I've been thinking about the value of returning to a monastery for the past 11 years.
Even before I made my first pilgrimage to Mepkin Abbey, I was besotted with monasticism. Blame Kathleen Norris. Blame all those people at the time who were exploring ancient-future practices.
I remember going to a grocery store with a group of friends, and one of them asked me which bread was best. I chose a bread that was called something like Monk's bread. It had the most fiber, which is why I chose it, but one of my friends rolled his eyes and said, "Oh, sure, if it's made by monks it must be the best."
I returned from my first trip to Mepkin in October 2004 more besotted than ever. I would have stayed, if I'm not such a practical, sturdy girl. I realized that as a married, Lutheran woman, I couldn't make a permanent home there. I realized that I have commitments that I cannot shirk just because I fall in love.
Sure, some women fall in love with dark, mysterious strangers. Leave it to me to fall in love with an ancient practice and a monastery. I've always been different.
When I was at Mepkin this time, I felt more tired than usual. I didn't sink into the liturgy, the chanting of the Psalms, as easily. I felt vaguely resentful about going to church multiple times, even though it wasn't required.
I confessed my feelings to the friends who always meet me there. One of them said, "Imagine how the monks must feel."
I've tried hard to avoid idealizing the monks. I've assumed that they must wonder about paths not taken. I've assumed that if daily life wears me down, that monks, being human, must also experience that. In fact, a few years ago, the monks instituted desert days, one day each month, days where they worshipped less and tried to avoid doing much work, so that they could rest and refuel.
I'll continue to return to Mepkin. I expect that I'll feel rapturous again at some point. I also expect that I'll feel that "Oh, what's the point of all this?" feeling again.
I have experienced these highs and lows throughout my life. I experience them as a writer, when some years I love my work, and other years I can't imagine why I keep putting words to paper/pixels. I feel the same way about my job and about my friends and about my family and about my spiritual communities.
There's that line from Seinfeld: "It's not you, it's me."
Monasticism shows us a way through and out of the despair. Monks commit to place and practice. Those of us similarly committed learn to avoid panic when we feel existential despair. We have been in this valley before. We shall move out of it eventually. We know to savor the times when despair isn't nipping at our heels and freezing our faces.
I would have learned this lesson even without my Mepkin trips. I'm glad to know it as I consider my past trip. I was fighting off a cold, and I was overly tired from a month of stress at work. It's no wonder I felt more frazzled than usual.
I shall return to Mepkin again--but perhaps not at Lent.
feeling the feelings…
10 months ago