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.