some of the gifts I imagine a monastery offers. For example, what is stopping me from rising a bit earlier so I can start each day with meditation? Why can I go only two days with grace at meals before I again forget? I asked: How might I transform my spiritual laziness, that I might taste the fruits for which I hunger?

Soon after I spoke, a Friend visiting our meeting rose and offered his vocal ministry, indicating that "the word that might be needed is obedience." In his message he said that if we are listening for God, we won’t really hear a response unless we are willing to obey that response when we receive it. That message resonated with me; I felt it viscerally, my ears ringing. Still I had to turn it over in my meditations, wondering what it might mean for me, and for my desire for greater spiritual discipline. Certainly I am not supposed to leave behind my family life. But perhaps I am supposed to take a plunge of sorts, to do as much as I am able to bring my heart’s longing into accordance with my present living situation. I now feel a need to surrender my sense of obstacles, and embrace commitment.

I finally understood (although I still do not agree with) the impetus behind the sense of discipline that pervaded my religious experience in childhood, which in an oversimplified way could be summarized as, "If you miss Mass you might go to Hell." As a young adult I thought: why could they not have said, "Worshiping together builds community"? Would that more positive phrasing not have been sufficient? Now I have found that even when you have the hunger for the fruit, as I do, you sometimes wish someone would tell you what to do, because self-discipline can be amazingly challenging in the face of myriad distractions! On some level I think I crave the discipline of a structured life where an abbess would say, "Each day you must rise at 6 am. Each day you must join the community in prayer." Perhaps this is a place where simplicity can be a balm. I can look around and ask myself what outward impediments stand in the way of establishing spiritual discipline. If I can remove some of the outward impediments, perhaps I’ll feel more ready to look at the inward impediments.

There are three things that I find compelling about monastic life: community, discipline, and a sense of priority.

Certainly we experience community in many layers, from our local neighborhood to our local meeting, to a sense of nation, the larger body of Friends, and fellow humans upon a shared Earth. Our local Friends meetings are quite varied, and the degree to which Friends interact with one another on a regular basis varies widely. For myself, I have found that I strongly crave more worship sharing, more sharing of meals, more sharing of daily life than my present lifestyle permits. The idea of a spiritual community prayerfully doing chores of daily living together and supporting one another is compelling. Attempting to do my own chores prayerfully feels a feeble substitute. I know I should feel lucky that I can share a weekly potluck lunch with Friends. To my great confusion, although the departure from the meetinghouse always feels too soon, one part of my brain says I have been away too long, that the chores at home are piling up, and I ought to have left before the fellowship hour!

I remember an experience of spiritual community from when I was a teen. When I left the church, I began reading anything about religion that I could. One day I accepted the free Bhagavad Gita offered by devotees of the Krishna Consciousness Movement (known colloquially as "Hare Krishnas") who stood outside the public library. Along with the book, my friends and I were told we could come to the temple for a free vegetarian meal. In the spirit of adventure, one Sunday afternoon we visited the temple, located inside a brownstone that looked like any other on the block. A small sign on the door said "ISKCON" (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). When we arrived we were shown into a room with a heavy smell of marigolds and incense. We took seats on the floor, waiting to see what would come. To my surprise and embarrassment, I loved the singing. There was an unmistakable joy in the chants, and the voices stirred longing in me. To this day, if I hear someone make fun of or tease the Hare Krishnas, I feel myself blush, for on some level I would love to see myself singing like that in praise of God, living a communal life grounded in devotion.

The chant associated with the Krishna Consciousness Movement has appeared in several movies. If you live in an urban area, you may have witnessed saffron-robed dancers with a tilak (Hindu devotional mark) on the forehead, singing, "Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare." (This roughly translates as "All hail to Krishna, all hail to Rama," both of whom are avatars of Vishnu.) Hinduism’s Vedic scriptures teach that singing this Maha mantra will bring self-purification and remove obstacles. The mantra is said to awaken love of God and to ask that one’s tasks are in service to God. I found the experience of congregational singing to be powerful, and I envied the participants who would not be walking out the front door but walking upstairs in the temple where they lived. My mind also turned to people I knew who would make fun of the devotees, mocking their joyful dancing, unaware that "Krishna" is but another name for the manifestation of God and God’s love. Only embarrassment and a fierce aversion to proselytizing might have kept me from moving in.

I am drawn to the idea of an outward, visible sign that would tell people my spiritual life is of central importance to me. Yet I know that the wisdom and experience of Friends have shown that our lives can speak more loudly than any symbol we might wear. Saffron robes might simplify wardrobe choice, but they would do nothing to increase my ability to serve with love. A robe, however, might serve as a reminder to myself. But on my present path, I need to be creative and construct reminders that work for me, for while I can learn from the wisdom of other seekers, no one can really say what will work for me. I have to try, and perhaps fail, and try again.

For me, a sense of balance in my days requires that I have plenty of both social time and solitude, time for running around and for sitting still. As I try to satisfy these various needs, I notice that my calendar has taken on an unconscious schedule of sorts, including dance classes some evenings, regular Friday lunches with a friend, and worship in the meetinghouse on Sundays. Nonetheless, time for personal devotions can be hard to carve out, since competing needs (sleep, housecleaning, novels) beckon in the evening. Regardless of the exterior setting in which these various parts of my life take place, I am beginning to develop a sense of carrying my aspiration for devotion wherever I go. In this way, the people I am with at any given moment become, in a sense, my religious community. If I am in a yoga class, for example, on one level I have my personal experience; on another level, if the room is full of concentration and positive energy, it feels more like a collective practice of gratitude, regardless of the absence of monastery walls.

Certainly the Religious Society of Friends has long taught that the practice of prayer and reflection should be a daily habit, not only expressed on First Days. We are also advised that our care for one another should extend beyond meeting for worship. Nonetheless, there are aspects of religious longing that I find challenging to meet within my monthly meeting. For example, dancing is an activity that quickly brings me to an awareness of the Divine and awe of Creation, yet it is not an activity that is readily part of the life of the meeting. As I write this I realize that each member of my meeting might have a similar activity, an activity that facilitates a sense of God’s presence and of closeness with God. How do we help one another tap into the energy we receive from those special experiences? I feel that if I could carry the sense of blessing and joy that I receive from dance into other areas of my life, my Light could shine more brightly.

I think that any opportunity that I embrace to cultivate devotion during my time away from the meetinghouse can only help me to be more centered and more open on Sunday morning. While I may not experience singing in my meetinghouse, if I have an opportunity to participate in kirtan (devotional singing) at a local yoga studio, the joyful energy will stay with me. I am beginning to see that the experiences that strengthen my faith need not take place among Friends in order to benefit the service I can give to my meeting. Rather than long for more time in the meetinghouse, I hope that I can approach more of my life as an opportunity for worship.

Where does all of this lead me? I know that I am probably spending too much time on the theory, over-thinking things a bit, rather than letting my practice of devotion take care of itself. I know in my heart that any action I make, however small, could first be offered to God or offered with the intention to relieve suffering. It matters not whether my actions occur at home on my farm or in a monastery. I know this in my heart. Maybe at some time in my life I will be a resident in a contemplative community. For now, my place is a bit more out in the world—but that does not mean I need to see through worldly eyes. I can still let devotion, that is, the importance of my spiritual life, be at the heart of my work. Indeed it is the pulse that keeps me going, and that has long been a part of me.