Carlo Carretto, one of the leading spiritual writers of the past half-century, lived for more than a dozen years as a hermit in the Sahara desert. Alone, with only the Blessed Sacrament for company milking a goat for his food, and translating the bible into the local Bedouin language, he prayed for long hours by himself. Returning to Italy one day to visit his mother, he came to a startling realization: His mother, who for more than thirty years of her life had been so busy raising a family that she scarcely ever had a private minute for herself, was more contemplative than he was.
Carretto, though, was careful to draw the right lesson from this. What this taught was not that there was anything wrong with what he had been doing in living as a hermit. The lesson was rather that there was something wonderfully right about what his mother had been doing all these years as she lived the interrupted life amidst the noise and incessant demands of small children. He had been in a monastery, but so had she.
What is a monastery? A monastery is not so much a place set apart for monks and nuns as it is a place set apart (period). It is also a place to learn the value of powerlessness and a place to learn that time is not ours, but God’s.
This theme of the domestic monastery, of the mother as monastic, has recurred several times in the past week. I guess God is trying to tell me something.
For the past few years i’ve been trying to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I started off saying just morning and evening prayer out of the Christian Prayer book when I woke up and went to bed. Once I’d established that habit for about a year, my dad sent me the full four volume set and I began to pray the Office of Readings, Night Prayer, and sometimes even one of the daytime hours. Then I added going to daily mass as well.
At about the same time I started saying the fuller office begana job that required me to get out of the house very early, which meant I had to get up extra early if I wanted to say the morning office before I set off for my commute. I’ve never been a morning person, and I told God, if you want me to do this, I’m going to need some help. And somehow I did it. I got up extra early every day and prayed before I got dressed, ate breakfast and left for work. Some days I was half asleep and even nodded off as I prayed, but I never missed a day.
It was all going swimmingly until I got pregnant. I had two very early morning classes and I was exhausted all the time. A physical exhaustion like nothing I’d ever felt before. As if I were on some sort of powerful sleeping drug. Morning mass was out of the question at first because of the classes but even after I’d quit teaching it was just too hard to get up and out of the house that early. And when I’d stopped teaching the formlessness of my days made stopping to pray at set times somehow that much harder. Makes me understand St Benedict’s dictum: ora et labora without work prayer is very hard to get to.
After Bella was born my schedule was shot, nights and days were fairly meaningless, I was on major painkillers, prayer time happened seldom if at all and I got into kind of a slump. But recently I began linking prayer time to feedings. Whenever I sit down to feed Bella I try to say the appropriate prayers for the hour, to read the day’s mass readings or say some other prayers. It doens’t always work, but more and more often I do find myself able to pray and not distracted by other things. Which brings me back to that article:
Certain vocations offer the same kind of opportunity for contemplation. They too provide a desert for reflection.
For example, the mother who stays home with small children experiences a very real withdrawal from the world. Her existence is definitely monastic. Her tasks and preoccupations remove her from the centres of power and social importance. And she feels it. Moreover her sustained contact with young children (the mildest of the mild) gives her a privileged opportunity to be in harmony with the mild, that is, to attune herself to the powerlessness rather than to the powerful.
Moreover, the demands of young children also provide her with what St. Bernard, one of the great architects of monasticism, called the “monastic bell”. All monasteries have a bell. Bernard, in writing his rules for monasticism, told his monks that whenever the monastic bell rang, they were to drop whatever they were doing and go immediately to the particular activity (prayer, meals, work, study, sleep) to which the bell was summoning them. He was adamant that they respond immediately, stating that if they were writing a letter they were to stop in mid-sentence when the bell rang. The idea in his mind was that when the bell called, it called you to the next task and you were to respond immediately, not because you want to, but because it’s time for that task and time isn’t your time, it’s God’s time. For him, the monastic bell was intended as a discipline to stretch the heart by always taking you beyond your own agenda to God’s agenda.
Hence, a mother raising children, perhaps in a more privileged way even than a professional contemplative, is forced, almost against her will, to constantly stretch her heart. For years, while raising children, her time is never her own, her own needs have to be kept in second place, and every time she turns around a hand is reaching out and demanding something. She hears the monastic bell many times during the day and she has to drop things in mid-sentence and respond, not because she wants to, but because it’s time for that activity and time isn’t her time, but God’s time.