It took me years to learn the real nature of love as it applies in a monastic context. Understand here that I am not discussing “faking it till you make it,” or being untruthful about your feelings in order to fit into a role you are not suited to inhabit. I am instead speaking of how I have learned to deal with the inevitable end of the “honeymoon period” that happens to everyone who enters a life of contemplation.
I have found that love is not merely a feeling. Feelings are untrustworthy. They come and go, change and mutate, and cannot be relied on to any degree. They inspire us, but they also betray us. They make us happy and leave us hopeless. They are fickle. And while they can ennoble us and point to greater depths within our character, they are not the tireless indicators of worth that people, including romance novelists and the makers of romantic comedies, seem to want us to believe they are.
Of these unreliable feelings, love is counted as our finest. It makes us more human, they say. It causes us to do great, terribly, silly, unwise, brave, self-sacrificing, caring, selfish, passionate things for the sake of its object. It creates bonds between hearts, between parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers. It is supposed to outlast death, to be eternal. And maybe all this is true and maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. But I do know that, if you are a monastic who has dedicated your life to the pursuit of Certain Knowledge and the perfect understanding of your gods, or the Divine, or whatever you conceptualize as holy, after a certain point all your fine and noble feelings are only so much pretty window dressing. They have no substance. They’re about as meaningful as a paper towel — useful, to be sure, but not something you’d want to put into a trophy case and enshrine for others to admire for all time.
For the monk or nun, love is a willing action. In the end, you are a monastic because your life, in the context of your dedication to seeking truth, is about the acts of love you perform every single day to draw nearer to the Holy Ones. Your deeds are your love. And although this may come as a surprise and engender some disbelief from a few readers, here’s something else I’ve learned: love doesn’t have to be felt at all times to exist.
It’s easy for the wide-eyed new monastic to imagine that he or she will never grow bored, weary, restless, dissatisfied, or resentful in the new vocation. But as the strength of one’s early infatuation is a bad yardstick for measuring true love, so too early enthusiasm does not necessarily dictate an easy travail as a monk or nun. You have to be at it in earnest for a while to understand that (as other traditions have noted) while the spirit is willing, the flesh is often weak. While your motivations for choosing this life may not have changed, your feelings about it most certainly will — from day to day, even, which can cause confusion and not a little stress, until you understand the difference between love as a feeling and love as an act of will. You might even feel as if you’re failing at your vocation because you do not burn with the righteous fire of the devoted every moment of the day, seven days a week. This isn’t the case, however.
When love is simply an emotion, it’s all about us. When love is an action, in a way it doesn’t matter how we feel — it’s now about the world around us and the other people in it. Even if we are tired, discouraged, or antsy, we may still love our gods by showing Them proper respect: devotions, prayers, offerings, rituals. We can love those close to us by the same tokens: care, service, giving. Even when your heart is numb or prickly, even when you’d rather slap your neighbor or rail against the gods, shaking your fist…the monk or nun loves by performing the things s/he is responsible for and committed to doing every day. Even when it’s a drag. Even when you’d rather be doing something else.
Does this make any sense? If you’ve been in a long-term relationship that’s had its rough places, it probably does. If you’ve been the devotee of a deity for long enough, it probably does. If you’ve ever committed yourself to a lifelong pursuit because that is the only thing that makes sense for you, then it probably does. I’m not really speaking about those of you who are newly in love, new parents, new to the game, new apprentices or students. You probably won’t believe me, anyway, when I say that some day you will hate everything you think you love about your situation, even if only for a moment or two. But I’d wager that there are also people nodding their heads in agreement right now, even those who aren’t monastics.
The reason it’s important for nuns or monks to acknowledge that love is action is that there will be times when one does not want to be a nun or monk. The grass will look greener over there. There will come thoughts of what might have been, wishful thinking about roads not taken. There might even be resentment or sadness that some things will not be possible with the life you have chosen for yourself. (I am strongly of the opinion that, just as the gods do not force people into marriage, They do not force people onto this path. Like love, devotion is meaningless unless it’s given freely.) But even the most holy, most faithful, most observant monastic experiences times when the heart just isn’t in it. These times are when it is crucial that love be viewed as an act of will.
In all honestly, becoming a nun wasn’t something I did lightly or without a certain amount of reservation. There were things about it that did not appeal to me. I didn’t want to give up almost all my worldly goods, my job, my freedom. I didn’t want to deny myself the pleasures of travel, of wearing nice clothes, of trying to attain fame and fortune. I didn’t want to give up my hobbies and fandoms and recreational pursuits. Nonetheless, one by one I let go of those things to pursue the life of a full-time anchorite on a small farm in rural Massachusetts. While most people would consider the feelings that drove this choice to be “love,” I maintain that really, love was wholly in the act of discarding the things which I foresaw would get between me and my fulltrui and my Elder Kin, rather than in the emotions behind that act.
Now, this is not to say that I am some hardline ascetic. I occasionally leave the house for reasons other than running errands. I have friends both within and outside of my religious community, whom I see as often as I can. I like good food and my pets and playing the odd, completely absurd prank. But that’s not how I love. I love by getting off my ass and lighting candles and praying, even when I’m heartsick. I love by opening my heart and making a place for my Lord of Misrule to find a home with me, to let me be His “throw pillow” when He wants or needs it. I love by acknowledging and praising my gods whenever and wherever I encounter Them — in the forest, in the dreamscape, or in the streets of the city. I love by doing what Hela wants of me, keeping Her household and remembering Her folk who died nameless and unmourned. It is not always easy or painless to love this way, just as the emotion of love hasn’t always easy or painless for me. But it’s worth it. This is how one advances further down the path and draws closer to the Mysteries, in which are told the secret names of the gods.
I could spend some paragraphs talking about discipline, but I’m the last person who probably should. I am not terribly disciplined. I struggle with depression, which often makes it hard for me to perform even the smallest acts — but I try. I make the effort. I remind myself that being a nun isn’t something one just falls into and can fall out of at any time. It was something I chose, and the life that comes with it involves choosing every single day to love with will. There’s a parallel there with my relationship with Loki. It took many years for me to understand that loving one’s god is a choice, and that even when anger, hurt, disappointment, or resentment get in the way, I can still choose to love Him and to uphold my oaths to Him, regardless of how kindly I’m feeling towards Him at the time. (And this is another, often unacknowledged truth: you won’t always love your gods with unquestioning devotion if you choose the road of consort/spouse. Mysticism and the hieros gamos can be shockingly mundane in that respect.)
Do I think any of this is incontrovertible truth? Not necessarily. I do think that love is really action rather than profession, and that monastics aren’t monks or nun because of feelings, but because of what we actually do. I believe that being upset with one’s gods or momentarily dissatisfied with one’s place as a monastic is entirely understandable and forgivable; what matters is what you do in response to those feelings. Some people choose to ignore or deny that they feel this way. Some people acknowledge their feelings and move on. Either way, the act of love continues when you take up your prayer beads or roll up your sleeves to weed the garden.
And even if you decide that the monastery is not for you, it can also be seen as love in action to leave and seek the gods elsewhere, along a different path. There is no shame in acknowledging that not every road is a fitting one for every one of us. There is also no shame in admitting that the act is not always grounded in high-flown emotions. The will and the deeds are what matters and what will prove the reality of your love, in the end.