Several months ago, Gary Moon invited me to contribute to Conversations: Gifts From the Monastery. “Several writers will spend a week-long retreat at monasteries from various traditions; perhaps you could represent the evangelical tradition and visit a Protestant retreat house. See if it would work for you to go,” he urged, “and write an article about your experience—about the gifts you’ve received there.”
Ahhh. A silent retreat. Where do I sign up? I cannot think of a time in my life during which such an offer would not have been attractive. But the more I thought about it, with schedules and child care, I simply couldn’t pull it off. Most of us can’t get away for that kind of retreat, though many gifts admittedly await those who can. Our spiritual lives needn’t be dependent on these times, though; we can discover the rich gifts of a deep spirituality right in our own homes. I needed to learn how to care for my own soul right in the midst of my own life with the brothers… not monastic brothers, but the three active boys who share my home.
Finding space for quiet in the midst of many brothers is not a new thing. As the eldest of seven children in a very social home, solitude was a rare thing in my childhood. The McGarrys (my family) were loud, active, and social. Actually, I had five brothers. Then a sister too! Did I mention our house was loud?
Things aren’t so very different now… three nonstop, boisterous, social boys—entering their preteen and teenage years. And, of course, we’ve added two puppies within the last 18 months, a cat that is perennially and constitutionally at war with the dogs, and several fish (I think… there are fewer each month). Ours is not a quiet home. The idea of “peace” takes on a unique meaning for us. More metaphorical.
I assumed I would decline Gary’s invitation, knowing the heap of laundry and babysitter’s fees I would return to. But I also wondered how my quest for a healthy soul among many brothers might help those with similar limitations on their time.
Who wouldn’t prefer a silent retreat to carpools, breakfast dishes, puppy misdemeanors, event planning, and schlepping around for meetings? Never mind convincing a teenage son to finish his homework or, eww, take a shower? Yet my spirituality, my Christian devotion, my desire to know God and be known by him, and my wrestling with ego, anger, and heartache have largely been fostered (and often fought for) under my own roof.
While at times the perpetual solitude of monastic life calls temptingly, I am fully convinced that this smelly, loud, bursting-at-the-seams life is precisely the one into which I have been called, the one for which I have taken my own version of “orders.” The lure of a silent retreat is probably more about escape than seriously seeking God’s heart in prayer. The truth is, I have had to learn to seek God’s heart right here.
Catholic spiritual writer Emilie Griffin recently said, “Solitude and silence are not only about where you are, but how you are.” The goal, she conveyed, was practicing solitariness. And this can be done anywhere.
Emily later shared this quote with me: “Certain vocations, like that of raising children, offer a perfect setting for living a contemplative life. They provide a desert for reflection, a real monastery.” (Ronald Rolheiser, Forgotten Among the Lilies) How true!
My life with the brothers has been a monastery where I receive gifts. These gifts are available to you as well. By all means, if your work and family life allow for an extended retreat—take it! But if your season of life, financial constraints, or personal health issues prevent you from taking extended time away, you can still receive the gifts of a monastery. We just pursue them differently.
Below are three gifts I’ve discovered.
In silence, we receive the gift of wisdom
In my imaginary monastery, I walk the halls and sit at my window overlooking peaceful gardens; I come and go from meals in silence. Others are nearby, and occasionally I feel the urge to connect with them just to break the awkward concept of being “with” others but so very much “not with” them. I inwardly love being able just to be and not interact, not feel responsible … to observe and participate, but never attempt to construct an identity for myself, a justification for my existence.
In my actual home, I have to hunt for silence. It isn’t exactly enforced. The easiest way to claim silence, the one I pursue most frequently, is to wake up before anyone else to enjoy quiet space with God. Even the dogs don’t get up that early! Early mornings are not good for everyone, but most of us can identify times of “mini-retreat” right in the midst of our own homes. For me, it’s the morning.
What are those options for you? Early morning? Late at night? As many have already discovered, for me those times of mini-retreat, of quietness and stillness, can be a very life-giving gift.
