Monday, December 29, 2008

Everyday Life: Short Hair, Long Skirts, Rules and Culture

1The clothing distributed to the brothers should vary according to local conditions and climate,
7Monks must not complain about the color or coarseness of all these articles, but use what is available in the vicinity at a reasonable cost.
20The abbot, however, must always bear in mind what is said in the Acts of the Apostles: Distribution was made to each one as he had need (Acts 4:35). 21In this way the abbot will take into account the weaknesses of the needy, not the evil will of the envious…
RB 55:1,7, 20-21

A while back a young woman who was visiting our monastery asked rather tentatively “do you have to have short hair to live here?” I guess it would look that way, short hair, no make-up, sensible shoes, collectively sort of a “nun look.”
The question startled me at first, we certainly don’t have any rules about hair length or skirt length, or clothes in general for that matter. I suppose if I had more presence of mind I would have said: “Oh honey, it is SO much easier than long hair. Plus it is nice to be in a place where how comfortable the shoes are wins out over how they look.” But of course she was young and not yet at the point in life where pragmatism has begun to win out over appearance.

Many people, like this young woman, seem to assume that our dress and appearance in the monastery are deeply reflective of our monastic vocation. It is, but not in the way most people think. It is common for people to tell us that we should wear habits. I suppose this is also an unquestioned assumption that people should be able to tell us how we should dress, as if our clothing were something that the public should be able to decide for us. It is part of the sense people have that as nuns, vowed religious, we should stand out in some way that we should be easily identifiable. Some sisters continue to wear the habit as a public sign of their consecration, most in North America do not.

So what does clothing mean to a monastic? It seems clear from the Rule that clothing was an issue in Benedict’s day just as it is now. Clearly not everyone was happy about clothing in Benedict’s monastery. He wouldn’t have told the monks not to complain about the “color or coarseness” of their clothing unless of course monks were regularly grumbling over dishes about how Benedict got such a good buy on chartreuse monk’s cowls made out of burlap bags on sale at the 6th century equivalent of the outlet mall.

It seems likely that in Benedict’s day there was some distinctive monastic clothing, but clearly there are other values that reflect monastic clothing. Clothing has to be suited to local conditions and climate and available at a reasonable cost in the local area. Clothing is supposed to be about need and common sense. This seems obvious but the reality is that common sense has never been particularly common nor has the ability to distinguish wants and needs.

People who engage in regular “shopping therapy” would have trouble living in Benedict’s monastery or our own monastery for that matter. We have no uniform clothing, no habit or rules about what to wear. But at the same time no one is allocated any money specifically for clothes. A sister who knows she will need to buy some special, expensive clothing for the coming year, a new winter coat, professional clothes for a new job, can request money during the time when the community budget for the coming year is determined. But usually clothing purchases come out of one’s personal allowance, a small, monthly amount of personal spending money.

This means that buying new clothes is almost impossible, whether high end high heels or L.L. Bean, crunchy granola hiking boots. It is difficult to make a statement at either end of the fashion spectrum without money.

Most of us do our shopping at the less than fashionable “put and take table.” There is a designated place in the monastery for clothing donations. Anyone who has a piece of clothing she doesn’t need any more can put it out for anyone who wants it. Often friends, relatives, oblates and others will give used clothing to us rather than the thrift stores. When someone donates a large pile of clothing a notice will go up on the bulletin board that there are “new” clothes available for people to take.

There is little room for “fiber snobs” here, people who refuse to wear polyester out of principle. Nor is there much room for strong sentiments about colors, patterns or styles. Fit is not simply assumed but becomes a determinative factor in selection. Clothes are recycled after weight loss and gain, after spring cleaning and probably out of just plain boredom, since as we know the only things that will survive a nuclear holocaust will be polyester and cockroaches.

The reality of course is that those with excellent taste and a love of nice clothes, even without money, will always find a way to look better than those of us without taste. But for all of us a deeper principle is a work. Monastic “fashion statements” are statements of humility. They are not always statements about humility achieved, they are more often about humility that is struggled with, limitations that chafe and wants that can be overpowering. But ultimately “put and take” becomes a reality of freedom that in community all our needs can be satisfied, and when that happens our wants seem much less important.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Benedictine Christmas

Benedict doesn’t mention Christmas anywhere in the Rule. However, Christmas suffuses Benedictine life for all who follow it, monastic or oblate. Christmas is about the Incarnation. We celebrate the amazing, radical, profound mystery that the creator of the universe would deign to enter our messy, difficult, hurting world and share our human condition with us. In Christmas we see that God not only becomes human but enters into the world in the most vulnerable way, as a baby born to an unwed mother in a marginal land to an oppressed people. In Christ God takes the risk of ultimate vulnerability.

So what does the vulnerability of God have to do with Benedictine life? To be Benedictine means to be the presence of Christ for one another. In all our communities: our families, work places, churches, oblate groups, the monastery, we see Christ in one another. Benedict talked especially about seeing Christ in the sick and the visitors. I have always wondered why he singled out those two groups. Maybe it is because they are the ones who are most likely to interrupt our comfortable routines, to demand our time and attention without being able to give back. Perhaps it is the difficult, disruptive people who are the vulnerable presence of God in our midst. The people we don’t like, don’t have time for, who get on our very last nerve, the ones we feel justified in ignoring, these are the people who need our special attention. They ask that we recognize God in the form of the vulnerable and marginalized. The Incarnation we celebrate means that divinity is enclosed in unattractive as well as beautiful packages.

We also have to remember that we, too, are the vulnerable presence of God. Each of us is the image of God. Our human condition in all its messiness is what God chose to share. In Jesus God takes the risk of entering into all that is human. In his humanity Jesus knew love, betrayal, pain, fellowship. To celebrate the Incarnation we have to be open to risk. In our communities we share of our deepest selves and risk betrayal and hurt because that is part of the witness of Christ. The Incarnation says that we don’t refuse to love just because that love might not be reciprocated.

When we celebrate Christmas with integrity we enter fully into life. We open our hearts, our homes, our minds, our wallets, to the earth-shattering mystery that God is here among us sharing our humanity. God challenges us to be vulnerable with one another as he was. God challenges us to see the divinity in the most broken people. God challenges us to rejoice and see the absolute wonder and joy that is our human life in the flesh. May we celebrate this season of Incarnation with joy!

Blessings to all of your during this joyous season,

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Everyday Life: Employees

On Thursday we had a celebration to honor our monastery employees. As part of the celebration Sr. Clarissa, the prioress, told the story that there was great consternation when we began to hire “lay women” as employees. We had always had one or two “hired men” to do heavy, physical work, but the sisters were upset when we first hired employees to do the work we used to do ourselves. She said that there had been great alarm when someone was first hired to answer the phones and be an administrative assistant to the prioress. Now we have almost two dozen employees who work at essential tasks throughout the monastery.

I’m not sure what Benedict would make of lay employees at a monastery. On the one hand I think he would want to make sure that all the monks were doing their share of the work. On the other hand I think he was practical enough to understand that when the community members are fewer and fewer and older and older sometimes you have to adapt and hire employees.

I also tend to worry a little bit, or maybe a lot, that employees will see that we frequently don’t live up to our professed values. When they work with us over a period of time employees see the pettiness, bickering, grumbling and various dysfunctional behaviors that characterize any group of people living together, even a bunch of nuns. But over time what I have seen that is even more amazing is how our employees come understand and live out our values. Our employees have become a witness to Benedictine values in our community and an integral part of spreading our mission.

The core values in our mission statement are: “healing hospitality, grateful simplicity and creative peacemaking.” More than once I have heard employees discussing what to do in a particular situation and they guide their discussion by whether a particular action will be hospitable or manifest simplicity or peacemaking. I have even been part of exciting, creative discussions in which some of our employees are working on projects to help alleviate poverty and promote new cross-disciplinary understandings of peacemaking. In both situations they are working very hard to make the Sisters and the monastery key players in the projects.

It is clear that our Benedictine values, our way of life and witness have been internalized by an amazing group of people. The theme of our employee recognition was “You are a gift to us.” As I reflect on the witness of our employees it seems clear that they are a gift to the whole world. We are grateful.

Oh… and the first woman hired to answer the phones? Now, twenty two years later she is still here and is our Chief Financial Officer and the first lay woman to be part of the Financial Council for the Federation of St. Gertrude, one of the governing bodies for Benedictine women’s monasteries in the United States. I don’t know what Benedict would make of this but I know that St. Scholastica would be proud!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Community Rank

1The monks keep their rank in the monastery according to the date of their entry, the virtue of their lives, and the decision of the abbot. 8…someone who came to the monastery at the second hour of the day must recognize that he is junior to someone who came at the first hour, regardless of age or distinction.

