The secret of a domestic monastery

November 28, 2012 | 49 comments

The kids running around Mt. Angel Abbey

For years I’ve been fascinated with the idea of creating a “domestic monastery.” To me, that concept evoked a home that’s orderly and prayerful, a haven where you could go to retreat from the stress of the world. Something deep within me yearned for this kind of life — and, even though it might sound impossible to the modern mind, my gut told me that this concept is attainable. Especially after I started thinking about hard stops and balance and sacrifice, I became more convinced than ever that family life — even big family life — does not have to be all insanity, all the time, that we really can transform our houses into domestic monasteries.

But how?

I’ve been asking that question for about five years now. I would ponder it as I watched toddlers jump around in corn flakes that they had poured onto the floor; I’d meditate on the essence of what a “domestic monastery” is as I turned around to yell at the kids for yelling in the car and noticed that only one of them had both shoes on; I’d wonder how often the average monk had thoughts like, IF ONE MORE PERSON ASKS ME FOR A SNACK MY HEAD IS GOING TO EXPLODE!!!!

I always felt like I was close to an understanding of what this concept really meant, but couldn’t quite get clarity on it. Then Joe and I had the crazy idea to spend a week at a Benedictine monastery and take our kids with us, and things finally clicked.

For a week, we lived on the same grounds as the monks of Mt. Angel Abbey. Our guest house was right next door to their church, and their attached cloister. The monastery is perched on a hilltop, the buildings (which include a library and a seminary) facing inward to enclose sprawling, tree-lined grounds. We had had visions of doing a bunch of Oregon sightseeing while we were in the area, but we never left Mt. Angel. We fell so quickly into the daily routine of work and prayer and rest, and felt so deeply at home, that the idea of going back out into the world felt painful.

The monks gather in their church for prayer six times a day; five of those prayer times are part of the ancient Liturgy of the Hours, the other is a Mass. Vigils is at 5:20 AM, followed by Lauds at 6:30. Then a breakfast, followed by Mass. The monks go about their work until noon, when they pause for midday prayer and eat lunch. Then they return to work until the bells ring for Vespers shortly after 5:00 PM. They have dinner, and then the day draws to a close with Compline at 7:30.

Anyone is invited to join them in church for their Masses and prayer times. The monks in their hooded black robes sit in the choir stalls at front, near the altar, and visitors sit in the pews in the nave. Their magnificent pipe organ is used every time, and the monks chant each of the prayers, which lends a sense of timelessness to the sanctuary. Vespers at a Benedictine monastery today does not look much different than it would have a thousand years ago.

We took the kids to most of each day’s Hours (though it probably goes without saying that I did not even try to make it to Vigils). I had suspected that we might get caught up in whatever we were doing and resist the effort to drag the kids down to the church every few hours, but that wasn’t the case at all. The sound of the bells announcing prayer time filled the entire hilltop, and you couldn’t help but pause whatever you were doing when you heard their noble ring. Also, since the prayer schedule was so regular, and we always knew when the next Hour was rolling around, we would naturally go into wind-down mode on whatever activity we were doing as the time approached. “Let’s not get out that board game right now, we only have thirty minutes until Vespers, ” we might say to the kids.

We both had some work to do while we were there: Joe had to review documents for a client, I had a couple of small writing deadlines to hit, and we had to do a big load of laundry to keep the kids in clean clothes. I think this was a blessing, because it was a chance to work on a monk’s schedule. And it was in these semi-normal days, where we were balancing work and the demands of parenthood, all within the rhythm of life at Mt. Angel Abbey, that I think I finally came to understand the secret to creating a domestic monastery.

It doesn’t have to do with getting the kids to walk around in silence (though, boy, that’d be nice if I could pull it off), nor is it about observing the exact same prayer times as consecrated religious. Boiled down to its core, the hallmark of the monastic schedule is that the way you use your time reflects your true priorities. Your daily life is one of constantly pushing back against the world’s expectations, making real, sometimes difficult sacrifices so that your time is not swept away by the current of the world’s priorities.

