Monday, September 30, 2013

Motherhood: A Monastic Season?

The monastic life has always appealed to me.  The simple life; the singular focus; the lack of what-to-wear angst.  

I have never wanted to be a nun who floats around a courtyard singing  à la "Sound of Music," but the (surely romanticized) idea of living as a monk in a medieval monastery is the one that draws me.

Orhei Vechi, Moldova
Wandering around the monasteries in Moldova last year intrigued me.  The one we visited that was largely comprised of caves in a cliff was particularly remarkable.  A couple of the monks were quietly working, apparently doing the same things day in and day out.  While it did seem lonely, it also seemed rather peaceful.  None of them were complaining about how busy they were or how technology was ruining their lives and the lives of their children, or how stressed they were! 
There is a monk walking in front of the left side of the wall

There is a rhythm to their lives, a purposeful learning, a laying down of self…. So far removed from my world….. right?
These are not monks.  They are monk-eys.

But -- aha -- the monastic bell has tolled loudly for me recently!  Maybe I could have more in common with the monks in the cave than I thought.

A conversation with a friend introduced me to an article written in 2001 called, "The Domestic Monastery," in which the author (Ron Rolheiser) compares a mother at home with her children... with a monk.  He gives these insights:

"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, but God's."

"Hence, a mother raising children, perhaps in a more privileged way even than a professional contemplative, is forced, almost against her will, to constantly stretch her heart.   For years, while raising children, her time is never her own, her own needs have to be kept in second place, and every time she turns around a hand is reaching out and demanding something."

I've been missing out on recognizing and enjoying this monastic life for lo these 13 years!

But now that I've been thinking about it, there do seem to be a lot of similarities between a mother and a monk.  Some of them.....

1.  Withdrawing from the world. A monk set himself apart, not participating in all of the regular forms of leisure, entertainment, or self-promotion that would be common in the rest of his culture.  A mother also finds herself home in her "nest" often, having left the career rat race and/or many social opportunities.

2.  Giving up control of the schedule.  Just as a monk must drop whatever he is doing when the monastic bell rings, so a mom must drop whatever she is doing when a child cries, or another one is yelling that he needs help in the bathroom, or one of the family members gets sick, or someone forgot to bring their homework to school, or small mouths are hungry, or the washing machine overflows, or a child waking from a bad dream at night, or.....  (The monastic bell for the mom comes in many forms.)

3. A daily, simple rhythm to life. Medieval monastic life involved a consistent rotation of praying, reading and manual labor.  While modern mom-life may not allow a lot of time for reading, it can often cycle through a rotation of pray-cook-wipe-clean-repeat.  There may be subtle differences to the days, but the guaranteed demands will center around the 3 main meals, and the preparation and clean-up from each.  The benefit to having simple tasks to do is that it frees up brain space for worship all throughout the day!

4. Long days.  In addition to working hard all day, monks often also had to rise in the wee hours of the morning, or in some cases, at 2:00 a.m.  This is also all too true for mothers.  Even in the middle of the night, we may still hear the "monastic bell"/cry.

5. Managing multi-purpose centers.  A medieval monastery often functioned as one or more of the following:  an inn for travelers, an infirmary for the sick, a place where hungry people could come for food, a library and preservation center for books, and a place for record-keeping of history.  Mothers often do all of the same.  We welcome the visitors traveling through, feed the hungry mouths, take care of the sick ones home from school, and even keep historical records -- in the form of blogging, updating statuses, or tweeting!  The only item on this list that I fail at is the preservation of books.  We don't so much create books in my house as wreck or lose them (not intentionally!).

6. Overseeing the heart of education.  Monks in medieval times were the keepers of knowledge, in a way, and teaching and learning were key components of the monastery.  Whether we moms send our kids to school or homeschool them, there is always a large amount of education going on in the home.  We are training young minds, helping to form character, and hopefully, preparing them for their future, active lives.  Without involved mothers, there is no doubt that much of our civilization would erode away.... beginning with manners!

7.  Specializing in medicine and healing.  Monks were known for growing medicinal herbs and running pharmacies out of the monasteries.  Moms also are quick to arm themselves with all kinds of prevailing wisdom and/or alternative treatments.  Our cupboards are stocked with some amounts of medicines/supplements/herbs/special foods/essential oils... all to help keep the germs at bay.

8. Laying down our lives.  Monks voluntarily -- and admirably -- chose to give up their regular lives, taking vows of poverty, obedience and chastity.  Thankfully, moms are never asked to take that third vow --quite the opposite, I guess!-- but we do choose to lay down our lives, to some extent, to be obedient to what God has ordained for us.  And although we do not take a vow of poverty, staying home with the kids usually does mean a hit to the family financial statements.

Thinking through these similarities has not only been enlightening for me but also freeing.

If I admire the fact that monks have made these choices and focused on a rhythmic, simple life, why do I get so frustrated when I am "missing out" or "bored" or "doing the same thing for the 11-billionth-time?"

My friend, Debbie, who introduced the article mentioned above to me, pointed out another key element:  this season of motherhood -- being home with young kids -- is only temporary.  We have the privilege of living a monastic life, but it's not a life-long commitment. 

When I last contemplated the plight of stay-at-home moms, I wrote about the angst that many of us feel. If we are uniquely gifted, and specially trained or educated for the workplace, then how can we be satisfied to stay at home and act as common drones, doing housework and mundane tasks day in and day out forever and ever? 

This is where Debbie's reminder was balm to my soul.  We are NOT called to this season forever -- it's rather fleeting in fact.  It's like we get to take a (rather extended) vacation to a monastery.  Sounds like one of those creative and exotic vacations I read about sometimes.  But we get to do it for free!  :)

So for now, I am rejoicing in the fact that we as mothers get to experience the focused rhythms and profound lessons of the monastic life.  For this stage of life I can rejoice in the stretching of my heart, in the realization that my time and schedule are not my own, that I am called to serve God in ways that are both lowly and majestic.  For this season I will relish the sounds of the monastic bell and the benefits of the simple life. 

 I can embrace the monk’s lifestyle… but not his tonsure hairstyle.


  1. Have you read "Quotidian Mysteries" by Kathleen Norris? I don't agree with all of her theology, so I can't whole-heartedly recommend everything she's written, but her experiences with the monastic life (as an oblate) and the connections she makes to the rhythms of daily life are just beautiful. It's one I re-read every few years, just to start feeling good about doing the laundry again. :)

  2. Funny you should mention Kathleen Norris, Christy! I have not read the book you mentioned, but my friend Debbie just loaned me another one by her, "Acedia and Me," and I've been learning so much from it.