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.