My cousin, Br. Claude (whom we were visiting), creates icons for churches and organizations all over the world. When a new client asks him how long it will take to create something for them, the estimate he gives them assumes that his only worktime will be those slots on weekdays between Lauds and noon prayer, then from lunch until Vespers. It takes him a lot longer to complete a project than if he were to pull all-nighters, eat in his studio instead of in community with his brother monks, and blow off prayer times so that he could work more. I’d imagine that he sometimes encounters clients who wonder why it would take X weeks (or months) to create one piece, or hint that they’d like it done more quickly. But that’s not how it works when you’re a monk: outside of special circumstances, you work only during the designated times. When it is time for prayer, you pray; when it’s time to rest, you rest — even if the world is telling you to do otherwise.

I’ve been experimenting with this principle since I’ve been home. It’s been a process of freeing myself from the tyranny of false “have to’s”, of realizing that I really can take that 10 minutes to pray Vespers without the world falling apart, that it will work out just fine if I relax in the living room with my family in the evening instead of rushing off to get that one thing checked off my to-do list, that nobody is going to hate me if I say that I just can’t go to that Wednesday night meeting because of commitments at home. It’s one big exercise in that idea of saying NO to protect what you’ve already said YES to. Our house is still messier and crazier and about 100 times noisier than any place that you’d typically associate with monastic life, but ever since I’ve begun the simple but difficult process of tying to make our family’s use of daily time reflect our true priorities, I feel closer than ever to creating that domestic monastery that I’ve always craved.


  1. Monique

    Thanks for the lovely post. Living a crazy life myself, I’ve been wondering how to find that contemplative rhythm. Thanks for the fantastic reminder as I build my own home. =) It helps to know that others are trying to do the same thing! Blessings in Our Lord and Our Lady =) Monique

  2. Marcia

    “Boiled down to its core, the hallmark of the monastic schedule is that the way you use your time reflects your true priorities.” An excellent principle to guide organization around the home. The use of our time, material resources, talents, and everything that God has given us to raise a family. Thank you so much.

  3. Colleen Martin

    This post reminds me of what a friend once said….you can tell someone’s priorities by the first thing they do each day. And my priorities needed this reminder. Thank you!

  4. Leanne Shawler

    Yes. I’ve spent a week (almost) at a monastery and settling into the rhythm felt like home to me. It was no big deal to get up and head to the chapel, even if I was deep into a really good book.

    I’ve only found part of the rhythm back at home and always find myself intensely missing those bells after a monastic stay — because it wasn’t up to me when I would do what (although I do sit down when I get there and work out a little schedule between the hours) because the bell said “now’s the time to stop, remember God.” I had bells ringing on my iPhone as a tinny resemblance of those things but the new operating system seems to have made reminder dings no long customizable.

    That said, today has been a “cross things off my list” day. 🙂

  5. Mary

    Ah, so much to reflect on and I needed it. Thank you, Jen!


  6. Delano

    Great post. I remember years ago attending a mass at the Cistercian Abbey up in Dallas and it made such an impression on me that I just felt I wanted to stay. Obviously I didn’t but every once in a while I’ll remember that visit and the feeling of peace and timelessness it evoked. Thank you for reminding me again.

  7. kjp

    I’ve been saying no for about a year. I started because I was sick and had to do less in order to get better. It it still hard, but oh so worth it! I love reading posts like this. It’s so encouraging because there are very few people in my life who understand. Thank you…

  8. Kate

    I think this is my favorite post by you so far. I have always loved “unplugging” from life, and I think you just articulated why I love that silence better than I ever could. I think I need to rethink my priorities and reorder my life again. Thank you for the reminder.

  9. Cheryl

    I work at Saint Anselm College (Danielle Bean’s alma mater) which is Benedictine. I love working with the monks–their presence, their influence.

    I have also attended several retreats at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, MA. The chapel there is simple and beautiful; the prayer times throughout the day are a lovely call to grace.

    Reading your post makes me so grateful for the job I have and makes me yearn to go on another retreat soon. Thank you!

