Many years ago, I was given the gift of a book, a novel based upon the lives of cloistered women in a Benedictine Abbey in England. The protagonist was a very successful businesswoman with a secret, a well-hidden secret, one that had tormented her for years. She had made the acquaintance of an Abbess and had visited the community. Their lives of unceasing worship and prayer intrigued her. In her advanced middle age, she felt she could never be postulant material, but as time went on, her success and prosperity, her well-ordered life, and even the loving admiration of a highly-placed government official, all began to shimmer and melt into obscurity, and the cloistered lives of the nuns began to beckon her.
I was a married woman with four children when I read the book, and the cloistered lives of the nuns began to beckon to me. With no desire to enjoy my marriage less, I wanted more of what they had, more time with God, more purposeful worship and prayer, less waste of every precious day, more stillness … and I spoke with the Lord about this most unusual desire in my heart. I asked if there were any way I could have what they had and not lose what I had. In fact I said, rather tremulously, that if Frank’s heart and our relationship weren’t the beneficiaries of this awkward and uncommon adventure, I would know He wasn’t in it.
I didn’t have any tormenting secrets, at least not any that the Lord hadn’t already absolved in love and the blood of His sacrifice, I wouldn’t have made a terrific character for anybody’s story but my own, and I'm not Catholic, but I did have a contemplative bent. When my sister and our little girlfriends played house, I tried to get them to play library with me. When the broadcast came over the speaker system that President Kennedy had died, the other kids cried and clung to one another, I got up and left the classroom and wandered out into the wilderness – this was a beautiful high school in the Sonoran desert in Arizona – and knelt before God, Whoever He might be. I had been taught one little nighttime prayer . . . I was still praying it in my twenties before I came to faith in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t much at all, but it was all I knew.
It was about thirty years into our marriage when this book and this monastic concept came into my life. I made a start with a string of beads, not a rosary, just colorful wooden beads that one of my girls had strung to make a necklace for me. Each bead represented a person and the necklace made me stay still long enough to pray for each of them. Truthfully, I seldom finished the strand, for there were nearly fifty beads, but it was a great beginning. More often I would give thanks for one thing for each bead. That practice worked, and I kept it.
At first I would tuck my little worship necklace between the couch cushions when anybody came into the room, but in time I gave that up, and Frank would smile on his way through to go shave in the morning. I had told him what I was doing, and he seemed to like it, and although he teased me gently sometimes, it was an encouraging tease. After thirty years of marriage, I knew the difference. Before too long, we were reading our Bibles and praying together in the mornings over our coffee, a dear hope I had nurtured for so many years that it nearly startled me when it happened.
Two years ago, on this day, at this time of the morning, Frank went away to worship in person at the throne of God. For a split second, when he seemed to be still slightly here but much more there, I felt a tremendous joy rising up, swallowing the grief and the loss that were breaking my heart in that moment. One of my daughters was with me, and we tried to cradle his head, telling him again and again how much we loved him, thanking him for being such a great, good man and father, but almost before we could know he was dying, he was gone, stepping over the threshold between us and heaven, and joy took my sorrow by the hand. Our other daughter had told me just days before, when the cancer diagnosis came in, “Mom, this is a win-win situation; we will still have him, or he will have Jesus in heaven.” She was right.
Those beads haven’t seen the inside of the couch for a long time now. I am able to spend hours in worship and prayer. I am often made quite aware that we still pray for our children, Frank and I, just not over coffee. How grateful I am that I learned to live monastically and got into the discipline of it before he died! It served me well before and kept me sane and sensible afterwards. The practices, many of them, that sometimes seemed silly and almost embarrassing then, are now the mainstays of worship and intercession and the ability to wait upon God and hear His Voice.
Many other words might work as well as “monastic.” “Disciplined,” “devoted,” or “sanctified” are a few, and all of them are Scripturally accurate and descriptive. “Monastic” means “solo,” in this case, alone before God, and what I like about the term is that it brings home the truth that no one can live this disciplined, devoted, sanctified life for us. Married or single, no one can bring me before the Lord but ME!
Frank’s sanctuary was the front porch. He would sit out there and watch the beautiful golden birds that nested high up in the trees across the street. They would fly out, over our rooftop, land behind our house somewhere, and return within minutes. He knew everyone who walked by, and one elderly lady would always stop, leaning on her cane, and bend his ear for quite awhile. He always hated long, drawn out conversations, but he would listen to her until she finally moved on. Then he would be back, alone again with his thoughts and with the Lord. I loved to sit with him and did, but I knew he relished a little time there by himself. He didn’t need beads.
I think I did. At least, they helped me stop fluttering around and finish one thing before I went to the next. Now I can finish many things, and some days there is no next, except my writing and the next segment of my own Divine Office, but boredom is not an issue. Neither is loneliness, not so long as I keep my trysts with God. He is so much more entertaining than the television, so much more interesting that the books on my shelves, and so much more comforting than pain and loss are devastating.
Of course all of that is true in a deep and secret place; I could still watch cooking channels and other people’s home renovations all day long. I can’t watch romantic movies too much, and some not at all yet. I have music that we loved that I cannot hear. Not yet. Two years and still not yet, but I can make music. I can sing and make melody in my heart to the Lord, and I do. I can open my mouth and speak to Him, and loneliness flees away.
Are you, my dear friend, are you married and wanting more than the very best of husbands can give? Are you lonely, even in your marriage? Did your marriage come to an end, a divorce you never wanted? Did yours end with some relief, mingled with fear and guilt? Are you one of those, most precious, who have never married, not knowing quite why perhaps, wondering if there is someone out there who could and will love you? Oh! There is nothing on earth like being loved by someone who knows you as you are and cherishes you anyway! Nothing on earth.
Not at all least, are you one whose marriage vows were fulfilled just as you made them . . . until death did part the two of you? We don’t really believe that will ever happen when we stand at the altar, but every marriage that lasts does end that way! These words are written for you. I wanted you to know, just as the Psalmist said, the Nearness of God is our good, married, widowed, or single, and there is a pursuit of God that leaves none of us out of the running.
TIME with God can vary greatly. Opportunity for extended intervals of worship and prayer are not the same for one as for another. Be advised, twenty-four available hours do not magically gather us up into devotion when we have them. It is a good thing to love discipline; those who do always seem to live with greater freedom, not to mention productivity, than those who don’t. There is, of course, a price to pay. Monasticism is the willingness to pay it and a way to learn it, joyfully.
What I’ve learned, what others learned before me and made available, I want to share with you. What I would like best of all is that we might become a little cyber monastery . . . I hope that doesn’t offend . . . but, why shouldn’t we? If we are progressing toward the fullness of life in Christ, rejoicing always, giving thanks in all things, praying about everything, worshiping and finding grace at the Throne of Grace, why should we not be here together, one-hearted, encouraging one another?
That is the name of this Abbey, this cyber cloister. “Cor Unum,” One Heart, united in heart, and together always in the pursuit of the loveliest, most valiant, and the infinitely comforting Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ. These doors open at a word . . . More of God! Oh, do come in and make Cor Unum your home. We welcome you.
Today's photo is of Cor Unum Lodge, the von Trapp family home in Vermont. Frank and I visited there, twice! He loved it, and so did I. Tranquil, beautiful, bathed in worship and prayer . . . just like our hearts will be here in Cor Unum Abbey, monastery of the heart.
Cor Unum, the von Trapp Family lodge