Why This Protestant Guy Spent 300 Days in a Monastery

Last week I described the significance that keeping a journal had for us as my wife and I crash-landed in a new, surreal life. But that journal is only part of our story. 

Monasteries played a big role, too. 

However, I had not always found monasteries to be places of interest, Protestant-reared that I was. The thought of monks, nuns, monasteries, and mother houses had rarely crossed my mind.   

But that changed in 1997 with Martha’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.     

In early October of that year, Martha and I were encouraged to visit a nun with the Sisters of Loretto in Kentucky. We stayed there for a week, but as we drove away I was wishing we could have remained forever. Martha and I found the time and space to talk, cry, walk, hug, hold hands, and be still. That was the first comfort we’d felt since her diagnosis.

While there, we also visited the Abbey of Gethsemani not far away. This is the monastery made famous by the writer and social activist Thomas Merton. Martha and I listened to a friend of Merton’s deliver one of the most succinct, poignant, and humorous homilies I’d heard. Father Matthew Kelty, an aging Boston Irish monk, maintained a running commentary while reciting poetry and portions of the Bible, leaving us wondering whether to laugh or cry.

When through, Father Matthew darted for the door as quickly as he had entered.  

But Martha was able to catch up to him, and he agreed to meet with her the next day. She emerged from that meeting the next afternoon with a glow on her face that I hadn’t seen in months. Martha in short order had developed a crush on Father Matthew. She always did have a thing for older men with an air of authority about them.

My interest in monastic communities—and my affection—was warming quickly.

A few years later, our children Rachel and David gave me the best gift ever. Back home from college, they agreed to stay with their mother one weekend a month while letting me do whatever I wanted. By then, someone needed to be with Martha 24/7.   

It didn’t take me long to decide how to spend their gift: I went to St. Leo Abbey, a Benedictine monastery about an hour north of St. Petersburg.

St. Leo has a guest house with half a dozen or so apartments. For my weekends there, I would leave work on Friday afternoon and return home on Sunday afternoon.

I did this for almost a decade until Martha entered a nursing home in early 2008.

I found no better place to rant and vent my fears, to be quiet and cry aloud. I did stay at a beach motel one time, but it didn’t offer the atmosphere and undistracted silence I needed. 

Do you remember Merton’s statement from my post last week? “One of the basic truths put forward in the Bible as a whole is not merely that God is always right and man is wrong, but that God and man can face each other in an authentic dialog …” 

That’s what my weekends at St. Leo were about: Discovering the honest agreements and disagreements that I had with God. As well as he with me. And me with myself. It wasn’t easy. But over time, Christ’s Spirit was gentle enough to permit me to sift through the rubble of false piety and self-righteousness I’d built up over a lifetime, eventually to touch a more authentic core.  

Space doesn’t permit me to dig into the issues that rained down on me at St. Leo and elsewhere. I do get into a number of those in my forthcoming book. Nonetheless, it was during these weekends that my readings, meditations, prayers, and journal writings proved invaluable—they helped me sort the real from the illusory. At times, though, I felt I was hitting my head against a wall, making no progress whatsoever. 

If you feel the need to be quiet and alone, here are some quick thoughts drawn from my decade of visits to St. Leo and other monastic communities: 

  • First, I realize that as a caregiver you might not be so fortunate to have children who can give you a gift such as ours gave me. But maybe you have friends who can free you for a few hours. Or maybe your loved one will be willing to go to an adult day care center.   
  • Or if the crisis is yours rather than a loved one’s, are you still independent enough to step out of your daily schedule and into a less distracting, more focused atmosphere? If so, make the time to do it.
  • It’s important to carve out time and space on a regular basis, if possible. Go somewhere that you can be alone to unload what’s on your heart and mind. 
  • Don’t use this time for errands. And don’t try to do this at home or the office. You’ll have more than enough distractions without worrying about to-do lists.  
  • Arguing “honestly” with God doesn’t mean your conversations are structured and articulate. If anything, it’s the opposite for me. I find it difficult to verbalize what’s going on deep within. I have to stew in my juices for awhile—often a long while—before I’m able to call out an issue. I consider this “stewing” to be a form of God’s grace. 
  • My conversations with God—Help! Why us?! Why me?!—often were similar to those Anne Lamott describes in her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
  • If you don’t want to go to a monastery, many church denominations have retreat centers. 
  • If you do visit a monastery, don’t think you have to participate in the schedule of the brothers’ prayer services. Slip in and out where you feel comfortable. I found St. Leo’s brothers to be more protective of my time and feelings than I was.
  • A spiritual director often is available in a monastic community. St. Leo, Gethsemani, and the Sisters of Loretto all have one. Take advantage of that person’s guidance, if you feel the need.
  • When you go to a monastery, you don’t have to stay isolated in your room. At St. Leo I liked to sit outside in a chair behind the guest house and look out over an orange grove spilling into Lake Jovita. I soon began calling this my “hot seat.” Also I liked to take walks on a country road near there. And go to their book store to chat with the brother in charge. Meals with the brothers were fun. Oh the stories they can tell when they step out of their frocks.

    Friday evenings I often ate at Pancho’s Villa in nearby San Antonio—one of the best kept secrets in Tampa Bay. There’s nothing like a piping hot plate of their enchiladas or burritos with a couple of cold beers, topped by a dessert of deep-fried ice cream. LOL! 
  • When I left St. Leo on Sunday afternoon, I’d resolved few if any of my issues. But I usually felt more refreshed and together than when I drove in on Friday.

Have you been able to find a place to be quiet and vent? Do you wish to share your experiences? If so, you may at #APathRevealed. Or you may email me privately at carlen@carlenmaddux.com

Thanks, Carlen

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