  10. mandamum

    For those of us with nurslings who can’t control our clock-time as much as we might like, a mother once recommended that the nursing sessions could be our “monastery bells” where we drop everything to go pray (and feed the hungry). That way you even get Vigils, right? 😉 I know other mothers who use the meal and snack times as their monastery bells.

    I like your essence-distilling sentence – have to paste that somewhere.

    • Katrina Rose

      I love this thought! Will have to do that with my little one.

  11. Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    Excellent reflection-I’ll have to consider how to implement this into our lives.

  12. Trisha Niermeyer Potter

    I’m so glad that you took the time to write and post this. Again, the timing of reading it has been perfect. Though my husband and I don’t have children of our own, a great deal of my energy goes to caring for three adorable young children 3-4 days a week. When we first got married, I was spending 54+hours a week nannying for two young boys, and I needed to be reminded then as I do now that we make time and use our energy for what’s important to us.

    We’ve got to designate time to spend in prayer as well as block off periods of what Matthew Kelly calls “carefree timelessness” as part of fostering quality relationships with our family members. So often it takes seeing another person’s life and schedule to inspire us to change ours here and there to make our values clear on our calendar, our checkbooks, and our to-do lists.

    What a blessing you modeled this for your children and spent time as a family in a remote location a bit quieter and more regimented than your life would traditionally allow!

  13. Charlotte (Matilda)

    I think it’s wonderful that you’ve come closer to battling your Can’t Say No Dragon. If you have a hard time saying “no” to things you can be your own worst enemy. Here’s another thought to contemplate, one that I have contemplated myself as I have spent many a Sunday morning at the Cistercian Abbey. Discipline is key at a monastery. Self discipline in particular but also the discipline of their prayer life, the discipline of obedience, etc. It’s is something that I’m sure the novices come to the monastery with in some supply and they continue to work on and perfect as part of their vocation. So, I doubt the Abbot ever had to teach the novices that they shouldn’t spill the cornflakes and dance in them… they showed up at his door already knowing that. That’s the difference.

    Our little charges come to us as completely uncivilized little creatures who must be taught the proper way to behave in society, heck, sometimes they have to be taught how not to kill themselves. Human beings struggle with self discipline in all areas. The order of the monastery helps these men die to self, but I’m sure even they still struggle sometimes.

    I completely agree with you that big family life does not, in fact, should not be “all insanity, all the time”. It’s these young, formative years when we as parents have the ability to instill that discipline in our children that will pay off when they are older. But it does take a lot of time and it’s not always fun to do and most of that time you find yourself doing the same thing and saying the same thing and modeling the right behavior over and over and over again until you think you’re going to lose it but they can’t learn it by osmosis. And the more little ones you have the more time it takes. But like you said, how we spend our time reflects our true priorities. It takes patience and focus and putting aside our personal distractions so that we can reinforce the lesson over and over again. It takes self discipline on our part (hah! see the irony!) to say that what I’m teaching my children day after day about good, helpful behavior is worth more than anything else right now and it will pay off in the end. It’s especially worth it when people come up to you and compliment your children let you know that they’ve noticed.

  14. Katrina Rose

    I so needed to read this! I have never been much of a scheduler, but lately I have been thinking about how a little more structure (okay any at all) could benefit our lifestyle. At the same time, I don’t want to be a slave to a to do list when life is going by so quickly. Thanks for the nudge to balance it all and inspiration to do so!

  15. Joy

    Wow, it’s so weird because my friends and I were just talking about these sort of ideas today! I love how you said “the way you use your time reflects your true priorities.”. That simple sentence is so convicting. Now to act on it! 🙂

  16. Bethany

    Whoa. Really great stuff here. “Your daily life is one of constantly pushing back against the world’s expectations, making real, sometimes difficult sacrifices so that your time is not swept away by the current of the world’s priorities.” Loved that.

  17. Laura Nelson

    Thanks for this inspiring post! I’ve also felt drawn to the idea of monastic living lately but had no thought of trying to bring it into our home. Not only did you plant that ambitious seed, you also gave me the hope that I might be able to actually do this!

