Midway through a brief walk with Alexandra during our visit last week, I was telling her about the count-on-one-hand people I’ve specifically told about this blog, and I got to the friend that I will hereafter call Usagi.
Usagi is the one I mentioned in a previous blog who is the only close friend I have living nearby – by “nearby” I mean within 50 miles. We’ve been friends about a dozen years and close for nearly half that, particularly after working together through what turned out to be an extremely challenging summer. She was immediately among the people I wanted to tell about this blog, Usagi being one of my few tell-almost-anything-to friends. But when I mentioned to Alexandra that I was hesitant to reveal it to her – at this point I hadn’t sent most of the invitations yet – and Alexandra asked me why, I stumbled a bit over the answer.
The answer, at heart, was my emotional armor that I’ve developed over the past few years. I realized that even as long as we’ve known each other, I wasn’t totally certain what her own beliefs were – only what she’d posted on Facebook here and there – and I likewise realized that I hadn’t ever talked with her about mine. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to her – just the opposite. Usagi is still one of the few people I would talk with about such things. But I’d grown so used to keeping those beliefs and a lot of other feelings and thoughts walled away, defenses I built in general but also against the multiple times that I was made fun of, thought weird, or given the side eye for the things I believe, that I was hesitant even with her.
Eventually I just decided that I couldn’t not tell her about the blog. And her reaction was to very much not think I was weird. The happiness and relief following from this was part of the reason, I think, that the negativity and depression doubling down that I mentioned in my earlier post happened, but in Usagi’s case I simply re-read the messages she sent me about the blog in order to push past the bad thoughts.
Which brings me to the idea of my Monastery, and how the emotional defenses have gone a long way towards preventing at least a metaphorical version from happening.
Monasteries have been enjoying a positive renaissance in recent decades, thanks to outreaches they’ve done (most notably to me the monks of New Skete in White Creek, New York, or those around the world who rent out their beds to travelers) and books like Thomas Merton’s early autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. But for a long time, and still to an extent today, they had acquired a reputation for small-mindedness, bigotry, authoritarianism, and being nastily insular.
The reality is that in the early Middle Ages, monasteries were the centers of their community and, until the 12th century, virtually the only place in Western Europe where you could get an education and learn to read, or find someone educated and literate. Far more monasteries preserved ancient works of literature than destroyed them. They serviced both the spiritual needs of their communities and many times the secular ones as well, in that the often self-sufficient or mostly so monasteries would let the monks who had specialties such as blacksmithing, carpentry, cheese-making, herbalism, and other skills do work for their communities. But even the monasteries that were more insular would be able to support themselves more often than not.
And of course, they would provide sanctuaries and safe havens at need.
This is what I mean when I think symbolically of my Monastery that makes up half this blog’s title. I want a community of people who share similar beliefs, independent but interconnected, each their own people but also part of a community. I would like it to be something that can be set apart from the outside world on one level, a hermitage, but also part of the community as well, in whatever form that might take. And since the days when Alexandra and our best friend and I would do spiritual work together twenty-five(!) years ago – sometimes separately and sometimes together, but always helping one another at need – I’d imagined it being someplace that can be as self-sufficient as possible at need, including the skill sets of anyone living there or something as simple as having land for a garden, its own well, and trees on the property for firewood.
But then talking about Usagi made me realize that my emotional defenses have been a major stumbling block to even a symbolic rendering of this dream. If I wasn’t certain about telling someone I felt that close to about this blog, how could I ever expand my Monastery idea into something more tangible?
I suspect the answer is – a little at a time.
When I write a novel I have the general outline and typically the ending in mind, but I don’t try to write the entire book in one sitting. I do it a few lines at a time. Maybe a couple of pages every other day. A thousand word minimum.
After a few months, I have a book.
Here, I start with a blog. I tell five people about it, along with giving them the OK for this friend to tell her spouse, this friend to tell her parents. The community may only be built online for a time, and be small, but it could still be a community.
Alexandra was talking recently about the idea of how “You have to learn to crawl before you can learn to run”. Years ago I was able to run when it came to spirituality and metaphysics. I had friends and family who shared my beliefs. I went to a church that was similar to those beliefs. I was part of an online community that discussed them. But that was years ago. And just because I could run a nine-minute mile a few years ago (which I could, by the way) doesn’t mean I’d be able to do it now (or even close). Having let most of those ties become loose or untied outright, I can’t expect to jump right back in to where I was in years past.
Maybe someday I really will have a physical place like I’ve imagined, shared with other people. Maybe not. But in the meantime I have this blog, which can serve as Monastery and Hermitage while I’m learning to crawl on the way to running. And right now, as I said about unboxing the first found box of my spirituality books, it feels like being able to breathe again.
(And by the way, if I do ever have that physical hermitage someday, and you’re one of the people I specifically have invited to read this blog, you’re also invited to come live there with me should you ever so choose! I can’t promise now what it will be like – except that it will have lots of books.)