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.