  18. Diane

    Jennifer, if you haven’t already read it, I think you would reallyreally enjoy A Mother’s Rule of Life: How to Bring Order to Your Home and Peace to Your Soul by Holly Pierlot.

    Essentially, Holly applies the rule used by religious orders to her own life/vocation as wife and homeschooling mother of five. I read and loved this book and I especially appreciated that she really details the nitty-gritty of how she implemented this lifestyle so that it is easily duplicated and adapted to any family.

    I think that this book really speaks to the logistics of the ideal that you’ve been working towards, the domestic monastery.

    • Marcy K.

      I was going to suggest this book too. Now, if I only put it into practice my life would be better/more organized, etc. That first step is hard.

  19. LPatter

    much-needed reminder,thank you.

    great reflection!

    (and sounds like a great trip. will put it on the list of things to do while children are young – what a great exposure for them!)

  20. Veronica

    I have enjoyed your blog for a few years now. This post was just what I needed today. “…saying NO so you can protect what you have already said Yes to.” This is difficult for me and I am going to keep that phrase in my head! Thanks!

  21. Sharla

    My husband and I thought a lot about this same Domestic Monastary ideas when we lived and studied at St. John’s in Collegeville, MN. The daily rhythm of prayer and study was beautiful and fulfilling. I’m so glad I had the opportunity. It is something I can cling to when my own life with 5 kids is chaotic now.

    The Rule of St. Benedict has so much to teach us, even as families. I’ve been trying to use some of his teachings on obedience with my kids lately (they hate it). And all his writings about moderation and balance speaks to the soul. It’s probably worth a read if you have not done so yet. I’d love to hear your reflections!!

  22. Brian

    If you have a smartphone, check out the Divine Office app.
    The app lets you know how many other people are in prayer (using the app) with you. You can play the prayers and songs out loud or read the words in silence.
    They do a great job of mixing contemporary Christian music in with Chant and traditional hymns. The complete office is laid out for you at the touch of a button, with most of the prayers recorded so that you can listen along.

    I think that I payed about 4.99 for the app. If you go to the website it’s free.

    You are praying along with those monks and others throughout the world….pretty cool.

  23. Patricia

    What a beautiful reflection on striving to make our homes a domestic monastery! We desire the same for our home/family. We had the blessed opportunity to spend some time at 2 monasteries this past summer: Our Lady of Clear Creek (Benedictine) in OK & Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Byzantine Ukrainian) in Redwood Vally, CA…what a truly amazing & grace-filled time it was for our family! As with most Eastern Catholic families, we have an icon corner in our home where we try(!) to gather for daily prayers. Even when our days are crazy-busy (6 children, homeschooling, etc.), the presence of our heavenly intercessors in these icons (many are our family’s patron saint name-sakes) imparts a calming effect on our days. At times we do a modified Liturgy of the Hours in an effort to sanctify the hours of our days. For example, certain prayers (Morning Offering, Heavenly King, Angelus, Divine Praises, Anima Christi, Hymn of Glorification, etc.) at certain times (Hours) of the day. Additionally, the practice of the Jesus Prayer (Prayer of the Heart) always helps to bring a sense of peace to our lives. God bless you & your beautiful family! ICXC+NIKA

  24. Kelley

    Can I just ask how you include your children in the praying of the Liturgy of the Hours? Mine are not exactly reading…or reading just a little. How can we include them in a meaningful way in that prayer time? Any thoughts?

    • Patricia

      How about having the children memorize & practice the brief prayer responses or, better yet, teaching them to sing/chant the responses. Additionally, children can be part of praying the Hours by ringing a small bell to call the family to prayer (similar to the bells or talantons that call monastics to prayer), helping to light a candle before prayer time, or holding an icon of Christ, the Theotokos (blessed Virgin Mary), or Saint whose Feast Day it is for everyone to venerate (kiss) before/after prayer time. God bless!

