Like many people, I remember my twenties as a time of curiosity, discovery and exploration.
I had dreams for myself: graduating, finding a career path, moving away from home.
One thing I hadn’t imagined, though, was spending a year in a monastic community.
I first heard about the community while I was in New York on a work placement as a corporate lawyer. A friend had looked into it, and described it as ‘an experimental spiritual community’.
The concept was based around traditional monastic life (for example, spending time in a close community setting, developing deeper practices of prayer and reflection, and making a ‘commitment’ to live according to certain principles), but incorporating the challenges of modern life as well.
This meant that many community members would be living and working as normal, in full-time jobs, and participating in the community at weekends, during longer retreats, and in personal study.
It certainly sounded like a change of pace from the way my life had been structured – but I was excited by the idea.
Growing up, I wasn’t religious. My family didn’t go to church, either. It was only later – during university, and in the years afterwards – that I started to become interested in philosophy and spirituality.
It started with a simple sense of curiosity – but the more I explored, the more I wanted to know.
In particular, I was fascinated by monastic and committed spiritual disciplines – it seemed like such a different way of life than anything I’d ever encountered.
In a fast-paced, full-on world, the monastic lifestyle seemed to provide a sense of deeper peace and grounding – elements that I felt my own sometimes lacked.
At the time, I was working a full-on job in law. Most of my life focused on my career. It was exciting, but I was also starting to ask bigger questions about my life – about meaning, purpose and my mission.
I was trying to figure out if there was a deeper experience of everyday life, or a way to find more meaning in my daily routines and habits.
It wasn’t necessarily the case that I felt something was missing – more that I wondered if there was a different way to live.
The monastic experience certainly didn’t promise the answers, but it offered a new lifestyle, and a chance to ‘step outside’ my life and try something different. So, in 2018, aged 26, I signed up for a year of monk school.
The monastic year was based in Lambeth Palace, in central London – which might seem like an unlikely location for a monastery!
It was strange to come straight from the heart of London into the quiet grounds of a spiritual centre, but it always gave me an immediate sense of peace.
The others in my group were a mix of ages and backgrounds – men and women, from different countries and cultures. During times of prayer, we all wore the same white robes: a sign of a shared identity.
Monastic communities can be easily misunderstood or stereotyped. Many people assume they’re just for men; that they all follow the same traditions, or that a monastic vow must be taken for life.
There is some element of truth in the assumptions, of course – monks are often men, but not always. Monastic communities have similar traditions, but each varies depending on the cultural background and practices followed.
And monastic vows are often taken for life, but newer communities have adopted different models – mine, for example, centred on a commitment taken for a year.
Our lives were fairly structured. When we were on longer retreat periods out of London (often in a monastery on the Cornish coast), our days would look something like this: morning prayer, morning study, community tasks or service projects (helping around the house, garden, or doing volunteer work), lunch, afternoon study, and evening prayer.
This kind of timetable can sound a little restrictive (or perhaps boring!), but it was actually refreshing to settle into a firm routine. It gave each day a shape, a sense of rhythm or continuity to the days that modern life can sometimes lack.
The predictability of each day enabled me to experience small moments with more attention and more awareness.
Another element – perhaps one of the most countercultural! – was the silence. A lot of the day was spent in silence. Sometimes, even our whole days were silent.
As someone who tends to fill moments of quiet with social media, music or podcasts, I thought I’d struggle with this aspect the most. But, after a few days of feeling a little uncomfortable, it became easier than I’d anticipated.
I was able to lean into them, using them as an opportunity to focus on my surroundings, or on whatever task I was doing.
There were some times where the demands of my job would conflict with the spiritual retreats – even though I took vacation from work, I would often need to handle work issues that came up.
But this was part of the challenge within the year: to deal with these types of scenarios with a sense of patience, intention and presence.
It might seem a bit extreme – or just totally unrealistic – to think about adopting some monastic-inspired traditions into modern life. But it doesn’t need to be the case that people adopt a strict or disciplined lifestyle.
Perhaps it’s possible to look to the monastic traditions for inspiration – bring monastic principles of service, silence, community, prayer and reflection into the modern world in a way that works for each individual’s lifestyle.
After the experience, I continued in my job, but started to write more. In 2021, I wrote a book about purpose, but more recently, this year I completed my book But Are You Alive? It examines a sense of personal fulfilment in everyday life, drawing on psychotherapy as well as monastic spirituality to help the reader explore their own sense of feeling fully ‘alive’.
During the last few years, I retrained as a psychotherapist, too, and now specialise in existential therapy.
My experience in a monastic community has certainly shaped my perception of the world, and I have no regrets – it has been one of the defining experiences of my life.
I certainly miss aspects of my experience – the close bond with others, the clarity of purpose and the discipline of a monastic routine, for example. But I’ve tried to incorporate those elements into my life in a more flexible, long-term way.
More than anything, it showed me how different lifestyles are possible; how we’re always free to reimagine our values and practices, and how central principles can provide a route to a meaningful life.
In a world that seems to prioritise speed over steadiness, appearances over depth, and outward success over inner meaning, these ideas might be more important than ever.
Eloise’s book, ‘But Are You Alive?’ is out on April 13th 2023. You can buy it here. Main picture: Kevin Chemuka
Age is Just a Number
Welcome to Age is Just a Number, a Metro.co.uk series aiming to show that, when it comes to living your life, achieving your dreams, and being who you want to be, the date on your birth certificate means nothing.
Each week, prepare to meet amazing people doing stereotype-defying things, at all stages of life.
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