10The younger monks, then, must respect their seniors, and the seniors must love their juniors. 11When they address one another, no one should be allowed to do so simply by name; 12rather, the seniors call the younger monks “brother” and the younger monks call their seniors nonnus, which is translated as “venerable father.”
RB 63: 1, 8, 10-12

The daily reading from the Rule yesterday was about community rank. In practical terms this isn’t something that we pay much attention to in ours or most modern monasteries. In some ways that is too bad, because if we really reflect on what Benedict is doing we say how amazingly radical he was.

Americans like to pride themselves on being very egalitarian. “All men (and now people!) are created equal. We like to think of ourselves as the land of opportunity for everyone. We work hard at eliminating the “-ism’s” of racism, sexism, etc. But I wonder whether we are actually put to shame by a monk from an extremely hierarchical culture in the 6th century.

Benedict’s society was dealing with the collapse of the mighty Roman Empire, but the values of that society were in everyone’s bones. People’s status was determined by birth. Slave and nobility were stations in life that were pre-determined, not earned or deserved. Status was largely immutable and impersonal.

But in his new community, in the motley group of people who come together to seek God in the community, there is to be a new model of society. Rank, status in the new society, is not to be determined by birth, class, education, achievement, ability or any sort of personal characteristic. Rank is to be set by the time of entry into community. Status in this new society is determined by when a person answered the call to leave all and follow Christ.

Benedict reinforces this idea by insisting that members address one another not by first names but by titles of their new rank. A monk is to address someone who is ahead of her in rank by the title “nonna,” translated “venerable one,” and the older in rank are to address those behind them as “sister.”

In Benedict’s monastery this meant that an illiterate barbarian could and would “out-rank” the Roman noble who came to the monastery later. In fact, for the rest of her life the noblewoman would refer to a barbarian peasant as “venerable one” and the woman from a barbarian, frontier tribe would hear herself referred to as a “sister.”

In our community this means that a woman of the most modest ability and background is “ahead” of the woman with the most education or ability. The sister with a grade school education who does domestic work her whole life, the one who is never able to contribute much to community, is called “venerable one” by the sister with a Ph.D., the one who has been prioress, by the most capable sister in community.

And in Benedict’s society this happens every day. The most limited person is always assured that what matters is that she is here seeking God. The most gifted person is reminded that there are others ahead of her in coming to this way of life. This then is the only thing that matters. It doesn’t matter what gifts you were given, what you’ve achieved, what kind of person you are. There is no room for pride in the monastery, there is only room for seeking God. Together we are humbled by the reality that the only thing that matters is God and we come to God helped along by the most unexpected people who go ahead of us in the way.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Intercessory Prayer

The last few days I have been praying very hard. Hopefully that is not something special when you live in a monastery! But this has been intercessory prayer for the husband of a very good friend. He has been going through multiple health challenges in the last year culminating in open heart surgery. The day after the surgery complications developed and at one point it looked like there was only a 50% chance of survival. My intercessory prayer came from somewhere deep, a sharp, tearing longing for people I loved.

I have to confess this isn’t how I usually pray for people. Usually I don’t think about it, I just do it. The prayer board at the monastery is constantly filled with requests from all sorts of people, known and unknown. During our communal prayer we have a time of lifting up intentions. Our oblate community has a very active prayer chain and the needs of an extended community of friends, family, co-workers are regularly held up. I always try to be intentional about praying for the requests on the board and joining my prayers with others but usually I don’t particularly think about it or do a lot more than utter a quick intention and move on.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what intercessory prayer really means. The reflection makes me realize why I don’t usually think about it! On a rational, theological level intercessory prayer doesn’t make sense. We say that God is omniscient, omnipotent. God knows all, is all powerful. God is the creator and sustainer of the universe, God knew us before we were born. So why do have to tell God to heal someone? What does it mean when someone is not healed? We say that sometimes “no” is an answer to prayer. So does God just refuse to heal our loved ones, allows them to be injured in traffic accidents, stands by while relationships are shattered? How can God be the all-powerful, all loving God that theology proclaims and refuse to answer our prayers? How can God stand by and refuse to act?

There are no answers here. This is the realm far beyond the human construct that is theology. In theology we are in control, we are in charge of coming up with answers that make sense according to our standards. Theology allows me to understand God. In intercessory prayer we move into the arena of mystery, to a place where we have to abandon any notion that we understand what is going on, any idea that we have the least bit of control over the outcome.

This is a place of utter helplessness. It is a horrible vulnerable place. It is the same place I was at a few months ago when praying for the newborn grandchild of a friend when it wasn’t clear he would survive his first twenty four hours. It is the place of praying for people I love deeply, entering into their pain and anguish.
Theology and reason and answers have no place here. This level of intercessory prayer is the place of absurdity. When we are praying in such a way that our hearts are torn open we enter into the reality of the crib and the cross. Intercessory prayer is where we come face to face with the reality and absurdity of our faith. We don’t worship an omniscient, all powerful God, a deity detached and remote from ourselves who can casually deign to let some die, others live and seems aloof to the reality of suffering. No, we worship the God of infinite vulnerability and ultimate suffering. We pray to an absurdly human and vulnerable God, a God who gave up divinity and power and became helpless in the crib and on the cross.

I don’t like this God. I want a God who fixes my problems. I want a God who is at my beck and call to change things, to make them better. I want a God whom I can understand, whom I can put in a box and take out whenever I need. I want a God who doesn’t make me watch powerless as friends suffer. I don’t want to have my heart broken open as I can only stand by and pray.

But what I have is a God who makes me realize that in my powerless watching and hoping and praying I am sharing the reality of God. In my prayer I share the vulnerable reality of God who came not to fix my problems but to share them, who came so that we may know we are never alone in our suffering but we are enfolded and held not in power but in vulnerability and love. The gift of our God is not to take away our suffering but to come and share it. Our God enters the darkness and death of the tomb, fully human, not knowing what awaits in order to give us a glimpse of the light to come when we are surrounded by darkness.

And so I keep praying, I let my heart be broken open again, for people I know and don’t know. I continue to want a magician God who will just make things better. But I come back to a place where God shares the suffering and whose presence offers a promise of hope and light beyond the darkness.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Last week we had our Advent reconciliation service. It was a beautifully done service emphasizing the theme of Jubilee year which is part of our celebration of our Centennial of being in Idaho for 100 years.

I have to admit though, that I have always struggled with the sacrament of reconciliation. Perhaps it is because I am a convert. Maybe I just missed that class.

The concept always made sense. Reconciliation is sacrament, a tangible manifestation of God’s grace, a way to experience that we are forgiven. So far so good. But I always get hung up on what I need forgiveness for. Back in the old days people would come with a laundry list of sins, specific actions they had committed and felt guilty about and wanted to be forgiven for.

But I’m not sure I have a lot of sins I feel guilty about. Maybe it is the reason for the old joke that priests say hearing the confessions of nuns is like being stoned to death with popcorn. We don’t have a lot of opportunities for serious sin. Personally I don’t think seems right to confess things like “I lied when I said to Sr. so-and so that I was glad to see her.” I’m left with the reality that I feel guilty about things that are more character flaws than specific sins. I’m impatient, I tend to gossip, I say critical things about people. The problem is that I will probably keep doing things despite my best intentions. So am I being forgiven for character flaws? I’ve never been quite sure how all this works and it has made me think there is clearly something I don’t understand.

With the help of a friend who said she had similar concerns, some advice from a priest and a lot of reflection, I think I may finally understand. It all comes back to the nature of sacraments, when God’s grace becomes real to us in concrete ways. Reconciliation isn’t just about being forgiven specific sins. The sacrament of reconciliation is about the presence of someone who listens to you, accepts and loves you just as you are. Reconciliation is having someone meet you in your brokenness, in all the ways that you fail to live up to your best self, and they assure you that you are still loved. They become God’s love in human form. They affirm, yes, you are not always a good person and you will continue to be someone with many hurtful characteristics, but the secret is that you are still loved by God. This love is made tangible in someone who assures you that no matter what kind of person you are, no matter how broken or petty or even evil, God’s love cannot be denied. You are worthy of love no matter what.

So reconciliation isn’t about confessing sins and doing some penance to get back in the good graces of an angry God. The sacrament is about having someone listen to how you have failed to be the image of God that you were created to be and yet you are still deeply, completely, unconditionally loved. It is a gift to be celebrated.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Everyday Life: Meetings

1As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the abbot shall call the whole community together and himself explain what the business is… RB 3:1

One of our sisters used to say that meetings are the modern asceticism. Instead of rigorous fasting, going without sleep, living in extreme poverty, we go to meetings. It was just an off-hand comment, but one that I have thought about quite a bit.

