Eloise Skinner was on a silent retreat as part of her training to become a monk – yes, you read that right – when her phone vibrated.
It was an email from her boss at the business law firm where she worked. Although she is on annual leave, she should answer this question.
Sitting in her room at the monastery, she typed in a response.
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“I was beginning to feel a conflict between the corporate path I wanted to follow and what was really going on in my personal life, which meant having to send corporate emails from my monastic retreat during my annual leave” , explains Eloise.
“There’s no need to say ‘OK, you have to leave your job tomorrow,’ but it’s a longer-term question of whether this conflict can be resolved.”
Born in a housing estate near Aldgate, east London, Eloise’s family had moved several times as she grew up to be close to the schools where her parents – both teachers – worked.
Eloise had no religious education, but discovered her faith at age 18, to the surprise of her friends and family.
By 2016, aged 24, she had become an active part of her local church and started asking bigger questions about life and religion.
Her church leader recommended a year-long program that would train her in a monastic community.
Based at Lambeth Palace, the scheme, called St. Anselm’s Community, was designed for Christians aged 20 to 35 and launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
As the website says, it is “a year of prayer, study and service to the poor, during which they will live according to an inspiring Rule of Life inspired by monastic tradition”.
“Unofficially, we called it ‘Monk School’,” explains Eloise. “It was what they call a new monastic community, or a monastic experience, where…they put you in a community and they try to see how it goes doing some of the old Benedictine practices or to your life as a millennial – or modern – monk.”
For some of the more traditional monastic ideas, like celibacy or a monk’s vow of poverty – where monks pledge never to have more than six possessions – this meant finding a modern interpretation.
“In that kind of context, it’s about not spending money on things you don’t need; keeping track of how you move around the world in terms of how you spend your money,” says Eloise.
“Celibacy is also a bit more open to interpretation as to what it means to a modern monastic person, depending on community and tradition.
“For a lot of people, that means thinking about who you form intimate relationships with and being pretty careful and intentional about who you associate with.”
The training began with the Commitment to the Rule of Life, which, as Eloise defines it, is a commitment to live according to the shared set of values and principles held by the community. These include humility, community, integrity, learning, and silence.
“You really commit to living a certain way,” says Eloise. “It means that even if you return to your normal life, you still take elements of the community with you.”
Eloise’s cohort came from a variety of backgrounds, with some studying to become pastors or theologians and others simply taking a year to focus on faith and meaning. There were 16 residents who would live at Lambeth Palace and 20 non-residents.
Eloise had applied as a non-resident, which meant she continued to live at home in London and go to work during the day. She attended meetings, teachings and retreats after work, on weekends and during her annual leave.
Just before starting, Eloise was working as an intern in her company’s New York office.
“The contrast of coming back from the Wall Street neighborhood and straight into a monastic community was interesting,” Eloise says.
“It was really, really hard to hold on [the monastic teachings], especially being in corporate law… It certainly causes a bit of value friction between the way I lived my daily life and the commitments I had in the monastic program.”
Answering work emails during a silent retreat was an example of this, as well as the challenge of choosing silence in a world full of noise, especially social media.
In many ways, being immersed in the monastic community on retreats has made it easier to fulfill these commitments.
“If you wear monastic robes every day and live in a monastery and sleep with huge religious images above your head, then it’s a little easier to remember what your priorities are – and you might not even have access to your phone or social media,” she says.
“The challenge is this: can you retain what you’ve learned when you immediately have to catch a train to London, get on the tube and get on with your life?”
In fact, Eloise initially kept her monastic training from her work colleagues, only revealing what she did in her free time when the Archbishop of Canterbury asked to interview her at the office, and she had to ask permission.
Six years later, Eloise says she feels changed by the program.
“I think most of us would say we look at life in a different way – not always in an obvious ‘it changed everything about me’ way, but you get a better perspective on what matters, you know a little more about who you are, you know how you react to certain circumstances and life conditions,” she says.
She credits the training with initiating a reassessment of her own life – for beginning a search for purpose and fulfillment, and encouraging her to give back to others.
Initially, she developed her passions alongside her work as a lawyer: she began teaching yoga and meditation and began training as an existential therapist.
In January 2021, she had reached a crossroads. After five years in law, she could become a mid-level partner – “that’s when you really need to start thinking about your future as a lawyer– or it might take a while.
“I wanted to take a little break and see what else was on. Obviously it was during the pandemic, so it was a ‘now or never’ type feeling,” she says.
Although she has kept it open, Eloise has set herself a year to grow her business, One Typical Day, a digital platform to help students discover their first careers, and to launch her new business, The Purpose Workshop, helping people navigate a sense of purpose in life.
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She was also planning to work on her third book, which will be released in September.
Yes – Eloise, now 29, is a force to be reckoned with. Alongside these activities, she teaches Pilates, yoga and mediation, has a podcast, About Wisdom, and keeps her 17.4 thousand Instagram followers engaged with regular content.
The focus is on fulfillment – guiding others to identify their priorities in life. A typical day, for example, is influenced by Eloise’s chance trip to law.
When she was 14, she witnessed a traffic accident and was called to testify in court. It gave him first-hand experience of how lawyers worked and planted the seeds of law as a potential career.
“Careers come to life when you can see them and experience them for yourself…and the whole process is geared heavily towards people with the time and resources. We need more products that do that, but without any elitist elements for them,” she says.
In this quest for a goal – and helping others find theirs – has Eloise found hers?
“I definitely got closer to it over time — I really started the path-finding journey thinking there would only be one answer in the end,” she says.
“[I’ve come] around the understanding that purpose is an evolving concept. I would say that I vaguely know the kind of things I focus on and the way I want to be in the world.”
Integration is key for Eloise: bringing disparate parts of your life – your passions, your interests, the things that energize you – together in your daily experience.
At the end of the month, it will be a year since Eloïse gave up the law – and the end of her probationary period. Does she see herself coming back?
“I think going back to law is still pretty far out on my horizon,” she says.
Instead, she plans to see where the development of A Typical Day takes her. “It’s always a learning process that there’s so much more out there.”
In her monastic training and throughout her career, Eloise did more introspection than most. She speaks in terms that may seem intimidating (the idea of ”goal”, for example) – but it doesn’t have to be, she insists.
“All of this work figuring out what you want your life to be like and trying different things – it’s exciting work because the most personal and meaningful thing you can do is design your life and yourself and to understand who you are and what you want, she said.
“This may be the greatest adventure – it sounds a bit like a cliché, but [it’s] the greatest journey to make.”
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