    • priest's wife (@byzcathwife)

      Kelley- try it is about 10 minutes of music, Bible and reflection. I bet the kids would listen at breakfast (that is what we do)

  25. Lisa V.

    That is wonderful. I love how you’ve worked that out. I’m beginning to let myself enjoy with no guilt that my husband and kids come first. They are my YES. And all the NO’s have to work it out themselves. My constant struggle is knowing if putting them over me, willingly, is good for me. They are more important than me, I love putting them first. But will I wake up 10-20 years from now after raising my 2 and 6 year old and realize that I’m —gasp — boring? I was watching a daytime show the other day where the host was saying that going out with the girls and not talking about the kids is what you need to do because you’re boring if that’s what you talk about. Confused, wrestling.

  26. Lisa V.

    Sorry, I think I’m way off topic with my previous response. Last night coming home from church I thought about how excited my son is to be learning about the bible and memorizing verses. I want to incorporate that more in our home. What is one thing that you do with the kids regularly other then church that centers them on God? Jennifer I love your blog. Been following for a good two years now. : )

  27. Concepción

    “…trying to make our family’s use of daily time reflect our true priorities”
    Love this.

  28. Josee Turner

    This is really food for thought. I wonder if it helps to have that monastic experience to see how we have dis-ordered our lives? We regard productivity so highly in this world that it becomes difficult to value just being sometimes. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you for your witness! God bless you all.

  29. kathie

    I thought this was an excellent idea! Like you, I’ve wrestled with the idea of convent life for a very long time but with little ones, we often can’t have that which we are sometimes called.. but can we? I think we can. For a few months, I’ve been reading Lauds (and sometimes Vespers) aloud and it truly does change the way your day starts. Lately, I have added Compline to my evening practice. Today, I’ve added the others and it’s doable- just put catholic chime bells as an alarm and set my phone’s clock for those hours. I invite whomever is with me to join in- whether it is the kiddos, the husband or any guests. Wow.. thank you for posting this idea and letting me know I’m not the only busy SAHM who makes time for GOD right where we are, in the midst of our blessed CHAOS and keep the conversation with GOD ongoing (Brother Lawrence).

  30. Adri

    “saying NO to protect what you’ve already said YES to”

    Love this! It eliminates any guilt I might feel for saying no because it is about protecting what is important.

  31. Kerri

    I love this post (and really love that picture, beautiful!). This is a great reminder for me right now in my life. I’m trying to find a balance between so many things and it is so hard. I’m working on that and am hoping to have one activity off my list very soon. That will help, but I also know that there needs to be more effort by me to set priorities and follow through and not get distracted by the unimportant details. Thank you!

  32. Max

    Plain Catholics have been using the domestic monastery model for at least 100 years. They’re rural in their locale but just as Catholic and just as happy.

    Plain Catholic Blog

    And here’s a website that explains the life. If you’re really interested, do a thorough job of reading the website. Too many people make assumptions based on just a glance at the pictures.

  33. Connie Rossini

    I too am trying to create a domestic monastery of sorts. I am always refining my ideas of what this means. So far, I have been focusing on having a homeschool that grows organically out of my prayer time and leads my children to prayer. I remember my oldest son several years ago, when he was asked what time it was shortly after lunch, replying, “It’s mental.” He knew we prayed morning prayer in the morning, and evening prayer in the evening. So if I did my mental prayer after lunch, that must be mental time!

    It’s great to have a monk in the family, isn’t it? Fr. Michael Mary of Mystic Monk Coffee is my brother. I know he is praying for us daily. It keeps me going when my four boys (I know all about lack of silence!) wear me out.
    Faith-based education, Carmelite spirituality

  34. Tamara

    What a special experience for you and your family!
    I enjoyed reading this post.