Monastics are known for their asceticism, practices of self-discipline that are designed to help us focus more on God. Our sister’s comment was meant to be rather facetious, but I think she has a point. In ascetic practices we try to stretch ourselves by focusing more on God than on the basic drives that usually consume our energy. The practices that people associate with monks, celibacy, poverty, obedience are all examples of disciplines that are supposed to help us focus on the spiritual life.

So how would meetings fit into this framework? Most of us think of meetings as an irritating waste of time or at best a necessary evil. How can meetings meet a spiritual purpose?

In the modern, monastic way of doing things meetings are a big part of trying to do things collaboratively. Monastic life isn’t about efficiency. Getting things always getting done in the quickest, cheapest way by the most qualified people isn’t what is most important. What is most important is that everyone has a say, that decisions are community decisions made with input from everyone.

This means that there are lots of meetings. It is much easier to have a clear hierarchy with a few people making decisions, many people implementing the decisions without question and anyone who disagrees being fired. The monastic way on the other hand says that everyone has to be heard, her feelings considered, her gifts utilized. This requires time and makes for ponderous progress. We spend a lot of time listening, explaining, discussing before action takes place.

It is an ascetic practice because we can’t put our own needs first. The modern drive for efficiency and accomplishment has to be subordinated to the needs of the whole community. The most capable and competent have to slow down and listen to the slower and less capable. So meetings are our new asceticism since Benedict reminds us that we walk the way to eternal life all together, not as individuals.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Advent in the monastery

On Saturday night we had the blessing of the Advent wreath in chapel. This is our entry into the Advent season here at the monastery. Every year we cut boughs from evergreens in our woods and spend the Saturday morning before the first Sunday of Advent putting them on the Advent wreath frame. The frame is about 3-4 feet round and has four ropes tied to it. The ropes are then suspended from the attic ceiling so that the Advent wreath is suspended over the lectern in the choir section of chapel.

On Saturday evening, the Vigil of the First Sunday of Advent, we gather in the chapel and the lights are dimmed. Three Advent candles are arranged underneath the wreath. Everyone enters in silence. We sit in the dark and wait. After the clock chimes a sister comes in from the back of chapel carrying a lighted candle which she places with the other three, under the wreath. Then everyone stands, still in the dark, and we sing “Holy Darkness.” “Holy darkness, blessed night, heaven’s answer hidden from our sight, as we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” A cantor then sings a verse of the song while everyone continues to stand.
After the lights came on Sr. Clarissa, our prioress, proclaims a reading from Isaiah. Next, she blesses the wreath by sprinkling it with holy water. Then incense is brought in and she incenses the wreath. After this the prayer for Saturday evening continues as usual.

In this brief ceremony we act out many of the meanings of Advent. We begin with darkness and waiting. We sit, waiting quietly in the stillness, listening with expectation to what will happen next. This is the essence of Advent. The readings speak of the unexpected and surprising coming of God in our lives. They tell us to be awake, alert. We gather in the darkness not as if we know what is going to happen, but with expectancy. Where will God come in our lives? Are we prepared? Are we listening? God will call us to conversion, to transformation. Will we be ready?

In the midst of this darkness a light shines. A candle is lit and we are reminded that God indeed comes in our darkness. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5) We re-enact this ritual regularly because we need to remind ourselves that God did not come once and for all but God is always coming into our lives, God is always piercing our darkness and reminding us of the divine presence.

This is what sing in the song “Holy Darkness.” We remind ourselves that although we may feel that we are engulfed in darkness, the darkness is our lack of understanding, our inability to see in the dark. If we are patient, acknowledge that we don’t know or understand God’s actions, if we embrace the silence in patient waiting then the darkness will be transformed.

In the Advent wreath we see a sign of this transformation. The evergreens are a symbol of life, staying green when the other trees have lost their leaves in the midst of winter. When winter seems to look like death we bring in these boughs that remind us of life that will come out of what appears to be death. In the circular shape we see infinity. There is no beginning or ending to the circle, it is the shape of eternal life, the destination of our journey on earth, to come to dwell with our God who has no beginning or ending.

With the incense we are reminded of the “sweet smelling sacrifices” of the Hebrew Bible. Our sacrifice is prayer and praise as we give thanks to God and lift up our hopes and longing for the coming of Christ in our midst. The rising of the incense represents our prayers rising up to God.

And so each night we begin in silence, waiting and darkness. We wait for the light, for the Word of God to come in our hearts and lives, we wait for the promise of eternal life. As reflect in silence we wait patiently and create room for Christ to be born in our hearts that he may be born in our world.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Everyday Life: Guests

1 All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35). 2 Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims.3 Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love. RB 53:1-3

Benedict says that the monastery will never be without guests. Benedict lived in a time when travel was very difficult. The Roman Empire had fallen and was being overrun by barbarians. Benedict’s own rule mandated that monks stay enclosed, away from the world. And yet people still managed to find their way to monasteries, there was a constant parade of guests and Benedict made special provisions for handling them.

Both then and now there is something about monasteries, some centrifugal force that draws people on a deep level, brings them to these places. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the monasteries are in the middle of urban areas or off the farthest beaten path, whether they are the most enclosed and traditional or very modern and open. People still come.

Those of us who live at the monasteries are always a little puzzled by this. We know we aren’t very holy, we live with ourselves after all. We know that our prayer life always has room for improvement, some of us have lots of room for improvement. We have a few members whom we would just as soon keep in the closet when company comes. But company does keep coming and we just keep welcoming them.

The parade of guests is good for us, because it allows us to see what we can’t see. After a while, in the midst of the routine of daily life, we forget how unique we are, a group of people, living together for life, dedicated to seeking God. What we see on a daily basis is how far we are from our goal. We notice our distractions, our pettiness, the anxieties, our fears about maintaining our way of life. We know that we regularly fail to see and respect the presence of Christ in one another. We have all come here to seek God, but God is the air we breathe and it is hard to notice the air around you.

And so we have the gift of guests. These are the people who come and notice that the air is different at the monastery. They can feel the atmosphere of so many people who lived and died in this place where God is the center and reason for our being. Guests are the ones who can come to chapel and be open to the amazing reality of regular prayer, undistracted by the anxieties of daily life that happens between times for prayer. Like little children seeing the most mundane wonders for the first time they help us to see how marvelous this place and our way of life truly is.

Benedict calls on his monks to treat the guests as Christ. I was always puzzled why Benedict doesn’t call us to recognize all people as Christ, he only singles out guests and the sick. But perhaps that is because the guests have a special role to play in our lives. Guests come and show us that indeed God is in our midst. Christ came to show us that God shares our reality. Guests come to remind us that truly we do live in a holy place.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

I hope today is a wonderful day of food, family, friends and giving thanks for everyone. Here at the Monastery it is like a Sunday. We are having conversation at breakfast, Morning Prayer isn’t until 9 and we have a special booklet for Office. Mass will be like on Sunday. The tables are all specially decorated and we will be giving thanks for the wonderful cooks who spoil us with amazing food.

As we give thanks for what we have and work to alleviate the plight of those who don’t have enough and seek to change the structures of injustice, I have been thinking about what Thanksgiving means from a Benedictine perspective.

In the Rule Benedict doesn’t have a lot to say explicitly about thanksgiving, but I think it permeates monastic life. In chapters 19 and 20 on prayer we are reminded that God is always watching us. While that may initially evoke some feelings of dread among those of us with guilty consciences, I don’t think that is the intent. If we know God as the source of our being, of goodness, who created and sustains all that is, we have a very different feeling about God’s omniscience. God is always with us, around us, caring for us, providing for us. Even on the worst days when we are living out the cursing Psalms and we are deeply angry at God, we know on a deep level that God is present. To be a monastic, oblate or cenobite, is to live in this awareness of God’s presence, knowing that we are upheld and sustained by the God and that we express God’s love to one another.

Thanksgiving is also about humility. For most of us there will come a time when we realize we are not the center of the universe and that we aren’t really in control. We may have times when God feels far away, when it is hard to pray, when we feel unworthy of all the graces we have been given. In the midst of these difficult experiences there is an opening. In these struggles we are humbled. We are reminded of our limitations, our longing for God that may not feel fulfilled. We have to face our questions, doubts and frustrations of faith. These experiences that may stretch us almost to the breaking point are also the breaking points that allow God to be present. God can now be with us on God’s terms, not just according to how we want to know God. This is a deep experience of humility. We can finally come before God in thanksgiving, grateful for all that we have been given, not necessarily how we thought things should be but completely open and aware that that all we have is gift.

