The contemplative life calls, but I'm married

How does a spouse pursue a spiritual quest?

Published May 8, 2009 10:23AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Is it possible to be married and live a contemplative life? Does a person have to join a group (like a monastery) to truly live a contemplative life?

Can you direct me to any writings about married persons living contemplative lives, whether attempting to or successfully doing so?

I have this idea that it's what I'm supposed to do, think I would enjoy it, and have enough money saved that I could do so without having to work a "regular" job anymore and without living a pauper's life. But I am married.

Contemplating the Contemplative Life

Dear Contemplating,

This entry on the contemplative life in the Catholic Encyclopedia explains that there are various degrees of contemplation one can obtain depending on one's attachment to the world, one's duties and one's situation.

To get a feel for the contemplative life, you might try one of the retreats at the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living in Kentucky.

While "the contemplative life," taken narrowly, implies a Christian and particularly a Catholic tradition, I would assume, whatever your religious background, that you seek a more spiritual life; you seek the time to contemplate things. To this end, you can carve out time both in your day-to-day life and also by scheduling retreats, to pursue whatever path seems to be calling to you. If you are a member of a religious order, you might also want to pursue this with someone in that order.

What seems clear is that something is calling to you. All I can do is try to amplify that call, suggest you regard it with seriousness, wish you courage, and recommend small, concrete steps.

Entertain this notion like an angel that has come to you. Fortify it and feed it and inquire of it. Is it a long-held dream that has become recently more vivid? What might have made it come to life recently? Part of it may be a sincere desire to be closer to God. Part of it may be a wish simply to escape your own life. It is likely not a simple wish. It is probably mixed. Ask yourself: What part feels holy and what part feels full of fear? Is there unhappiness in your life that you wish to escape?

Is this an old wish that has come back, or is it new? Has it simply been dormant too long, and its constant pressure on you has now become something you feel you must accept? Have you also perhaps reached a point in life where it seems more possible now, and thus you are more open to it? Was it something that seemed less doable in the past and thus less worthy of your attention?

What is your background in relationship to this idea? Were there contemplatives in your family? Did you read stories when you were young about monks or hermits or solitary meditators? You mention groups, so it sounds like you are imagining not a solitary existence but membership in some sort of spiritual society, perhaps one that is shut off from the hustle and bustle, one made up of people who seek a spiritual way of living.

I suggest you "find more space" for this inclination. Take it gradually, thinking through each step. Experiment with a weekend or perhaps weeklong trip to a retreat of your choosing. Knowing that there is no pat answer, trust this inclination and follow it and see where it leads you.

As you do so, I suggest that you resist the temptation to be too definite about this. Resist the temptation, for instance, to announce to your wife that you are going to become a monk. Such impulsive announcements will often be a clue to the darker side of such inclinations, the side that is motivated more by a wish to escape than a wish to find something new.

What is happening, again, is that you are being called to something. Your job is to tease out the meaning of it: What is this something to which you are being called? As you follow this thread, I hope it becomes richer and more rewarding for you. It may also involve sacrifice and choice. You may be called upon to make difficult choices. So take it slowly. Keep listening to it. Try to contain the contradictions it suggests. Move with it. Be with it in the world.


What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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