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.