My sister entered a monastery slowly, over the course of some years, and she says this is not unusual, that most of the people she knows who have entered monastic life did so cautiously, carefully, thoughtfully, painstakingly, haltingly; they were riveted but unsure, absorbed but leery, quite aware that the decision was an immense one, every bit as epic as marriage—a state with which the monastic life shares many pleasures, pains, and conundrums.
For example, she says, both are constant promises, daily, hourly, minutely, as it were; it’s not like you swear a vow once, in public, wearing gleaming shining clothes, and then you’re set for life; it doesn’t work that way. Every day you have to walk into the thicket of your promise again, looking for a clear path forward through the muddle. It’s more work than anyone lets on. Now, every day is different, so that your promise is more of a verb than a noun, which is probably what makes it absorbing and fascinating, when you think about it, but the fact is that you do have to renew your vows pretty much every afternoon, if you are being honest with yourself and with the person or persons who live in your promise with you. And people do leave the promise, of course; it’s just as painful for those in the monastery when someone leaves as it is in a marriage, I would guess; there’s that same sadness and loss, a quiet grief that even though a departure may make sense, may be a logical and reasonable thing, may be a good thing in many ways, still, something broke, something dissolved, something died, and the ripples of that death spread far and wide. We don’t talk about this very much because it’s so uncomfortable, but it’s so.
But also the monastic life and the married life afford endless chances for focused concentration, for exploring depths in yourself and in other people, for camaraderie and humor, for sudden epiphany, for startling sidelong wisdom delivered from unexpected sources and directions, isn’t that so? For example, she says, you are married, and have been married for nearly thirty years to the same person, but you tell me that your wife is never quite the same person one day to the next, so that you have essentially been married to a new wife every day for ten thousand days, isn’t that so? Which perhaps is a secret to being happily married, that there are always new and interesting and confusing things to discover about the person whom you think you know so well but actually you don’t know so well at all, all things considered. Monastic life is like that too; we have our rhythms and rituals, our tasks and duties, our prayers and meditations, the trappings of ancient custom and practice, our chants and songs, the meditation that is our daily life, but you constantly find new doors and windows in all of the above, through which a light is shining, if you are open enough to perceive it. And the lesson of experience, in both marriage and monastic life, I suspect, is that every time you think that all doors and windows have been discovered, and that there are no more to find, you are instantly proven wrong and silly, sometimes with an audible thump as the message hits you in the head.
I would guess, concluded my sister, that very few people take much time to contemplate the many ways that marriage and the monastic life are close cousins and companions, but there are many such ways, and we would be here all the rest of the day if we were to list and account them. But I must be about my morning prayers, and you, I think, were just about to make a pot of coffee for your lovely bride, an act which, it seems to me, is very much like a morning prayer of thanks for her presence in your life, for the gift of her promise to you, for the way she says yes to you again every morning—if you get the coffee made in time.
Brian Doyle is most recently the author of the essay collection So Very Much the Best of Us.