A recent Pew Report shows that those who choose monastic, celibate lifestyles are in steady decline. The number of Catholic nuns in the U.S. has dropped 72 percent since 1965; men in the priesthood have decreased 35 percent in the same time frame.
Culturally, it’s easy to understand why there might be fewer monastic volunteers. Many U.S. youth feel pressure to fulfill the American dream: attend college, graduate, and secure their place in the consumer culture. Children are often conditioned to strive for success that leads to purchasing power—not vows of poverty. But, for the few modern individuals who choose cloistered life, what happens if they leave it? What challenges do they face as re-enter the world, find partners, and settle down?
Spouses who marry former monks and nuns must do so with caution, understanding that the monastic’s first vows—to pray, study, and serve—remain with them even as they commit to their second vows of “to love, honor, and cherish.” The success of the monastic-secular partnership hinges on each partner’s willingness to lean in and learn. Katherine Jenkins, author of Lessons from a Monk I Married, describes it well: marriage to a former monastic is “fraught with logistical and spiritual considerations.”
I know this stress first-hand.
My husband, a former monk, wakes up each day at 5:00 a.m. Even during our recent summer vacation his thin, muscular frame rose before dawn to meditate on mantras given to him by his beloved guru. Then, by 6:00 a.m., he’d mapped out our remaining morning schedule: a meditation walk, and visits to nearby religious sites and parks. Even on weekends at home, his early morning routine is sprinkled with hours of spiritual work: managing a Hindu website for which he serves as the webmaster and co-curator of content, scripture reading, and writing. His brain never turns “off” from spiritual pursuits, be they academic or experiential. When he is deprived of such space to keep this rhythm, he becomes grumpy and withdrawn.
This discipline and posture toward the spiritual, which appears to the decaffeinated as annoying, stems from his five-year tenure as a devout Hindu monk who lived in the Redwoods of Northern California. In the mid-2000s, Fred was ordained as a Hindu priest and given the devotional name, “Gauravani dasa,” which means “servant of the teachings of God.” During his years as a monk, he awoke each day before sunrise and prepared his body and mind to preside over ritualistic deity worship. Gauravani rarely missed a morning worship.
But such stoicism can wreak havoc on monastics, should they later decide to re-enter the world, fall in love, and marry. The structure of their former lives is transferred to well-meaning self-restraint and austerities in the “real world,”but it can cause frustration in their partnerships. While spouses of former monastics might want to sit on the couch all day, indulge in an all-you-can-eat fried buffet, or splurge on a luxury item—these choices no longer tempt the their well-trained counterparts, whose material desires have been quieted by years of practice.
I spent the first two years of my Christian-Hindu interfaith marriage navigating such tensions. Initially, I lived in fear that our “honeymooners” life would be too ordinary for Gauravani. I imagined receiving a “Dear John,” letter announcing his return to full-time spiritual life. “It was the materialism, sex, and co-dependency that did me in,” his letter would say.
When no letter surfaced, I transferred my anxiety to his coping mechanisms. I was irritated that he ate only two meals per day, followed a strict vegetarian diet with no eggs, made a standing desk at work, and struck junk food from our grocery list. Gone were any superfluous goods or services; we had no TV, and semi-annually, he suggested we cut off the Internet.
Aghast at these monastically simple standards, my own maladaptive ways emerged: I hoarded sugary treats, clung to my soap opera addiction, and expressed my greed through the consumption of plastic crap at our local dollar store. No longer fearful of him leaving me, I baulked at his renunciation of material desires: why was my husband such a kill joy?
Friends and family also began to wonder why our “vacations” centered on self-abnegating destinations: “Why do you have to spend your time off at a monastery?” That’s when my resentment for Gauravani’s by-the-book spiritual lifestyle exploded: Why couldn’t he have reintegrated more smoothly?
The first five years of our marriage were spent like this: balancing my desires with Gauravani’s discipline. Then, last winter, in the Lenten season of Christian depravity and austerities, something shifted. Gauravani and I marked our 40-days with a vow that limited our tech use and insisted on a Biblically-based sabbath.
I accepted Lent’s invitation to turn inward, and reflected on our journey to here: what had Gauravani’s monastic experience brought to our marriage? What had my non-monastic experience added to our betrothal?
During those six weeks, we each leaned into the lessons we each contributed. I’d given up my TV and plastic to have more time and space for God. Gauravani had become more open to balancing the spiritual and secular, finding the simple joy of occasionally indulging in the worldly treat.
At the conclusion of our contemplative wilderness journey, I’d become more at peace, no longer too resentful for my husband’s monkish ways and how they’d affected our life together.
The monastic experience that Gauravani brought to our marriage helped reorient me to my best purpose. I could not escape from my daily devotional practice, as its cheerleader sat next to me on the couch. I remember that I was created in God’s image, not fearfully and wonderfully made to clamor for the next gadget. I was formed for worship and sacred simplicity, practice, and joy. But this realization would not have arrived at my door without the aid of someone so rooted in it.
Even on those pre-dawn mornings, when I pull the covers on my head and groan as Gauravani bounces forth to welcome the Lord’s Day, I’m grateful for my monk, and how his unique path shaped the way he experiences God and the world.
J. Dana Trent is a graduate of Duke Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of a How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, chronicles her first years of navigating her interfaith marriage to Gauravani dass, the former monastic. She blogs at http://jdanatrent.com/.