I suspect that for Benedict presumption is the enemy of thanksgiving. There seems to be nothing in the Rule that causes Benedict to become more incensed than presumption. It makes sense if you think about it. Presumption is a form of arrogance, we think we know what’s best, that we get to be in charge and control. Presumptuousness is all about entitlement rather than gratefulness. It might be something for us to think about this Thanksgiving as we look at what we presume in our life. Do we presume that we are entitled to all that we have, all that we are given? Do we come to the table this year in humble awe and gratefulness? Do we give ourselves permission to simply be still, silent and thankful for the God who surrounds us and enfolds us with care? Do we give thanks for the gift of family, friends, community, all those who mediate God’s presence to us through their care, support and love?

As I reflect today I will give special thanks for the gift of community, of all those who are part of our lives and are a gift to us.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Final Entry Into Community

A week ago yesterday we had the funeral for Sr. Judith. It is unusual but not unique that we have a funeral and a profession so close together. In some ways it is very appropriate. A funeral is perhaps the last profession, the final and ultimate entry into community.

In the Rule, Benedict describes an entrance ceremony for novices that is overlaid with images of community. The novice makes profession in the chapel, the heart of community. During the ceremony the novice prostrates at the feet of each member asking his/her blessing. The community hears the novice sing the Suscipe, the prayer asking for God’s mercy, and the whole community sings it back in response.

Even more deeply the profession rite speaks of images of the community of the Trinity. The ceremony is replete with actions that are repeated three times as a reminder of the community of the Trinity. The novice is accepted into a monastic community that is modeled on the self-giving love of the Trinity.

A profession is a joyful and challenging reminder that we walk this way of salvation together. When we accept a new woman into community we commit to support, encourage and uphold her as we walk the Gospel path. On the part of the new sister and the community there is a realization that walking this way won’t always be easy but we will persevere even through the most difficult times.

Last Monday these same images and feelings were evoked during the services for Sr. Judith. This time we were not celebrating her entrance into monastic community but her entrance into the community of the Trinity, the final profession of hope that is the culmination of our commitment to monastic life.

The Suscipe has a profound poignancy during a funeral, even more so as we miss Judith’s amazing voice. We sing “Receive me O Lord as you have promised that I may live, and disappoint me not in my hope.” In the funeral we sing for the sister who has died, we know that she has not been disappointed in her final hope. She now lives in the hope that we all aspire to, her community is now the community of the Trinity and her promise is fulfilled.

When we go to the cemetery we lay our sister to rest in her new community, the community of those who no longer struggle with their limitations, their fears and insecurities, who are finally able to freely let go into the reality of God’s love for all of us. For those of us still in the motley crew of this human community there will still be work to do but as we leave the hill we rejoice that Judith is singing of a promise fulfilled in her new community of eternity.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Katie's Profession

Saturday was a joyous event at the Monastery as we celebrated Sr. Katie Cooper’s first profession. The monastery was full of people here to support and cheer people on for the occasion. Jeannette reports that at least a quarter of the oblate community was here for the occasion.

We celebrated the Feast of St. Gertrude Saturday so the special Office, readings and decorations helped set the tone for the profession. We hope that under the patronage of Gertrude we too might know the profound, mystical love of Christ that she did. The background of her feast day made Katie’s commitment in this monastery that much more powerful as we reflected on another Benedictine woman who made her own monastic profession so many centuries ago.


The profession ceremony, like all significant Catholic rites, always takes place in the context of Eucharist. In this way we acknowledge that all important events of our life are simply a small part of the greater paschal mystery. Everything in our life happens in the context of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

There are also parts that are unique to the monastic profession ceremony. After the Gospel reading Katie and Agnes went to the back of chapel. Then they and the monastic community sang “The Call” three times. “Come my daughter, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Draw near to Him that you may be radiant with joy and your being will always be at peace.” As this was sung three times as Katie and Agnes moved further down the aisle.

Then, standing before the altar Katie made her profession by answering “I do” when Clarissa asked her whether she promised fidelity to the monastic way of life, stability and obedience. This was followed by a great round of applause from the whole community, the sisters, oblates, family and friends of Katie who filled the chapel and expressed their joy at her commitment.

Next, Katie read her profession formula, showed it to Clarissa and Fr. Eamonn and placed it on the altar. In the Rule of Benedict this act of placing the formula on the altar, written out by the monastic in his/her own hand, is a powerful symbol of uniting oneself with the self-sacrifice of Christ. Every day in the Eucharist we remember and re-enact Christ’s self-giving love on our behalf. By personally writing out her commitment to the monastic way of life in this community and placing it on the altar, Katie indicates her willingness to be united with Christ in the commitment to this community.

Next is the “Suscipe” the ancient song that symbolizes the nature of monastic profession. In the front of the altar Katie sang “Receive me O Lord, as you have promised that I may live, and disappoint me not in my hope.” After she sang it the whole monastic community stood and responded with the same verse in song. We did this three times.

The Suscipe is a prayer of profound humility. We do not take God’s love and mercy for granted. We come before God in hope, always willing to see God’s presence as gift. By responding to Katie’s Suscipe the community indicates that all of us are united with Katie in hope and that we will journey to God together as a community, supporting and upholding one another. By repeating the verse three times we allude to the reality of the Trinity, the ultimate community. We express our hope that as a monastic community we may in some small way model the self-giving love of the divine Trinity.

After the Suscipe came the homily by Sr. Clarissa, reflected on the Rule of Benedict as the compass by which Katie would live her life as a monastic. Sr. Wilma and Katie’s daughters Cheryl and Tina were gift bearers. The schola did an amazing job of of providing very moving music that added to the richness of the ceremony. One of the very last things Sr. Judith did before she died was to prepare the worship booklet.


After the Mass there was a big celebration in the dining room where everyone had a chance to rejoice in the amazing and wonderful gift that Katie is to our community and to congratulate her on what is very clearly her call from God to be in our midst as a member of our monastic community. On behalf of Katie and the entire cenobitic community, many, many thanks to all the members of the oblate community who were here to help and celebrate this joyous event.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Kitchen Servers

Every day at Morning Praise we read a little section from the Rule of Benedict. Today was a section from the chapter of “kitchen servers of the week.” At first glance this chapter looks like one of the boring, practical chapters that seem to pervade the Rule. Benedict goes on at length about exactly how the kitchen help is chosen and what they are supposed to do. However, if people are willing to look more closely there is a profound level of meaning in the chapter.

Every week the monks who are going to be assigned to kitchen duty come into the chapel and received a blessing from the whole community. Benedict seeks up this weekly ceremony is a way that looks a lot like the profession ceremony. In other words, every week the monks who are waiting on tables go through a ceremony that looks like the ceremony for becoming a monk and entering community. Kitchen service, the humble activity of making sure everyone is fed, is considered similar or equal in importance to entering monastic life. They are both about service, humility and doing what is best for the other person.

Most monasteries today don’t have a special ceremony for kitchen servers. It’s too bad. Most of us could use such a frequent reminder that the central activities of monastic life involve simple, sometimes demeaning, frequently humble tasks that are performed for the sake of one another and God.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Death Where is Thy Sting?

Yesterday one of our sisters died. Despite her death it was largely a day like any other. Death is not something rare, unusual, or to be feared in the monastery. Death is an absolute, integral part of life. We accept it, ritualize it and give it meaning. In doing so we honor the death of our sister and the life that she led.

When someone is approaching death we put up an announcement on the board. We invite community members to come sit with the sister who is dying, to pray with her and for her as she prepares to go home to God. We try to honor her wishes at this time, whether for certain types of prayers and songs or for quiet and silence.

We try to keep vigil, ensuring that the dying sister has someone sitting with her throughout the night, to accompany on her journey home. Dying is seldom easy, any more than living. Some people slip away quietly, many struggle to make the transition.

As soon as the sister dies the bells are tolled, a slow, solemn ringing as an announcement to the world of someone passing from death to life. An announcement goes up on the board and word spreads quickly. Many people come by to say last good-byes. Plans for funeral arrangements begin to be made.

In the meantime life goes on in all its ordinariness. Dishes need to be washed. The community gathers for prayer. There is mail to be picked up. Meetings happen on schedule. Plans are made for the future. It may look callous to outsiders, this lack of drama around death, but this is the witness of the monastic way. Death isn’t an end, it is a homecoming, it is the goal of all monastics, to reach everlasting life. In the midst of life we rejoice in our sister who has reached her goal and in our ordinary lives we too continue to press on to the same goal.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Common Work

We all have to work. Very few, if any of us, belong to the leisured class where we don’t have to worry about working for a living. But work in a Benedictine community is a little different. Most of us have a specific job, or often several jobs! Everyone who is able also has assigned chores. The dishes have to be washed, the floors swept, meals taken care of, all those everyday tasks that have to be done. Generally everyone knows what they have to do and they pitch in conscientiously and help out.

