I first went to Mepkin Abbey in October of 2004, and I've tried to return once a year. I'd like to go more often, of course, but I feel lucky that I can usually return regularly.
When I first went, I assumed that most of the monks had taken their vow of stability, and that I'd continue to see them. Through the years, I've watched newer monks and their different robes/habits which tell how long they've been part of the community and how close they are to making their vows. I've assumed that once a monk takes the final vows, that he'd be there forever.
In a way I've envied that decision. I've assumed that a monk who has taken final vows feels that certain decisions are settled forever: where to live/retire, what to do with one's time, what kind of food to eat, on and on I could go.
Of course, it's not a prison. People are free to leave, and through the years, some have. I won't comment on specific monks, since I don't really know them, and even if I did, I'd want to protect their privacy. Still, I've continued to be surprised when younger monks leave.
I've been surprised because of my assumptions that they'd settled those questions. I've been surprised because of my own yearnings that won't be fulfilled at Mepkin. No matter how much I love the place and feel pulled to it, I cannot take those monastic vows for all sorts of reasons (I'm a woman, I'm married, I have a mortgage, I'm Lutheran).
In short, I've taken different vows, but feel pulled to Mepkin Abbey. These monks can have what I can't have. And then, I'm surprised to find out that maybe they've wanted what they assume we have on the outside: a job in an office, the decision about what to eat day after day, relationships of all sorts.
It seems very human to me. I've been having conversations with people who assume life would be better under different circumstances: to live alone, to have a spouse, to live somewhere else, to have a different job . . . on and on I could go.
The woman yearning for a husband forgets that the husband might have a high-pressure job that keeps him away 60-80 hours a week, and so he couldn't help her hang her art show. Those of us wishing for more alone time forget how lonely that time could be if our wish was fully granted. We move to different houses and neighborhoods, only to be surprised when the new house has problems too. We forget that every job comes with its headaches.
I wonder about those monks who have left, our brothers who are away, as the monastic prayer would put it. Are they happy? Do they still feel the tug of monastic time, the Litany of the Hours? Do they wake up in the middle of the night worrying that they've made a dreadful mistake?
The vow of stability, the vow of committing to a place, is the one I struggle with most, at least in this current phase of my life. I don't spend any time wrestling with the idea of committing to one person. But committing to a place? That's harder for me. I'm always wondering if life would be better in Seattle or some other place that seems to fit me better. I'm always wondering if I could find a better job if I was free to go anywhere. I'm always wondering if I'd be happier if I had a big plot of land in a rural place.
I do understand that many people would not understand these wanderings of my brain and heart. I have a decent job with a boss who doesn't abuse me, a job which pays me well and gives me some autonomy. So many people, especially women, don't have that. I live in a historic house with a pool, and I can walk to the beach. I'm fortunate--I remind myself that I'm fortunate, even as I'm dealing with mold that has made some inroads into my house during our recent humid period when my spouse turned the AC off for days.
I have made a vow, and I solidified that vow when we bought this house. I thought the questions were settled. But now I'm thinking that I'll always wonder about how life would be elsewhere.
At these times, I return to the wisdom of Lonesome Dove. I think of Lori, the prostitute who desperately wanted to get to San Francisco, and Gus, the old cowboy who knows that she'll still be dealing with problems there. A place doesn't magically settle everything. Life's problems and joys follow us, no matter where we are.
Still, I'd like more insight into the monks who leave. I'd like a book that interviews them. I know that I idealize the monastic life. It would be good to have a more realistic picture.
feeling the feelings…
6 months ago