I recently returned from a week-long writers’ retreat and workshop led by one of my favourite poets and non-fiction authors, Kathleen Norris. The workshop was held at an Anglican convent I visit once a year, sometimes for an informal personal retreat, other times for organized workshops like this one. This was my third such workshop with Kathleen Norris and at least my fifth visit to the convent, so I knew what to expect. But each time I go, I learn something new.
People have odd ideas about monastic communities. Before my first visit, I knew nothing about nuns or convents aside from what I gleaned from The Sound of Music. Media stereotypes must be exasperating to real nuns: they’re represented as either nasty, cruel authority figures or insipid saints wearing beatific smiles. I’m no expert on nuns, but the Sisters I’ve met seem just like other people: they have good moods and bad moods, their own individual interests and skills, and they’re no easier or more difficult to get along with than anyone else.
Visitors stay in the guesthouse, a dormitory-style wing of the convent. Each small private room has a single bed, dresser, desk, comfy chair and sink. Anyone can stay there, no matter what their faith (or lack thereof) and guests are welcome to attend the four chapel services every day with the Sisters if they wish to. Most meals are eaten in silence with the other guests and the nuns in the refectory.
A common misconception about people who join monastic communities is that they are escaping from the world. If you go to a cabin in the woods and live there alone, you are indeed escaping. If you join a monastic community, you are more involved with and committed to people than most of us are. In fact, as Norris points out in Amazing Grace,
The polarization that characterizes so much of American life is . . . [especially] risky . . . in a monastic community. The person you’re quick to label and dismiss as a racist, a homophobe, a queer, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a bigoted conservative or bleeding-heart liberal is also a person you’re committed to live, work, pray, and dine with for the rest of your life.
Even families don’t spend this much time together, and we all know how quickly family members can get on each other’s nerves after only several hours in the same house!
So much of my life is spent alone and online that it was startling and refreshing to have so much face-to-face time with others at the convent. As I sat in chapel services and workshops or ate meals in the refectory, I noticed things that don’t exist in online communities. Smells, for example. Somebody wearing perfume despite the scent-free rules. Somebody who didn’t shower that morning and should have. Somebody who ate too much garlic or had gone out for a cigarette and was breathing too close to me.
And then there were the sounds. Rustling papers. Fidgeting. Coughing. Sometimes a hacking cough that made other people’s eyes widen and dart around the room in search of the nearest hand sanitizer (it is flu season, after all). Two people whispering together while someone else had the floor during a workshop session. The door handle of my room rattling in the middle of the night when someone mistook my room for her own. (I texted my husband to tell him about this scary sound in the middle of the otherwise quiet night, and he replied, “at least you’re not in a seedy motel!”)
You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with parties. I mentioned that every time I’m at the convent I learn something new. This visit made me realize that I’m at a new stage in my life in which I am blessed to have all the quiet time I need to be alone and write. In contrast, being at the convent was very social—there were people everywhere. While other retreat participants were talking about ways they could carry the silence and peace of the convent into their noisy, stressful, busy lives, I was thinking I need to carry the engagement with people I experienced there into my quiet life.
I especially treasure the evenings spent in a sitting room at the guesthouse where several retreatants would gather to chat quietly before bedtime with our cups of tea. After a long day of workshop sessions and chapel services, we were tired and often didn’t say much, but the comfortable atmosphere reminded me of visits with my extended family. The last night I was at the convent I looked around that room and realized I was with my spiritual mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins. What a priceless gift that was, especially since my mother died long ago and I live far from my biological sisters, aunts, and cousins.
This family of strangers also gave me another gift. I had a birthday while at the retreat. I’ve never spent my birthday at a convent before and was a little worried. Normally I would talk on the phone with friends and family, and my husband would take me out for dinner. During a workshop session I mentioned it was my birthday, and the whole group proceeded to sing Happy Birthday to me! These strangers, my spiritual sisters, made me realize that I need to be open to people who are not in my closely-guarded inner circle. It didn’t hurt that Kathleen Norris was one of the people serenading me, either!
The lesson I have taken home with me is to be more in the world, not less. For many years I didn’t have the time, money, or understanding of myself to make enough space for the silence and time alone I needed. High-stress jobs made everything worse. I always felt I was with people too much and was constantly thinking, I must get away and be alone before all my energy is gone. But in this new phase of my life, I don’t have to guard against people or push them away. I’ve learned how to honour my introverted, highly-sensitive self and can be with people, especially strangers, a little more often than I’m comfortable with.
In short, my daily life is already so quiet and orderly that going to a convent seems like a party. And that really is my type of party!