In this regard we aren’t really any different from a family or organization where everyone has assigned jobs and they carry them out. One way we are somewhat different is in common work. There are always jobs that come up that have to be done that no one is assigned to do. Here in the fall the leaves must be raked, the chestnuts gathered off the lawn. In the late summer it is time to can, dry and otherwise preserve for the coming year. These are all jobs that can’t be done just by assigned people.

So the notes go up on the bulletin board. Are there “volunteers” for canning, raking, folding and labeling newsletters, decorating the dining room for special celebrations? It is a rare week that doesn’t have something above and beyond the usual chores.

And so we sign up. Like the workers in the vineyard some of us sign up early and stay late. Some of us rush in at the 11th hour just when the last of the leaves has been raked or the last pear cored and put into a jar. But perhaps the amazing thing is that it always works out. Everyone comes and contributes to the best of her ability. Rarely does anyone complain that someone came late and didn’t do much. Perhaps after years of living this common way of life we begin to live out the parable. This isn’t our vineyard, it is God’s harvest and God’s reward that we will receive. It is simply our place to show up when we can and welcome one another as we labor together.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


This morning I have been thinking about communication. I need to send some information to our oblate community about what is going on in the monastery. It takes some careful thought and conversation with various people to know exactly what to say and how to say it.

Communication is critical to creating and sustaining community. Even more than that communication is what makes us human. It creates, and sometimes destroys, relationships. If we withhold communication we hold people at a distance, we don’t let them into our lives, we convey the idea they aren’t important. But sometimes the opposite occurs. We can give people too much information, we flood them with news to the point they are overwhelmed and drowning. It is a case of TMI, “too much information.”

The problem in each case is that we are centered on ourselves, not the other person. If I withhold communication it is because I am putting my own needs, my own lack of trust first, rather than believing that other people care and want to know what’s going on. If I overwhelm them with information I am also acting like I am the center of everyone else’s universe as well as my own. I forget that people are kind, supportive, but they have their own lives to lead.
Ultimately our communication needs to model that of God. The ultimate word, the ultimate communication, was God’s word in Christ, the Logos, the Word. God communicated God’s very self in the incarnation of Jesus. God spoke in the form of flesh, the flesh that came and dwelt among us. God communicated, spoke, with deep, unassuming care, out of an unfathomable love. God’s love in Christ respected the needs of all while sharing their burdens and suffering with them unto death.

May our word to one another echo the Word that is God’s presence in our lives.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cloud of Witnesses

On November 1st we celebrated the Feast of All Saints. It is a day to commemorate all the “saints,” women and men who live lives of deep faith, both those recognized by the Church as saints and those whose faith is known only to a few.

Here at the monastery we celebrate the “saints” all during November. It is a month both poignant and inspiring. Outside the earth reminds us of the cycles of loss, leaves are falling, the earth is sliding toward dormancy. Things are slowing down. We reflect on Benedict’s admonition to “keep death daily before your eyes;” the admonition that life is both a gift to be appreciated in the moment and a gift that is simply an invitation to eternity.

In the chapel we hang long banners with the names of all the sisters who have died in the community since our founding in 1882. There are close to 200 names now. These women are part of our “cloud of witnesses” referred to by the Letter to the Hebrews. They are the women who lived quiet lives, who will never be canonized by the Church, who will be remembered only by those of us who lived with them or who have heard their stories.

There are the names of all kinds of women on the banners. I have known over 25 of them in the eleven years I have been here. There are the women who were deeply humble, saintly people. There are the women who were deeply wounded, who challenged and stretched us as we tried to love them. There are the “characters,” larger than life, alternately infuriating and funny. There are the little people who were little noticed in life or death, treasured by God if not always by us. All of them surround us now, these witnesses who have completed their journey and who now urge us on to the finish line of our faith.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Our Hill

In the Rule of Benedict there is a recurring metaphor of the journey. Benedict uses images of progress, setting out and movement, to express the idea that we continue to grow and change in this monastic life. For Benedict our journey is toward heaven and eternal life. As monks we are called to keep walking, keep trying, keep praying, keep loving one another even when the road is difficult.

The image of the journey is one that I think about a lot as I walk the hill behind our monastery. We own a couple of hundred acres of hilly woodland and pasture. There is a road that goes up a steep hill to our cemetery. Along the road are a set of outdoor Stations of the Cross. The road continues on and winds around, all the way up to a meadow, down another steep hill and loops back to the beginning.

Walking this road almost every day is like experiencing monastic life in microcosm. There are very steep sections that challenge me and make me realize I’m not in as good a shape as I’d like. In the cemetery I’m surrounded by our cloud of witnesses, the women of faith who have gone before. On up the hill there are some level sections when life is pretty easy and straight-forward. At another place there is a spot where for a few weeks in the spring you can find delicate lady-slipper’s, but only if you know how to slow down and really look. At another spot is “Crystal Lake” a large mud puddle named by someone with a sense of humor to remind me to just laugh when life doesn’t deliver the “crystal lake” I was expecting. Finally, after considerable time and some huffing and puffing comes the top of the meadow. Here is the glimpse of the heights, the mountains, river gorges, plains and panorama that is the image of eternal life that we are all climbing towards.

After this I come down the hill, retrace my steps, through the ordinary, extraordinary place that is our monastery and my life. And tomorrow I will live it all again.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

What is community?

This weekend we celebrated the 20 year anniversary of our oblate program. Twenty years ago the sisters decided to begin an “extended members” program for men and women who wanted to be associated with the monastery. From the original “eager eight” members we now have 65 active oblates. These are men and women, married and single, Catholic and Protestant, who are strongly committed to sharing the values and mission of the Monastery of St. Gertrude.

Most importantly they have become an integral part of the monastery, of our community. When they gather they share stories of how Benedictine values shape their lives, in their families, in their work, in their prayer, in all aspects of life. And here at the monastery we rely on them to continue our mission. They help on committees, they work as volunteers in the monastery, they are our public presence in “the world” and spread the Good News of Benedictine life.

The shape and form of the Benedictine monastic life has always been changing and evolving over the last 1500 years since Benedict wrote his Rule. The way people live out monastic life and values has always been changing. Today we are seeing a new wave of renewal, new ways to live out the monastic ideal of living the Gospel, of seeking God in everyday life. Our oblates are on the forefront of new ways to live out the values of our monastery and together we are one monastic community, and we are deeply grateful for these committed women and men.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


“Listen carefully my daughter, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”
RB Prologue 1

Perhaps this is the final listening.

There is a steep hill behind our monastery. Right outside the backdoor of the chapel is a road. It winds past the orchard and the grotto as you walk up through a pine forest, overlooking the wheat fields of the prairie. Along the road as you walk up there are Stations of the Cross, life size plaster statues, each in an enclosed little house. They are strategically stationed so that you can catch your breath as well as pray as you walk up the hill. When you reach the top of the hill you are greeted by two concrete angels on top of stone pillars, each facing slightly away from the other, blowing trumpets, heralding the final judgment.

This is where the listening ends and also begins. It is our cemetery.

There are probably close to two hundred women and a few men buried up there. In silence they witness to what it means to live a life of listening. They all heard God’s call, some ran eagerly to respond, others resisted, still others probably couldn’t have explained exactly what it meant to listen.

Here rest the women who heard the call in Switzerland, in 1882, to start a new monastery in the far off mission field of America. Sr. Johanna was only twenty five when she was told to leave her convent in Switzerland to start a new foundation in the American Northwest. She resisted, didn’t like the new country, had to spend her first months living over a saloon when promised housing didn’t appear. She listened and responded to a voice that pulled her where she didn’t want to go.

Here, too, are the women who listened and heard the call growing up two miles down the road, milking the cows and dreaming about life in the stone convent with the sisters. They were the farm girls, rooted in the land, in a simple faith in which spoke clearly, their response was straight-forward. Hard work, obedience, the promise of heaven was the reward of their listening.

In row on row there are women who heard the call, women humble, loving and giving, the saints among us. Here, too, are the women who listened and then called others to be saints by asking others to bear with their behavior.

They all listened, some to a still small voice, others to an incessant shout, some to a persistent tickling feeling. Here on the hill are the ones who continued to listen, two who died in accidents before they even made vows, too many others in those early years who died young, of tuberculosis or diphtheria or flu in the early days without enough money or medicine or decent food. They lie next to the sisters who lived and worked and loved and prayed into a ripe fullness of years, dying in their beds surrounded by their sisters. These are the women of Revelation, “who have come through the great ordeal,” who listened for a few months, for a few years, for sixty or seventy or eighty years.