  35. Bonnie

    When was a little girl, 5th of 6 children, growing up in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s in a large city, some of my earliest memories are of a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging in my mom’s kitchen (she’s 96 now and it’s still there) and the soft melodious music (no lyrics) she would have playing on the radio in the background during the day (probably classical). My little brother and I were home all day with her, while my older brothers were at school, and nothing was ever rushed or frenzied or hectic. I remember the intense feeling of God in the house, a feeling like He was right there all around. She never turned on the TV (not that there were many shows to watch anyway.) We could hear the birds chirping outside and the wind in the trees. I sometimes think back to the rich, holy, silence that permeated everything, almost like a church. When I got older, I loved that silence for the ability to read or think or daydream or play, with only faint sounds in the background. I never thought of it as a domestic monastery, but when you described such a thing, I thought of it, and thought, yes, it is possible even with small children. (Of course, we are all introverts and people think sometimes we are weird, but I think they are weird.) God bless you. I hope you find a way to incorporate the contemplative silence you long for so your children can grow in their spirituality as well as their intellect.

  36. Catherine

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful reflection on the eve of Advent. We all need the reminder to say “NO” to what we’ve already said “YES” to! May you and your family have a blessed Advent!

  37. Katherine

    I have long loved and desired this idea. Unfortunately I haven’t figured out how to impliment it yet with so many little ones. I mean, I have tried setting up a schedule of prayer to pepper our day with more prayer, but when the 3 year old needs help or I get screamed at that the 20 month old is playing in the toilet again, my “schedule” is not mine anymore. My oldest, who will be 7 in January, has surprised me with just how helpful she is, but she is still young and can only do so much.

    I will try to think again in the new year how to try it again as I am almost 35 weeks pregnant now and have only a few brain cells to rub together at the moment, but I do love your reflection… it is a reality I still hope to reach someday. I just think it is really hard to do with little ones who not only can’t stick to mom’s schedule but keep mom from sticking to her schedule too.

    • adrienne

      May God richly bless you and your growing family.

      Here is the article on Forming Good Habits that I spoke about from the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. I hope you find it helpful. They have another on How to Create a Schedule on their front page web site. Basically, it’s Your Will versus God’s Will.

      Truly, that quiet and discipline we all crave evolves not from imposing a schedule of quiet and discipline on yourself or family, but it comes from simply living that quiet and discipline–step by agonizing step, if necessary. And not stressing out that we are stressed by our daily tasks that never seen to end. They don’t. That is why we are fully human. The chores, the mess–that is just what we do. God wants nothing more than for you to gracefully deal with whatever is in front of you.

  38. Katie

    One very holy Catholic professor once said in class:

    “At the end of the day, work can wait, because life goes on. But one thing we have to do is pray, because life ends.”

  39. adrienne

    What you are looking for is the classical education experience, as practiced by the folks at Classical Liberal Arts Academy. They are based in North Carolina but teach online to the world, the most orthodox of classical education principles, plus family helps to order your home monastically, especially with all doing the LOTH. They have many family helps for that.

    William Michael, the headmaster, has a brilliant article there about Forming Good Habits. It completely nails the moral foundation for personal and family chaos.

  40. Jeannine

    This is a wonderful post, and it hits on something I have been pondering a lot lately. While I am not interested in withdrawing my family from the world, I would like them to have that internal sense of order that is gained from living a life that is ordered externally…but the notion that the ordering falls to me — gah! I just feel so inadequate to the task!

    Been reading books (fiction and nonfiction) on cloistered life, and have been trying to create a new rule according to Holly Pierlot’s Mother’s Rule of Life, but I am just so…me. Pray?

  41. Adrian G

    I really liked this as the links in the post gave me food for thought. Saying no to protect what you’ve said yes to is a great angle. We all need tools in our toolbox like that.
    Thanks for posting and thanks for all the inspiration and good humour!

  42. Angela

    Thanks for sharing your journey. Living life according to our standards is hard when society is pushing you to do/be more. Reflection, prayer and being still are lost in the hurry up and go of our day to day.

  43. adrienne

    To those who feel “inadequate to the task” – didn’t Peter the apostle say the same thing? But I am just a poor fisherman!

    You have joyfully been called to this domestic monastery.

    Plus – as Christians we have been called OUT of the world, as Jesus said. The “real world” is not out there in the culture. We have to find it inside and amongst family, and the home is an ark for that covenant with God. Like our parish during Mass.

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