Another wonderful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Angela Doll Carlson's wisdom on living as a monk in the world:
A number of years ago I took a silent retreat at the Abbey at Gethsemane near Bowling Green, Kentucky. At that time of my life my four children were still very young. I was burned out and overwhelmed. The trip to the monastery was rest and nurturing. I remember the lush grounds and the quiet early morning chanting. I remember the feel of the sparse quarters, comforting, completely adequate. I was alone for the first time in quite a while and I drank that in. The monk who welcomed us gave us a quick lesson on the monastic life as a sort of orientation, telling us many things about the order to which he belonged and about the history of the place but it was the rule of prayer that stood out to me. It was probably that trip that awaked my own inner monastic and I took home some pieces with me that day. I tried them on like clothing whenever I would feel overwhelmed, the rule of prayer becoming a constant companion, a warm sweater on a cold day, a reminder of the monastery amid the fast moving world of parenting and urban life.
But there are some habits I had nurtured already before I visited the Abbey at Gethsemane, some practices I did without really thinking about them to help me navigate my growing list of responsibilities, anxieties and fears.
At 11:11, if I’m cognizant of it, I pray. I pray three things. I pray the first three things that come to mind. I feel the pressure of it, 11:11 only lasting one minute, maybe less if I catch it late. Whether a.m. or p.m., at 11:11, I pray the first three things that come to mind.
A minute later I think to pray for other things- world peace, starving children, government elections, equal rights, fair trade, my health…maybe my health.
It might be Fibromyalgia or it might be Iodine deficiency or Thyroid issues but there is this constant but dull pain, a sort of throbbing in my legs and neck and upper back. There is this fatigue that drapes over me, pressing down on my now stooping shoulders. There is this fog that creeps over my face, like a mask, clouding everything.
“Poet, heal thyself,” the voice inside of me whispers.
At 11:11, if I am awake and aware, I pray the first three things that come to me and though the fog and the pain and the fatigue are constant companions they never make it to the gate.
Poet, heal thyself.
All parents feel tired, I’m told. I have four children in four different schools. That must be why I feel so tired all the time. I’m getting older so, the aching is natural. On the backside of 40 and sliding headfirst into 50 means that my brain will, of course, be less sharp than it was. This is aging. This is parenting. This is the effect of stress on the body or gluten intolerance or chemicals in the plastics I use. I heated one too many meals in the microwave. I used shampoo with toxins. I ate non organic, fully GMO foods. There’s a reason.
Poet, heal thyself.
At 11:11, I pray three things and my health never makes it to the gate. My fatigue, my pain and my brain fog stand back from the line, pressing up against the wall and trying to remain unseen. “Take these first” they say as they shoo other needs, other people, other causes, to the front of the line. “Be ready,” they say to the others, “be ready for 11:11.”
I can’t remember how I started the practice of prayer at 11:11. It might have grown from the practice of wishing on the first star I saw at night but instead of wishing I’d pray. I was young, just a child, spotting that first star while I sat in my room waiting and watching. I’d scan the square of black night I could see outside my window. I’d press my cheek against the pane and let the cool glass register my breath. When the star appeared I’d pray; one wish, one hope, whatever came to me first. When I was young and just a child it was always about me, about being popular, being understood, being famous, being happy, being free.
And now at 11:11, I pray- part habit, part luck, part superstition. It feels wrong to pray for my health, as though it is some cross I’m meant to bear, an illness I’m meant to embrace and suffer, whatever the cause. I’m tempted to think that I’m living only to wait for 11:11, as if that is the only stop and breathe in the day and if I miss that stop and breathe then my body will simply lose that oxygen. I’m tempted to think that life is the water moving, the stream flowing, the constant motion and colder closer to the mountain, the source, the cloud cover. But if life is a stream moving and flowing, in perpetual motion then the stop and breathe times are by default rocks around which I will either flow or upon which I will stop and breathe. I’m tempted to think this is my only chance to notice all the good, all the clear, all the air ready to revisit my overworked mind and exhausted cells.
It’s a trap and I built it.
The reality is that life is the stream flowing and the rocks rising up and the dirt that holds the rocks in place. Life is the mountain above and the sea below. It’s all here, the sum of the parts, more than 11:11, more than stop and breathe moments because I cannot rely on the clock alone or my awareness of the time or the clouds or the cold of the water. Every moment is 11:11 no matter what the clock might say.
And the words of my inner monastic ring clear to me finally, the praying without ceasing, the life of the world, the stirring of the wind in the trees on the grounds of the Abbey at Gethsemane. But I am away from the monastery now. I am here in the world, moving in the stream, letting the water flow around me so I carry my inner monastic forward, cradling her in my arms as we go and it keeps me afloat somehow.
Poet, heal thyself.
Angela Doll Carlson is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Burnside Writer’s Collective, Image Journal’s Good Letters, St Katherine Review, Rock & Sling Journal, Ruminate Magazine’s blog and Art House America. You can also find her writing online at Mrsmetaphor.com,NearlyOrthodox.com and DoxaSoma.com. Her book, "Nearly Orthodox: On being a modern woman in an ancient tradition" is now available.
Angela and her husband, David currently raise their four chaos makers in the wilds of Chicago with some measurable success.