Lined up in rows they are resting now. The seasons mean nothing anymore, the time of new grass or snow or falling leaves. Side by side they lie, the ones who ran schools and hospitals, who lead the community, with the ones who spent their lives scrubbing floors, the ones who peeled the potatoes and the ones who came home to die after years in the back wards of the state mental hospitals. Together they listened in life, together they listen in death.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Everyday Life: Meals

1 For the daily meals, whether at noon or in mid-afternoon, it is enough, we believe, to provide all tables with two kinds of cooked food because of individual weaknesses. 2 In this way, the person who may not be able to eat one kind of food may partake of the other 7 and that above all overindulgence is avoided, lest a monk experience indigestion. 8 For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. 9 Our Lord says: Take care that your hearts are not weighed down with overindulgence (Luke 21:34). RB 39:1-2, 7-9

People often come to the monastery with an odd idea of what monastic life is like. Visions of strict asceticism seem to dance in their heads. They come and expect cells with plank beds and one daily meal of bread and water. But monastic life isn’t about denial and fasting, it’s about cheese puppies.

Cheese puppies are a dish served occasionally at our monastery. They consist of sliced hot dogs mixed with cheese sauce and relish and baked in hot dog buns. I don’t eat cheese puppies. I can’t stand cheese puppies. There aren’t even any ingredients in cheese puppies that I like.
The wonderful thing is that Benedict knew there would be monastics like me. He also knew that there would be monastics like Sr. Mary. She loves cheese puppies. She beams when she sees them on the menu and she takes an extra one when they are served. Being a good sister I always offer her mine.

But it is clear that in chapter 39 Benedict knows food isn’t supposed to be a penance, it’s about weakness and community and always being mindful of God who is the source of our food. If cheese puppies were the only thing to eat on certain days I would probably not be fit to live with. I know I’m not mature enough to be able to choke down cheese puppies in silent gratitude, I would moan and grumble and murmur and be envious of Mary as she gloried in her favorite meal. Someday I might be spiritually mature enough to be able to simply eat whatever is fixed while being genuinely grateful. But Benedict did not write for the spiritually mature, he wrote for people like me who are overwhelmed with sadness when they see cheese puppies on the menu.

Perhaps for Benedict it was all about weakness. Monastic life in the 6th century was austere, they didn’t have much. Monks lived simply. They weren’t as poor as some of the people who showed up at their gate with absolutely nothing, but they weren’t the rich who never knew what it meant to feel want. Benedict’s monks were like most people in their society, food wasn’t plentiful it was scarce and couldn’t be wasted.

Scarcity was what made it so hard to come to the table after a long, hungry day when the smells were enticing and the time before the supper bell seemed to drag into eternity. Then, after all the waiting and expectation there it would be, the one food you couldn’t eat even though you were starving. Maybe it was some 6th century version of liver, Brussels sprouts or sauerkraut, something that had the taste, the texture, the smell or the memory that made it impossible to eat. And there it was, the only dish on the supper table and you almost wanted to cry.
Benedict had probably seen this happen. Maybe when he was a young, strong monk who thought he could do anything for the love of God he was defeated by a boiled rutabaga. We don’t know.

But he knew how important food was, how important it is to have enough, not too much, but enough. So at Benedict’s table there is plenty of bread, the heart of their diet and when the garden is producing there are tender young vegetables. And there are two cooked dishes. There is enough. Not always the same amount, but enough for the workers doing the heavy work in the fields to have more. One size did not fit all, food was about what each person needs and not the needs of the kitchen or the schedule or the group. Not too much, but enough so that everyone can eat and not be hungry or frustrated or beat themselves up because they just can’t eat what is set before them.

But Benedict also says something remarkably prescient that takes us beyond the details of the supper table to the needs of our souls as well as our bellies. “For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence. Our Lord says: Take care that your hearts are not weighed down with over indulgence.” (Luke 21:34) RB 39:8 Ours isn’t a culture of scarcity but one in which we are drowning in abundance, scarcely able to breath as we are sucked beneath the riptide of affluence. “Enough” isn’t our problem, too much is our problem. But Benedict’s scripture quotation gives us a hint and a wake-up call.

The quotation from Luke’s Gospel isn’t about some poor fool who ate too much at the banquet and suffered from the first century’s lack of antacids. Luke is talking about being ready for the coming of God. The sentence Benedict quotes ends “…and that day catch you unexpectedly like a trap.”

The provisions in the Rule for enough food are so that people can focus on the spiritual journey and not the journey to the snack cupboard. Benedict is worried about weakness. In his weakness of the monk who can’t eat what is set out before him cannot focus on God, he is too busy being miserable and hungry. We know our weakness very well today. We are so busy with our banqueting, our dieting, our cholesterol, our calories and carbs, that we walk into a trap. The trap is our focus on the food alone, not the God who gave the food with love, the one who served it in love, the person who worked to produce it who needs the work of Christian justice or the plants and creatures who were sacrificed to make it happen.

Food in the Rule is about “enough” because we aren’t spiritual athletes who can fast for days or even give up our favorite deserts for Lent. We are people who struggle and need help and constant reminders and accommodations. For Benedict food is simple and plain and enough so that we can focus on the coming of the day of Lord, that day which is every day of our lives.
I still cringe when I see cheese puppies on the menu. But there is always another cooked dish, we are blessed with many home cooked dishes and produce from our garden, and thanks to Benedict’s wisdom I can rejoice with Sr. Mary as I eat something else and together we give thanks to God.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Doing Dishes

1 The brothers should serve one another. Consequently, no one will be excused from kitchen service unless he is sick or engaged in some important business of the monastery, 2 for such service increases reward and fosters love.

9 Both the one who is ending his service and the one who is about to begin are to wash the feet of everyone.

15 On Sunday immediately after Lauds, those beginning as well as those completing their week of service should make a profound bow in the oratory before all and ask for their prayers. 16 Let the server completing his week recite this verse: Blessed are you, Lord God, who have helped me and comforted me (Dan 3:52; Ps 85[86]:17). 17 After this verse has been said three times, he receives a blessing. Then the one beginning his service follows and says: God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me (Ps 69[70]:2). 18 And all repeat this verse three times. When he has received a blessing, he begins his service
RB 35:1-4, 9, 15-18

She wasn’t especially familiar with the Rule but she lived it. Towards the end of her life, when her dementia grew steadily worse, Sr. Scholastica would often show up in her apron, ready to wash the pots and pans. Of course she would often show up long before or after the meal and had trouble remembering which job she was doing even when she was there. But service was in her bones, years of community life, teaching and prayer were so much a part of her that she wanted to serve even when there was little else she could do.

Sr. Scholastica’s service is the spirit of Benedict’s chapters on the kitchen servers of the week. Every week people are to be designated the kitchen helpers. They are to serve the meals, clean up, do the dishes and make sure a hungry community is fed promptly and efficiently.
This is the nitty-gritty of life in common. Someone has to get the food on the table, do the laundry and the dishes, clean up and make sure people’s needs are met. This chapter doesn’t contain the exalted language of ladder of humility, the compelling call of the Prologue or the challenge of obedience. Kitchen servers are about ordinary, everyday life.But Benedict always knows that the holy hides in the ordinary. Hidden in the most mundane chapters are little jewels of exquisite sacramentality.

The kitchen servers begin and end their week of service by washing the feet of every community member. This wasn’t a practical necessity, the monks would wash their own dirty feet when they needed to. In the weekly washing of the feet the monks would become Christ for one another. Every week they would become Jesus’ disciples. Were they worthy to have their feet washed by a holy brother? Could they be humble enough to allow someone who had hurt them deeply wash their feet? Could they become the presence of Christ and serve those whom they loved and those whom they detested?

Sister Scholastica was the first woman in our community to receive a Ph.D. When she came home she washed dishes beside those who may not have finished high school and spent their adult lives doing domestic work. She washed dishes with the newcomers and those, like her, who had lived this way of life for fifty years. There is a lot of time to reflect on service when “scratching” the pots and pans with baked on food, up to your elbows in dirty water. There are no distinctions in the pots and pans, there is only service.

But sometimes we need to be reminded that we did not come to monastic life because of our gifts and talents, we came to community to serve God and one another. Benedict reminded everyone of this reality every week. The Rule provides that the kitchen servers would rotate and every week in the oratory, in the heart of the monastery, everyone would gather and the servers of the week would be blessed and commissioned for their week of service.

