Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Colleen Leathley on Living Monastically in a Bustling City

Maintaining a monastic lifestyle in a monastery alongside committed monastics is relatively easy. Scheduled bells call you to prayer, bodies stream into the chapel and, like osmosis or a good marinade, you slowly but surely adopt the ways, attitudes and lifestyle of those around you. For the ten months I lived at Mount Saint Benedict monastery, Erie, PA, this was pretty much how it was for me.

Now, back home in Sydney, Australia, living a monastic life is a much larger challenge. There is no shortage of ringing noises and streaming bodies – scheduled and otherwise – but they are far less coordinated and purposeful, and rarely do they bring the sense of peace, purpose and guidance of monastery living. Finding time and space for quiet, life-giving, God-nurturing contemplation is difficult … but, as I discovered on a very hectic and trying day recently, not entirely impossible!

My day started by leaving home at 8am, to get to a 10am tutorial at a university about 20 miles away. Even with four sets of connecting public transport, the trip should have taken around 75-90 minutes at the most, giving me plenty of time to arrive refreshed and ready.

The first stage was relatively uneventful, with a bus taking me to the nearby train station, where the next train was scheduled to arrive in seven minutes.  Taking advantage of the wait, I walked to the head of the platform, to get a less-crowded carriage and soak in the sun’s rays. 

When the train finally arrived over 20 minutes later, I boarded it – along with half the population of Sydney, it seemed. Managing to get a seat after skillfully usurping some students out of theirs, I looked around the carriage, wondering why my fellow passengers weren’t as rattled by the delay and over-crowded carriage as I was. I then remembered how I used to catch this train to my workplace for many years, and how inured I also became to all the delays and getting to work late. But that was then, when I had no connections to make and my timing was more flexible. Now, on only my second week of teaching and with still two connections to make, I was starting to feel anxious and annoyed about the roll-on effect of any additional delays.

Reminding myself I had recently spent ten months at a monastery, I closed my eyes and tried to adopt a more loving, compassionate and calm mindset. I also recalled the Scripture reading in my morning lectio, where Jesus urged the disciples to forgive not 7 but 77 times. I felt grateful that I didn’t owe anyone, and that no-one owed me anything. I also felt grateful that I was able to travel so easily in a free country, that I didn’t have to do this trip every day, and that God was with me.

Slowing my breathing, I silently uttered “Love” on each inhalation and “Peace” on each exhalation, feeling a growing degree of relaxation, calmness, peace and compassion with each breath. I felt God’s presence within and around me, calming and reassuring me all would be well; that I would get to my first class on time.

As the trip unfolded, with more delays and staggered progress, I was able to remain relatively calm, tapping into my inner monastery. I prayed to God, asking for peace, for grace, for trust … and to get me to the university safely by at least 9.45am, please.

When I did finally arrive at the university – right on 9:45 am, after getting the last seat on the bus – I alighted with a smile of gratitude, made my way to my classroom, set up for my tutorial, greeted my students warmly, and proceeded to do six hours of teaching with a mostly mindful, compassionate, loving presence. 

It was a long, trying day, but I found that adopting a monastic mindset is possible, and helpful, not just in a monastery, but also in a big, busy city with the daily pressures of life. Thank you, God and my friends and fellow monastics at Mount St. Benedict monastery, for showing me the way!

Learn more about the Benedicta Riepp Monastic Experience Program with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie HERE.

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