“God is more domestic than monastic!”
A novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, wrote those words but a theologian might have. Christ was born into a family not a monastery.
Not that there is anything wrong with monasteries. Maybe they’re not places where families live but they’re special places, like deserts and shrines, where we can be apart from the ordinary to do some deeper inner work. You can find God too in a monastery, but, ordinarily, God is found wherever there are little children, and families, and kitchen tables, and petty squabbles, and bills to pay, and all those other kinds of things that seem unspiritual.
Carlo Carretto, the renowned spiritual writer, shares how he learned this from experience: A much respected spiritual mentor, he had spent most of his life living by himself as a hermit in the Sahara desert, praying in silence and translating scripture into the Bedouin language. On one of his visits home to Italy, sitting with his mother, he was struck by the fact that she, an earthy practical woman who had raised a large family and who had gone through whole years of her life so preoccupied with the duties of raising her children that she never had any quality time alone, was more of a contemplative than he was, her hermit son, who had spent years alone in solitude trying to block out the distractions of the world so as to pray.
But Carretto didn’t draw a simplistic conclusion from this. Realizing that his mother, who had been so busy and preoccupied for so many years, was more contemplative than he was didn’t suggest that there was something wrong with what he had been doing all those years in the desert. Rather it suggested that there had been something very right about what she had been doing during those years when the constant demands of little children and family left her with no time ever for herself.
Contemplativeness and openness to the presence of God are not as much a question of silence and quiet, important as these are, as they are of being unselfish and beyond self-preoccupation. Contemplativeness is self-forgetfulness. Silence and the desert can help us to forget ourselves, but so too can duty, the demands of family, parenting, job, and vocation. Indeed, the normal road to sanctity (which is unselfishness and gratitude) leads through family, job, unpaid bills, and duty, rather than through a monastery. Monasteries are special places and the monastic vocation is a special calling, not the norm or ideal for everyone.
My parents’ generation had their own way of understanding this. They called this living out one’s “duties of state.” Their idea was simple, practical, and solidly theological: Nobody gets a free ride in life: We are expected to do some work and fulfill a vocation given us from God. Accordingly we should expect that family, church, duty, and work will necessarily consume our primary time and energy up until we retire. But the idea was that this is where God wants us and that this is where we will find sanctity. Sanctity is found by doing the duties that conscriptively unfold before us each day – doing our work, raising kids, taking care of aging parents, paying bills, helping neighbors, serving country, helping with church life.
The formula for sanctity doesn’t need to be searched for; it finds you, in the duties that you find daily in the path of ordinary life. Ordinary life is your monastery. The alarm clock that goes off early each morning to rouse you from sleep and send you off to work is your monastic bell, as is the mortgage you are paying, the aging parents you now need to care for, the demands of your children, and the needs of your neighbors and country. Like the bell at a monastery, they summon you out of your own agenda and self-interest to something larger than yourself, the agenda of the community and God’s cause. Not least, the church bell which summons you to weekly or daily worship is also a monastic bell. God is found in the rhythms of your daily life, at your kitchen table, in your bedroom, in the struggle to pay your bills and meet your responsibilities, and in the summons to go to church.
Monks have secrets worth knowing, but so too do families. Carlo Carretto did some deep inner work during all those years of silence, fasting, and prayer in the desert, but so too did his mother, during all those years when the asceticism of being a mother, of being over-busy, and of having to think always of other people’s needs before her own made her fast from so many pleasures that she might have enjoyed and forced her to be self-forgetful and generous.
There are two kinds of monasteries and two kinds of monastic bells. Both are good, as long as they summon us beyond ourselves to the kind of fasting and prayer that makes us put others and God before ourselves.