Though I’ve never actually stepped into the doors of a monastery, I got to enter into that world while reading This House of Brede. We enter Rumer Godden’s book through Philippa, a top level executive who quits her job to join an abbey to become a nun. I love this story. It is so well written, weaving in the stories of the other nuns, both new and old. I’m definitely in a reading slump, in part because of the incredible writing of this novel.
So monasteries? Why am I celebrating a space I’ve never stepped in? I believe monasteries hold key practices that we should all begin to adopt. Monasteries are worlds far different from our frenetic, overstimulated ones. There’s something to learn from these spaces where nuns and monks feel a sense of peace and connection in a way we don’t in the outside world. Let’s begin!
Vow of stability
The Benedictine nuns of the abbey of Brede take this vow of stability. When Philippa enters the monastery, she is aware of the world that she is leaving behind. A vow of stability is a vow to stay in place. Entering Brede means not leaving. While most of us might see this as restrictive, I would argue that it has so many benefits.
The vow of stability moves against wanderlust, this need to discover more and more of the earth. This vow allows Philippa to enjoy the beauty of Brede, to take notice of the darkening leaves as fall comes or the lark that sings. She becomes more aware of the slight change in seasons. No longer does she seek after novelty, but learns to sit in boredom long enough to understand herself, her strengths and her flaws.
I wonder how much of our backyard we’d discover if we stayed in our towns. We would be more acquainted with our neighbors and our local business’ owners and our landscape. I am not saying never travel far. I am saying make an intentional effort to be committed to being present to where you are, even if you never make a vow of stability.
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Silence as a key feature
Earlier this year, I began adding 5 minutes of silence at the beginning of my quiet time. I know that it’s ironic to think about adding silence to quiet time, but sometimes quiet time isn’t so quiet. Sometimes you play worship music (not usually my thing). Maybe you are doing a deep dive into scripture (mentally loud). Whatever it is, a quiet time can actually feel like a lot of activity instead of being peaceful. So I added 5 minutes of silence.
I’m not going to say that I’ve become a different person through this discipline. I haven’t. But I am less likely to rush to put the TV on or play a podcast. I prefer to take my long walks in silence. Too much noise irritates me. Many monasteries will have key times of silence—in the morning after Mass or at night after Compline. Our society has forgotten that silence reveals things. It reveals what we’ve been consuming, the thoughts we’ve been ruminating over, where our attention has wandered. Noise is a key distractor from any relationship from God. But even if you aren’t religious, silence might teach you a thing or two about yourself.
Daily prayer rhythm
Honestly, this feature of monasteries is the most difficult one to adopt. It’s easier not to pray. It is easier not to make the time or space to speak to God and let him know your thoughts. Depending on the monastery, they will pray at least three to possibly 7 appointed times a day. That’s not even including doing a prayer vigil for a specific intention. I have to admit that nuns and monks have this time to pray because that’s what they’re called to do. But I do believe having more structure to your prayer life can be good. After all, Daniel prayed three times every day without fail.
I believe that God answers prayer. I have seen it in my life and I know it to be true. Prayer is time to connect with him, both to talk and to listen. And given my technology habits, I have plenty of time to spend in prayer. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Philippa is holding a vigil to pray for a specific intention and nuns that don’t necessarily like one another come to pray with her. It is a wholesome moment. Pray knowing he hears you.
Making do with what you have
Living in an abbey, these nuns are not making a lot of money. While they do grow produce and create things for the benefit of the community, they aren’t necessarily living in abundance. A huge priority for them is making do with what they have. This, of course, goes against consumerism. It is so easy to buy whatever you like whenever you like. But these nuns wear their habits until they are worn out.
The nuns are conscious of the resources they have and they are not letting anything go to waste. I admit that they are times when I buy something knowing I don’t need to buy it. There is one scene where the new abbess is going through each nun’s collection of things, and she says to one nun, you have three pens when you only need one. It’s that level of understanding that what you have is enough. If we understood how much abundance we had, we would never seek to have more and more.
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Submission to a higher authority
This last one might ruffle some feathers. Don’t get me wrong. There are places where authority is abused. Whether it’s a bad institution or a really difficult person in your life, not every authority honors you. That said, the abbess in the monastery is the authority that the nuns have chosen to submit to. The word “submission” is not one people like, but I think people forget that submission is chosen. We submit to a higher authority when we know that the higher authority has our best interests in mind. Our parents, our teachers–those who knew us well enough to tell us how we needed to grow and give us what we needed to grow. You might not be a fan of submitting to authority, but I can promise you that life will do this for you.
There are those times when you just have an awful day, Literally everything that happened was the exact opposite of what you wanted. That was life showing you that you don’t always get what you want. The way you react to not getting what you want shows your level of maturity. The nuns showed their maturity by believing that their abbess had their best interests in mind and realizing that their own desires weren’t always good for them long term. Submitting to an authority requires humility, but that humility is an incredible quality to have.
I hope you’ve considered ways in which monasteries develop such depth in the nuns and monks that live there, and maybe think about taking up a practice or two for your own maturity.
Now to end with one of favorite quotes from This House of Brede:
When you have become God’s in the measure He wants, He, Himself, will know how to bestow you on others.Rumer Godden
2 thoughts on “in praise of monasteries”
I agree: we all have something to learn from those living a monastic life. As much as each of them conflict with modern society (or with flesh in general), we must heed those thing which are higher.
Colossians 3.2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
That’s the perfect scripture! I love how monks and nuns just infuse the ordinary with the sacred. It’s beautiful!