Benedict’s ceremony of psalms, prayers and blessings was similar to the ceremony of novices making their life commitment to the monastery. Every week the whole community would gather and be reminded of why they came to the monastery, perhaps to be reminded that if they didn’t come to serve they shouldn’t stay. Those starting their week would recite the verse: “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me,” the same verse that opens the hours of prayer. And kitchen service is a prayer, it is a prayer to a God who is not a distant king but a God who served and suffered and loved the very people who betrayed him. Those ending their service would recite the verse: “Blessed are you Lord God who have helped me and comforted me.” We do nothing on our own, coming to monastic life, staying, doing dishes or washing feet. We are sustained by God’s help and comfort not by our strength or determination.
Probably no one has ever come to the monastery because they want to wash the dishes. We come because we want to seek God. But we find is that God is there, in the pots and pans, in the feet we wash, when we reach the end of our life unable to remember anything except how to serve.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bedrooms and Cells

“The monks are to sleep in separate beds. They are to receive bedding as provided by the abbot suitable to monastic life.” RB 22:1-2

The story goes that a disciple in the desert went to his spiritual father and asked “abba, give me a word, and the abba said: ‘go to your cell and your cell will give you a word.’” In other words just go to your cell, your room, and be there. That experience will teach you all you need to know.

In monastic life your cell can teach you a lot and what it teaches you will change over time. Our bedrooms, our “cells,” are very simple. They are small, linoleum floors, a closet, a sink, dresser, chair, bed and small desk. There isn’t really room for anything else. That is the first thing you learn on coming to the monastery: room. How much room do you really need? How much room are you used to having? When there is no room you have to take a look at your life and what you have accumulated prior to coming to this point.

The cell, the bedroom, is simply a metaphor for our whole life. When we have to sort through and get rid of our accumulated stuff the process is simply a tangible version of what we are called to do with our inner life. How can we pare down, simplify, discard anything that is not essential? It isn’t easy, we cling to so many things, interior and exterior. Our stuff, interior and exterior, provides us with the illusion of security. We feel safe when we are surrounded by the things we cling to, whether books or clothes or papers or knickknacks or anything else. It is the same safety, sense of clinging to what we know and are familiar with when we cling to our fears, our anger, our distrust, our patterns of acting. The world is a scary place and we don’t want to give up our security blankets.

When I came to the monastery I brought a couple of suitcases full of clothes, some papers, odds and ends, CD player and a whole pick-up truck full of books. My altruistic justification was that the books would be a good thing for community and therefore they didn’t really count as possessions. Of course the books stayed in the formation room for several years and even now I am surrounded by way too many books.

When I finally moved my books out of the formation room I gave quite a few to the community library and put many of them out on a common table to be “adopted.” It was a process that was much harder than I would have anticipated. I really did feel that people were adopting my books, I wanted to watch each person who took one and demand that they read it and cherish it and take it seriously.

Giving up my books (even if I still have too many) was a deep process of letting go. It made me realize that for me books are what money is to many people. It is a symbol of security, comfort, control. It helps me define my identity. When I gave away my books it was a stripping of some fundamental part of my self.

But monastic life is not about security, it is about trust. We trust that when we enter community having given away most of our possessions we will still have all the things we need. This is the simple, initial lesson of the cell. All the basic things you need will be supplied. But the lesson of the cell calls us deeper. When you come to monastic life you not only give up your possessions, the tangible brick-a-brack accumulated over the years, but eventually you will give up your money, the income, savings, investments and all the security and independence they represent. You will no longer be on your own, self-sufficient and independent, trusting your ability and independence to take you through any challenges.

Monastic life is about being stripped, dependent and trusting in the face of insecurity. The cell, the monastic bedroom is simply a tangible reminder. We cling to so many things. Like the risen Christ who tell Mary Magdalene not to cling to the earthly Jesus we need to let go of all the illusions of security that keep us from coming alone, stripped and vulnerable before God and the incarnation of God which is our community.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Nightly News

5 No one should presume to relate to anyone else what he saw or heard outside the monastery, because that causes the greatest harm. 6 If anyone does so presume, he shall be subjected to the punishment of the rule. 7 So too shall anyone who presumes to leave the enclosure of the monastery, or go anywhere, or do anything at all, however small, without the abbot’s order. RB 67:5-7

We are rather isolated in our monastery. We live in a very rural state, in a rural part of the state and three miles from the nearest small town. Our idea of excitement is when a kid gets a new motorcycle and can be heard making noise out on the road. We usually know within a couple of hours if someone has been admitted to the hospital and we speak in hushed tones of messy divorces and family problems.

But the world does intrude every night and that is a good thing. Every night after prayer and supper a number of sisters add another rite to the daily horarium, the nightly news. One of the common rooms has a TV and we gather to watch the national news. There is rapt attention to a parade of tragedy. Earthquakes, cyclones, political unrest, and terror happening in places we probably couldn’t find on a map are instantly brought into our remote living room. The world shrinks and we are no longer alone and isolated from the depths of human misery and suffering.

It is difficult to watch the news with integrity. Personally, I always want to create a distance, analyze it, say why it isn’t so bad, minimize the waves of pain that seem to flow from images and words on the screen. Other people seem to be able to ride the wave and just as easily walk away. But perhaps all of us are called to enter into the this ocean, not to run from it, not to ride on top of it, but to get wet, to experience the pain of the world. We cannot hold back this ocean or deny its existence. But the pain is real and we need to be part of it, we are connected to people we will never meet or know.

In this age of technology we know more about people around the world than our ancestors could have ever dreamed of. The world shrinks and comes closer. We are being called to something new, to live with hearts broken open in a world where hearts become callous to flickering images of pain. How do we cultivate tenderness, allow the pain to be real when it is easier to walk past? How do we allow ourselves to be hurt by others, both others in a country we will never see and others sitting on the couch next to us? Monastic life isn’t about answers. There are very few answers and the older we grow the more we realize the answers we had clung to so tightly don’t work. But monastic life offers space, space where we can hold the questions, hold the pain that we cannot heal and when we do so, we hold the presence of Christ in our midst.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Prayer Board

Listen readily to holy reading, and devote yourself often to prayer. RB 4:55-56

Truly, we are forbidden to do our own will, for Scripture tells us: Turn away from your desires (Sir 18:30). And in the Prayer too we ask God that his will be done in us (Matt 6:10) RB 7:19-20

The scraps of paper are small, often smudged, spelling errors are common. But the stories behind them are often quite big. They are small glimpses into stories of the transition between life and death, the journeys of grief and rejoicing. Accurate, clinical accounts of illness are posted side by side with concerns about demon possession. The entire human condition is reflected in a constantly changing kaleidoscope of papers on a bulletin board.

In our hallway leading to chapel is the “prayer board.” It is a common sight in all monasteries, the place where anyone can put up a note in the form of a request for prayers. Everyone in the monastery stops by several times a day to see if any new requests have gone up. It is a form of news: the results of medical tests, phone calls announcing safe arrivals, thanksgivings for jobs received, presentations successfully given and private requests honored.

To much of the world the very notion of prayer seems archaic, perhaps rather quaint or a version of primitive magical thinking. Even among people who pray it can seem as if even prayer itself has become divisive and partisan as God is invoked to smite a variety of ideological enemies. But in the monastery prayer is simply who we are, it is the air we breathe, it is our purpose.

To read the prayer board every day, several times a day is to experience many little pin pricks. It is impossible to become callous when confronted with the evidence of the pieces of so many lives. Often the pieces are like sharp broken glass, suffering, illness and pain glint from the scraps of paper. Occasional moments of joy and thanksgiving stand out.

For the most part these aren’t big issues of world peace or systemic injustice, they are usually the issues that loom large only for a small group of people. But that is appropriate somehow. Our life isn’t one of making a great difference on the world stage, our life is one of small steps, quiet prayers, hidden impact. We often don’t know the people we pray for or whether their prayers, and ours are answered, but it doesn’t matter. To be a monastery is to be a place where faith and prayers are the reason for being, it is why we exist.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Everyday Life: Liturgical Calisthenics and the Organ Recital

1 During the winter season, that is, from the first of November until Easter, it seems reasonable to arise at the eighth hour of the night. 2 By sleeping until a little past the middle of the night, the brothers can arise with their food fully digested….4 Between Easter and the first of November mentioned above, the time for Vigils should be adjusted so that a very short interval after Vigils will give the monks opportunity to care for nature’s needs. Then, at daybreak, Lauds should follow immediately. Rule of Benedict 8:1-2,4

7 As soon as the cantor begins to sing “Glory be to the Father,” let all the monks rise from their seats in honor and reverence for the Holy Trinity. RB 9:7

Sometimes Christianity can seem disembodied, a matter of intellectual faith in dogma and propositions, believing in an unseen and invisible God. For some, faith may not seem to have a whole lot to do with the messiness of concrete and corporeal problems, the reality of living life in touch with our bodies, the earth or just day to day reality. People who tend to think of their faith in this way have clearly never been to a monastery. There are few things as physical, down to earth and human as a group of monastics praying together.