While the solitude that emerges from an absence of noise is essential, I have discovered another place for silence, one that has also greatly impacted my dependence upon God and willingness to rest in his presence moment by moment. Quite frankly, this secondary silence exposed the frayed edges of my character and also opened my eyes to threads of another source altogether that are being interwoven with my own.
So much of parenting is rightly about words, but this year I have been challenged to observe silence … silence in the midst of a desire to connect just because we’re in the same physical space, silence when I feel responsible for homework that isn’t mine, silence when I’m tempted to justify myself, and—most recently—silence when I would otherwise evaluate.
Until I read more about the discipline of silence, I had no idea how many of my child-directed comments were evaluative. Whether to correct or praise, to point out error or encourage positive progress, I provided a running commentary of evaluation. I never realized this until I tried to stop, to limit my words to only what was true, immediate, and neutral.
Not only did this secondary silence, this simplicity of speech, expose the lack of purely relational, non-evaluative conversation with my children; it also exposed the internal voice that similarly praised or condemned my own every move. Perhaps this realization would have come in a monastery, perhaps not. But indeed it has been a gift… both to my children and to myself, a gift of silence that invites me to transformation.
There is a time to evaluate, but not all the time. And voluntary silence at the times when I am most tempted to speak has been immensely helpful.
The gift I have received from silence in my monastery of the home is this: wisdom. Early in the mornings, I see and hear with greater clarity. I can move into days, demands, and relationships with a centeredness that yields to the way of wisdom far more readily. And I gain wisdom when I choose voluntary silence in my relationships—particularly when I abstain from evaluation for a season.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God,
who gives generously to all without finding fault,
and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5, TNIV)
In service, we receive the gift of purpose
In my imaginary monastery we labor together at menial tasks, finding joy and purpose in doing so. We relish the challenge to offer each chore to God as an act of worship; we willingly surrender any desire for recognition or appreciation or praise. Yes, I’m just a tad idealistic.
A few weeks ago, I had a break from teaching during the morning solitude experience at a retreat. While the rest of the group scattered to engage individually with God, I assumed I would spend my time reviewing notes for the next session… until an idea struck. Why not use the time to serve the group by cleaning up the kitchen so they didn’t need to clean it later? They’d never know it was me… they’d each think someone else did it. And in truth, unless they read this article, I think I got away with it! No one ever knew.
What hit me as I labored over the sink, the scrambled eggs, the toast crumbs, and the mismatched cream cheese lids was this: I was having a blast. I loved doing it. And I loved knowing no one would know. But why, I wondered, did it seem so effortless, so downright energizing, so joy-filled, to do all this menial, thankless labor? Sadly, it didn’t take much reflection at all. Because I didn’t have to. At home, I generally have to. Or someone has to… and I can adopt my martyred, oldest-of-seven attitude with the ease of a lifetime’s worth of attitude formation.
The gifts of serving among and alongside the brothers are there for the taking. Often I take them, but not always. I distinctly remember one time years ago, as I Soft-Scrubbed my way around the base of a toilet (an especially treacherous place with small boys), being almost moved to tears at the joy of serving in such a menial way and mindfully offering it as a gift to God. What I did mattered, even if it was entirely invisible, unappreciated, and, well, rather nasty work.
I also recall a more recent evening during which I deeply resented (far too openly) having to oversee homework completion. While my husband and I share this quite equitably, on this particular occasion it was mine to do, and I just resented it with pure selfishness—nothing else—that was even hurtful to one of the brothers.
My dishwashing experience has reinvigorated my willingness to embrace the work of everyday life among the brothers. When I do, I notice I receive a gift. Somewhat elusive this gift is, but it’s there for the taking: the gift of purpose, of bringing value through meaningful work.
I have lots of help with many tasks, but when I’m “on,” I can do laundry with gratitude and joy, or I can fold and fume. I can prepare a meal with creativity and prayer and love, or I can throw something marginally attractive and minimally healthy in front of the brothers (and husband).
