Marriage and Monks,
Thoughts on The Cloister Walk

Single flower, marriage, cloister walk

My husband and I sit in a tense silence on opposite ends of the couch. He is frustrated and I am hurt.  It isn’t a new place for us, after being married almost 8 years, there is something familiar about it. It isn’t quite comfortable, but in a sense, it is reassuring.  We get to this place often and we always manage to pull ourselves out of it, maybe better or maybe worse off but still together, still fighting for our marriage.

This week in our reading group we are starting The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. It is essentially a poetic memoir of her time spent in Benedictine monasteries. She is not a nun herself but an oblate, which means she has a formal commitment and relationship with the Benedictine order. She is married, and in the preface of her book she talks about marriage as her, “primary instrument of conversion.” She speaks comparing marriage to monastic life, where commitment to a community rather than to a spouse is the most significant relationship.

In either case she isn’t saying that her marriage is what brought her to a salvation moment, to be “saved”, as many of us might understand it. What she means is that the daily work of maintaining her marriage relationship is what drives her to Christ. It is what pushes her to seek Him and humbles her to rely on Him.

Sitting on the couch, ignoring my own husband, I wonder to myself as I always do,  why does this have to be so hard?  How can two reasonable, intelligent, good-hearted people have such a difficult time getting along with each other?


Norris quotes a monk talking about monastic life. . .

The basis of community is not that we have all our personal needs met here, or that we find our best friends in the monastery.”

He goes on to say, that after counseling many married people he realizes that these misguided expectations, that our spouse will always feel like our best friend, that our needs will be met, are often what leads first to disillusionment and then dissolution of a marriage bond.

What we have to struggle for, and to preserve, is a shared vision of the why. . .  why we live together. It’s a common meaning, reinforced in the scriptures, a shared vision of the coming reign of God.”

It seems inevitable that we, at least in part, choose to get married to have some of our own needs met, even if we recognize that this is not the entire  purpose of a marriage. Experiencing the disappointment of unmet expectations especially early in marriage is incredibly painful. It seems that we all want to have our needs met.  I want to have a best friend as a husband. I want to have my thoughts heard, I want intimacy, love and support and I want it on my terms.  There are times when my marriage does meet those needs and it feels great, but there are plenty of other times when, despite 8 years together, I feel just as alone and misunderstood as ever.

There are times when my heart is so heavy with this loneliness that nothing feels big enough to fill it, not my marriage, not my family, not all the good things that I have.  The world feels too broken and  painful and I feel like I am drowning in heartache.   And  it is here when I realize, I have a longing that even the greatest of relationships with my husband could never fix. My deepest need is for a Savior who loves me and loves the world and who can heal all things.  And through the cycles of disappointment and hope that my marriage goes through I begin to see more of Him. Through the struggle to love a broken person and to be broken and let someone else love me I am drawn deeper into the love of Jesus.

For all our failures my husband and I are aligned in this: we love Christ and want to serve Him. Our marriage is not easy,  but when we can pull ourselves back to this place it makes decisions about where to live, where to work, how to parent, even how to deal with our inability to conceive a bit easier. We can face the darkness together standing in a glimmer of light that Christ gives us.

I know some of you don’t have this. I know being married and not being able to share with your spouse a common faith can be incredibly lonely. I admire your strength is sticking with it. I know others that are wishing they could be married. That the hardship of it seems like nothing compared to joy of sharing the intimacy of marriage with someone.

I shared here, that recently my daughter has been obsessed with the story of Abraham and Issac. A story where a man is called to sacrifice his only son to God. As Abraham has his son bound to the alter, knife in the air, about to kill him, God calls out, “don’t hurt the boy.” Isaac is allowed to live. God has seen Abraham’s dedication and perhaps more importantly Abraham has seen it too. He has been tested and seen that even in his own heart he is willing to choose God over something as dear as his only son. .

This is God’s calling to us. We are called to sacrifice our children, our marriages, and our very lives to Him. For some of us it will be in joyful marriages in others they will be incredibly difficult. For some it will be monastic vows and for others a life of singleness. In each situation we learn; our wholeness comes from Jesus and nothing else. (I don’t mean to imply that difficult marriages or challenging situations should simply be endured, if you need help please seek out coun. If you are in danger or abuse find somewhere safe to go, find a community to support you and then in safety decide how to proceed)

Eventually we end up sitting together in the middle of the couch. Neither of us feeling completely understood but both willing to try, both willing to forgive and so we pray for God to give us strength to do this better tomorrow.


  • Shannon Reply

    Oh, Erica, this is beautiful. I love, love, love this. What powerful words.

    • egjarrett Reply

      Thanks Shannon. I love how Norris put this. So often I want marriage and really life to be about what I want, but that just isn’t the point and when I loose sight of that I can get really miserable. I hope my thoughts on this will resonate as truth and be encouraging.

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