Monastic prayer is very physical, very real. It is grounded in the body, even when the body isn’t always pretty. The body always reminds us that the body is what Christ came to share with us in the incarnation, the body in all its wonderful, messy, spectacular and occasionally grumpy glory. Monastic prayer doesn’t consist of disembodied, lilting, ethereal paeans to an unseen God in the clouds. Monastic prayer is embodied, it involves the senses, the body, and recognizing the holiness of things that don’t seem very holy.

We gather three times a day for prayer. In the monastery a bell rings ten minutes before the time for prayer and we begin to make our pilgrimage down the halls to the chapel. Most of us walk into the chapel. Some scurry, several limp, and a few meander in after everyone else is seated. You can tell a lot about people by how they walk. Some are deeply weighed down by life, their burdens bend them over and they seem to grow close to the ground. A few people bounce along, the happy Tiggers of a Winnie the Pooh story, a spring in their step, happy to meet the day and its challenges. A few stately ships seem to part the water as the glide majestically along the corridors and between the waves of chairs. Some people rush in like the white rabbit of Alice in Wonderland as if always late for a very important date. One may seem to silently trumpet her presence while another is silent, unseen and invisible.

Like most monasteries today we are mostly older, sometimes we look like a parade of the lame, the halt and the blind milling around, responding to a rumor that Jesus is in the neighborhood and might be healing people. At a certain age knees give out, hips creak and groan, feet hurt and it is easier to kind of shuffle. In the front row are the sisters who have lost this battle, they are experiencing the final growth in monastic humility that comes from being dependent, waiting for someone to take them into or out of chapel, help them with their hearing devices, hand them a tissue when their hands are shaking too much to get them for themselves. They are living with the final betrayal of the bodies that they bring to prayer.

Finally the grandfather clock chimes the hour, the signal to stand and begin. Some stand the way they breathe and move, calmly, effortlessly without thought. Others know that simply getting up at the end of prayer will be as much effort as they can make while some still struggle and heave with the effort. Our entire bodies have come to prayer.

All our voices intend to praise God as one, but some voices do a better job than others. At the signal an entire menagerie lifts its voice, a chorus that contains nightingales and bull elephants, twittering and trumpeting, some on key and some off on another planet. Some sing with great and joyful abandon, oblivious of how they sound. Others are sure that these joyful people are intentionally scraping fingernails across the blackboards of their souls with their sounds. A few rush ahead as if in a hurry to catch a bus while a few poke and doddle in their prayers, content to bring up the rear of the choir.

In between is the reality of Benedict’s reminder to allow time for monks to “care for nature’s needs.” We are surrounded by the same community that Benedict lived in, where you can tell what people had for dinner the night before, who has a sinus infection, who should have laid off the garlic and whose new indigestion medicine isn’t working. One of our sisters refers to it as the “organ recital.”

Listening to this particular organ recital day after day, and occasionally contributing to it, is a reminder that it isn’t our disembodied souls that will be saved, it is our whole, infuriating, wonderful, broken and blessed bodies that will be redeemed. In the meantime we will have lots of opportunities to anticipate that redemption, to practice patience with our own and others bodies.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What Would Jesus Drive?

2 We mean that without an order from the abbot, no one may presume to give, receive 3 or retain anything as his own, nothing at all—not a book, writing tablets or stylus—in short, not a single item, 4 especially since monks may not have the free disposal even of their own bodies and wills.
Rule of Benedict (RB) 33:2-4

10[The cellarer] will regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, 11 aware that nothing is to be neglected.

18 Necessary items are to be requested and given at the proper times, 19 so that no one may be disquieted or distressed in the house of God.
Rule of Benedict (RB) 31: 1, 6, 10-11, 18-19

A while back I was stopped by a State Patrol officer for failing to come to a complete stop at the stop sign at the intersection of the highway leading out of town. I am originally from California and I did what people in most parts of the country refer to as a “California stop,” failing to come to a full and complete stop at the stop sign. (In California we used to call it a “Hollywood stop.” I don’t know what they call it in Hollywood.) As I showed him my license and registration he looked rather puzzled and asked “do you own this car.” I said “well…it’s complicated.”
Actually it isn’t that complicated but I was so preoccupied with hoping I wouldn’t get a ticket I couldn’t afford that I wasn’t thinking very clearly. The truth is that it is very simple. I don’t own a car, a home, a bank account or much of anything apart from way too many books and a variety of odds and ends.

Of course Benedict would probably be deeply shocked and dismayed at how much “stuff” his modern sons and daughters accumulate in modern monastic life, but by the standards of most people we live fairly simply.

In our little town, three miles from the monastery, our cars are known as the “nun-mobiles.” They are all used Toyota Corollas. They aren’t the biggest, flashiest cars in the area, they aren’t the most beaten up rattle-traps, all in all they are pretty unobtrusive, and I think they reflect who we are and how we try to live. Cars are regarded as important, necessary, functional objects to be treated with great care and reverence and shared equally among everyone according to need.

If a sister needs a car for her work she gets the use of a designated car as long as she needs it. If someone is living and working at the monastery there are several cars available for everyone’s use. Anytime someone needs to go to an appointment, run an errand or use a car she uses a sign out sheet to put down her name, what car she needs and when. She takes the keys and puts them back when she comes back. If someone needs a car to go somewhere overnight or farther than the next real town, she asks the sister in charge of cars, tells her where she’s going, when and how long she will need the car. The sister in charge then looks at her schedule and reserves a car.

The whole system works, but it does a take a greater degree of mindfulness than having your own car. Quick, unplanned trips to town in the afternoon don’t always work, that seems to be a popular time and often all the cars are signed out. Peak travel time in the summer can mean that last minute long-distance travel can’t happen or requires the juggling of a limited supply of cars.

For some of us it also means thinking of cars as strictly transportation, a shift away from treating them as a very large purse on wheels, which had been how I always treated my vehicles. Before I came to the monastery, when I bought a new pickup truck, a friend of mine looked at it and said: “Wow, look at all the room in back to throw your soda cans!”

I suppose that is the main difference between a personal car and a monastic car. The car is not my own, it isn’t even like renting a car where I can act as if it is my own for a little while. Cars at the monastery are truly communal, truly treated like Benedict’s sacred vessels of the altar. We try hard to remember to put the front seat back before we put the car away. There are little tags to indicate that the car has less than a half tank of gas, and the sister who goes out of her way to fill up a half empty car with gas receives silent blessings from many people. Of course the sister who forgets to turn off the headlights, leaves the radio on and the seat pushed way up is subject to equally silent, but considerably less charitable thoughts. Car announcements and reminders seem to take up an inordinate amount of time at weekly house meetings.

Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said that God can be found among the pots and pans. I suspect that if she were alive today she would agree that God is most certainly to be found among the cars. For most Americans cars are our ultimate symbol of freedom. No matter what the price of gas, how limited our income or circumstances, we feel we have to own our own car. Cars express who we are, the politically correct hybrid, the politically incorrect Hummer, cars are rolling manifestations of our egos and values. We are our cars.

That is what makes monastic life so different and ultimately challenging to the surrounding culture. In a society that sees individual car ownership ranking perhaps even above free speech as a constitutional and God-given right, we don’t own our own cars and aren’t even guaranteed access to them wherever and whenever we want. Our individual needs are subordinate to the needs of community. I can’t do whatever I want whenever I want. My needs will be met, if I have an emergency and need to get to the hospital that will certainly happen. But if I want to take off on an unplanned trip to the movies, I may have to wait in line.

In a culture characterized by unconscious narcissism it can be a shock to think that perhaps everything isn’t about me. Monastic life is about us, not me, and not only us, but about the lowest common denominator of us. We finally installed automatic door openers on the garages because as we get older fewer and fewer of us could wrestle open garage doors, especially in winter snow and ice. We no longer buy stick shift cars because so few people could drive them. We accommodate the folks with less ability rather than assuming that cars are a privilege of the elite.

Monastic life is a culture of enough. Not too much, not extreme asceticism, just enough. We get what we need, not always what we want. We share, we learn to be patient with ourselves and others through the everyday trials of living with people who don’t put up notes to say the car is less than half full of gas, who don’t turn off the windshield wipers before they turn off the car and our chagrin when we are one of those people.

It has become popular to ask: “what would Jesus do,” and in the latest version: “what would Jesus drive?” Personally I just hope that he would be comfortable in one of our nun-mobiles and that he would also be forgiving when some of us drive off and forget to close the garage door after having complained about those who do.