Any one of us can mindfully “devote” our work, or “give it over,” perhaps even “consecrate” our labor, be it changing the oil in the family car, mowing the lawn, emptying the dishwasher, or even cleaning toilets. Many ancient spiritual writers encourage us towards this; most notable, perhaps, is Brother Lawrence. We are so deeply impacted by his words, but sometimes I wonder—Do we really need this poor monk from centuries ago to tell us this truth? I think he might be appalled to think that his words appear so novel and fresh to us…
When we serve, we can receive the gift of purpose.
In “being with” we receive the gift of love
The final gift from my life with the brothers is harder to articulate. In a way, it has been a gift of acceptance. In another way, it has been a gift of “being known.” In yet another sense it has been a gift of reassurance. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to say it has been a gift of love.
Years ago, during a very difficult ministry season, my husband visited a monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He embraced all the rhythms of monastic life during his brief tenure there, complete with silent meals and an appointment for spiritual direction with one of the priests in residence. While Jeff recalls some of what this wise soul offered during their conversation, he was most deeply impacted nonverbally. He felt loved, accepted, validated in his struggles and in his journey. And most mysteriously, he actually felt met and loved by God as a result of this brother’s “presence” with him.
So I imagine that, among those who reside at the monastery I might have visited, I would experience a kind of presence, a way of “being with,” that helps me drop the worries and burdens of life in favor of receiving the gift of love—right now, in this very moment. And I’ve discovered that this, too, can be found right here in ordinary life.
Various forms of prayer have helped me experience God’s presence directly during the daily moments of life with the brothers. Inward prayer, as described by Thomas Kelly in A Testament of Devotion, has been extremely helpful. Also, during those early morning times alone, I have learned to devote some time to silent prayer. Not every day, but frequently, my mornings start with that time of openness, contrition, and longing. Making deliberate efforts for prayer have helped me actually receive the gift of love available in life with the brothers.
Occasionally that sense of God’s presence and love actually comes from one of the brothers! Now, certainly, family life with the brothers is full of all manner of barbs and zingers and dings, some intentional, many not. During dinner a few months back, one of the brothers noticed, apparently for the first time, a portrait of my husband and me taken back during our engagement. It had been hanging in plain sight for months, maybe a year. Spontaneously offering what he later claimed to be a compliment, he blurted out, “Mom, wow, you used to be pretty!” How, exactly, does one respond to that “used to be”? It was just one of those days.
But amid the jabs and stabs are also many, many gifts of presence, of acceptance, and of love, the kind of love that makes me feel met and loved by God… when I can drop my burdens and rest in kingdom life.
One recent example of this: occasionally (okay, most of the time), we are running late to the carpool in the morning. Breakfast is drama; homework is drama; showers and lunches and everything else are dramas. Some families really nail this whole thing, but ours just hasn’t. On this particular morning, we finally got in the car, and I once again began the exasperated lecture—why do I do this?—recounting that we had missed our target time, and if every traffic light between our home and the next one turned in our favor, we might make it on time. Thankfully, I stopped myself before I continued to lecture on the obvious. And in the silence that followed, one of the brothers began to sing.
In a timid but sweet nine-year-old voice, he ventured, “Every little thing’s going to be all right, every little thing is going to be all right.” I couldn’t help but smile and tousle his hair in gratitude. He was right!
We often listen to the CD together as we drive—it is one of our favorite worship bands. I thought the song was rather cheesy when I first heard it, like some grown-up version of a lullaby. But I noticed how often those lyrics came to mind—at just the right time. They echo Lady Julian of Norwich’s encounter with God, hearing “… all manner of things shall be well.” (Revelation of Love)
My anxious spirit was known, received, and met by one of the brothers—right on the way to carpool. I was loved and reminded of what is most true. What a gift!
So how might you receive the gifts of wisdom, of purpose, and of love available in your monastery at home? A few questions might help identify the path:
- What’s the “place” of silence in my life? What am I receiving from silence?
- Where does service (with a “want to” attitude) find expression? What do I receive in those times?
- What ways of prayer help me directly “be with” God? What gifts do I receive in those times?
- Who around me offers the gift of “being with,” and what am I receiving from them?
I do hope you’ll pursue these gifts—what a great thing to desire!
“You open your hand
and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”
(Psalm 145:16, TNIV)