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9 Family Lessons I Learned While Living in an Abbey
Pray and eat together. Walk together. And always have a sense of humor and forgive each other.
By Kevin Di Camillo
I lived—briefly—as a Norbertine Affiliate at Saint Joseph Priory, part of Saint Norbert Canonry, in the Jubilee Year 2000. And though God was not calling me to the priesthood or religious life, during that short time I learned some life lessons that have only benefited me through the years:
1. Always Do Something for the House.
Your domicile is a living, breathing space. And like any other being, it needs help. At the Priory one would have to, for example, keep an eye on the tabernacle lamp (which was very, very high up) as well as when bottles of club soda were running low. If everyone does something for the house—little things, like making sure the garbage can lids are on, or that the dryer filter is cleaned out daily—not only is the house cleaner, but endless little fights are avoided.
2. Pray and Eat Together.
In an Abbey or Priory, these are taken for granted. And I’m not saying that families need to rise at 2:00 a.m. to recite Matins. However, if we regularly pray grace before (and hopefully after) meals, as well as Sunday Mass, and regular recitation of the Holy Rosary, praying together becomes second nature. The importance of this is so obvious it has literally become a cliché because it’s true: “The family that prays together, stays together.”
3. Have a Doors Wide Open Policy.
In the Priory, one’s room is a cell where a Canon (or Novice or Frater or Deacon or Affiliate) can meditate in silence. However, there is always the danger that one’s cell becomes a “man cave” where one retreats from the inevitable problems inherent with communal living. One wise canon proposed that, while all the rooms had doors, they should, except on rare occasions for privacy, be left wide open. How often do we retreat to our “caves”, or worse, not ask questions when the kids retire to theirs with the door closed, secretly grateful for the momentary peace and quiet? Of course there NEEDS to be at least a modicum of privacy, but in general “open doors” lead to better interconnectedness.
4. Walk Together.
At the Priory I took up running for Lent. The Abbey itself also had a rather large pool, which I made use of. However, these were for the most part solo activities. More memorable—and worthwhile—were the occasional strolls with the Canons on the grounds of Saint Norbert College (where the Priory was located). Going for a walk as a family after dinner is not only good for one’s physical health, but a simple (and free) way to get outside, away from the TV, the computers and tablets and cell phones and enjoy some fresh air—together.
5. Visit The Sick.
The Abbey had an infirmary, which I knew of, but frankly never gave much thought to. One night after Compline (night prayer), a Frater told me, “We are going to visit the Abbot,” which I thought was odd since the Abbot was just at Compline with us. However, he was referring to the aged Abbot Emeritus Sylvester Killeen, O.Praem., who in his very old age was in the Abbey’s infirmary. How many of us have an elderly relative in an assisted living community or nursing home? I know that I have an uncle in one of the former—and every time I’m in Niagara Falls, I say I’m going to visit him—but I’ve only ever done so together with my wife and twins (and then only too rarely). The point is: visits to the sick are easier on everybody when done as a family affair.
6. Take Advantage of Movie Night.
In Lent, we had movie nights on Friday at the Priory. As an Affiliate I had no say in any of the films chosen for viewing, but that was fine since I wound up seeing some classic films that I doubt I would have watched on my own (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, The Cardinal). We still have movie night in our home here. And while it’s never easy to agree on what we’re going to watch (turns out my kids hate The Muppets), the main thing is to have a representative sampling, one choice from each member of the family on a rotating basis.
7. Make Time for Games.
Looking back, one thing I do regret was not participating in recreation at the Priory, mainly because the choice of recreation was always a game of cards, something I’m terrible at and do not enjoy at all. However, Saturday night in our home is board game night and we’ve ransacked some real classics like Life, Mastermind, Jet World, Masterpiece and Monopoly. Beats any mind-numbing video game any night of the week.
8. Know Who Belongs Where.
At the priory, if you took one of the communal cars, you had to fill out a little tag listing where you were going and when you’d be back. Mercifully my kids can’t drive, so I don’t have to worry about the cars going missing—but it seems impossible sometimes to keep up with who has Scouts, when swimming lessons are, and who has a birthday party to go to next weekend. Having a communal calendar where EVERYTHING gets written is a huge help, and a great way to avoid unnecessary confrontations that begin with the words, “I thought you said that was NEXT week…”
9. Have a Sense Of Humor and Forgive Each Other.
This one came about mainly from Morning Prayer (Lauds), where any number of things could go wrong: someone misses a line, another Canon mispronounces a word, someone else reads the wrong page from the prayer book. Prayer is not to be taken lightly and proper preparation, both spiritual and practical (making sure the Ordo is set to the right page, for instance) goes without saying. However, to make-up for mistakes in The Holy Offices prayers were allowed to make up for any missteps (these can be found in any decent Breviary). We all make mistakes—even with the best preparation. Instead of rolling our eyes when someone mistakes and mispronounces the word “prophecy” for “prophesy”, better to pray over it afterwards—and perhaps be more lighthearted when it comes to the hard work not only of prayer, but that bane of every parent’s existence: homework.
I’m forever grateful to the Norbertine Community at Saint Norbert Abbey not only for allowing me to live and pray with them, but for the life lessons I took with me from their Canonry.
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