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Why A Monastery?

Architecture. Space, line, vaults, towers. Nooks and crannies. Statues and columns. Dark corners. Guttering candles. Hands gliding over oak pews impregnated with decades—centuries—of incense, sweat, and skin.

Our little church in town had all the elements. It represented a worldwide community, centuries old, wider than the family. Our father was quick to point it all out and up and beyond.

An interior designer, a protagonist in the Mid-Century Modern movement, Dad lived and breathing art and architecture. He’d take my older brother and me into Manhattan, to designer showrooms countering the vertical skyscrapers with prairie-like horizons. Square footage to steal your breath and stagger your mind.

Then he set us loose for the day. “Go see St. Patrick’s Cathedral. St. Bart’s. Meet me here at 5.” Later it would be Central Park, MOMA, the Met, the Cloisters. Space inconceivable. My father knew how to design and fill space. Whether with furniture, lighting, or fabric. Or music and stories. Sometimes with pillows on the floor so we could lay down, close our eyes, and listen to Beethoven’s 6th. Sometimes up and dancing to Zorba the Greek or Benny Goodman’s swing, jelly beans and red hot dollars on the counter.

A mover and shaker, he was also a contemplative who took us to monasteries, seminaries, and cathedrals. We visited one as guests of our Uncle Leo, a Jesuit missionary who visited every few years. The memory is dim except for two clarifying details: Whether it was a monastery or a seminary, it was for “Men only.” A place for men to cultivate life with God. Father, brother, and uncle passed through a great gate into the unknown while I stared at their backs, left in the care of two elderly women.

These kindly women mollified me with a doll, which only raised my shackles. Who needed a doll when there was God, space, and mystery to explore beyond that gate? How was I to cultivate life with God? Surely it wasn’t his idea to bar women.

Years later, the first time I was invited to a monastery in France. Startled, I replied, “Oh, is it allowed?” I learned how monasteries began and why they were sometimes segregated, but yes, there was a place for women to discover monastic practice.

At that point, I didn’t need a monastery to help me find God. I had already discovered it was an inner, moveable feast. But I learned how useful a monastery can be at times. We can lose sight of God in the circus inside our heads, in our social media feeds, and outside our doors. Sometimes we need to fall across the threshold of a sacred space where we can withdraw into the quiet, seek healing, and remember God.

Sometimes we can do this at home, or nearby in nature. Sometimes a monastery helps. Can it happen virtually? Why not. Bring your own jelly beans, queue up your favorite music, and cross the threshold. Let’s cultivate life with God together. There is neither male or female here. Just solitaries searching for him.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.—Galatians 3:28

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