Saturday, January 31, 2009

Everyday Life: Nakedness and Mirrors

“…supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior.” RB 72:5

Before I came to the monastery I read a wonderful book by a journalist who spent several months living in Trappist men’s monasteries. The Trappist’s are a monastic order that is strictly enclosed, they do manual labor to support themselves rather than ministries that require them to go outside. The author got to know the monks very well and writes about several in depth conversations including one with an abbot who said “you know, we walk around naked here.” Of course he didn’t mean physically naked, but naked in the sense that when you live with a small number of people, in an enclosed space, for years on end, pretty soon there is nothing you don’t know about them. You get to know all their moods, their pet peeves, whether you should even try talking to them before they have had their coffee in the morning. There is nothing hidden in a monastery.

After a few years of living in my monastery I thought that I could amend what the abbot said. I would say “we walk around naked in a house full of mirrors.” But pretty soon when you live with people day after day you realize that you aren’t just seeing them, you realize that you are looking in a mirror day after day. All the things that you see in another person that seem so irritating are really your own problems being mirrored back to you.

When I first came to the monastery there was one woman who seemed to have the power to irritate me to no end. I could tell it was irrational, she was a perfectly nice person, but there was something about her that felt like finger nails on the blackboard of my psyche. It took years of everyday living, seeing her in the hallways, chapel, dining room, living with her, before I realized what it was. Somehow, on some very deep, unconscious level, I saw in her my deepest fears about myself. When I saw her she became me at 12 years old, back in the deepest, most painful depths of junior high school, those years that I, and most people, shudder to even think about. Knowing this woman was like constantly walking by a magic fun house mirror that showed only images of my deepest insecurities.

Of course if we look carefully we also see what we can be. The mirror also reflects our deepest gifts, our wisdom, how we will be transfigured and transformed by our faithfulness to this way of life. There are many women in the same hallways, dining room and chapel that I hope to become. When I look at them I hope I am looking into a mirror of my future. A future when I no longer see that image of 12 year old angst, but a figure of patience, humility, ability to love even the most difficult people, able to inspire and teach.

This is the odd gift of the monastery. You can’t remain cloaked in your illusions about yourself. Most of us can manage to have our act together for large parts of the day, while we are at work, for long periods of time in our lives, but if you live in the monastery there are no illusions, you are forced to look in the mirror. Every day, reflected back at you are both the sags, wrinkles, scars and warts that you try to cover up. But at the same time there is the luminous reality that we are truly the image of God, the light of God shines in us and through us.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Is Benedict Morbid?

Day by day remind mind yourself that you are going to die. RB 4:47

In our culture death has become the ultimate obscenity, the one thing that we refuse to look at, talk about, or admit the reality of. It’s too bad. By refusing to look at death we are prevented from really living.

Benedict’s statement in chapter four of the Rule, “The Tools of Good Works,” is startling and rather repugnant in our culture. Remind ourselves that we are going to die? No way! We want to focus on how to prevent death, we constantly read articles on how medicine is going to keep us from dying. How horribly morbid to remind ourselves that we are going to die!

The reality though is that there is a tremendous liberation in reminding ourselves that we are going to die. When we remind ourselves every day that we are going to die it becomes easier to see what an incredible, ephemeral gift life really is. Our life is only a gift, not an entitlement, not something we deserve to have on our own terms. Our life is to be enjoyed, appreciated and used wisely here in this moment because the next moment may not come. If we look at life this way perhaps it becomes easier to focus on who we are in this present moment and less on what we have to accomplish before we die. Our being, rather than our doing, becomes a matter of gratitude rather than pressure to accomplish or to cling tightly to our expectations of what life should be.

Perhaps this is one of the gifts of a monastery, especially in this day and age. As most monastic and other religious communities decline in membership and the average age continue to increase, we worry about our corporate death, as well as the death of individuals. Perhaps, though, this is actually a gift. If we remind ourselves that not only will each of one of us individuals die, but some day our monastery will also die. Although some monasteries continue for many centuries, there will come an end. So what happens when we remind ourselves daily of that reality?

Perhaps it means that all of us, corporately and individually, are freed from the onerous task of worrying about survival. If I have to keep focusing on what I need to do as an individual or a community member in order to eek out a few more years for myself or the monastery I’m not really living, I’m only surviving, I’m merely existing. I’m simply holding on because I am afraid to die, not because I have a reason to live.

The daily reminder of death on the other hand is a call to rejoice and dance before God. All I have is this moment given to me by God, this moment to use my gifts and talents to bring about the Reign of God. If I know and accept and embrace the fact that I am going to die then I can be about the task of living, I no longer have to use all my energy on denying and avoiding death. If death is a constant reminder then the present moment becomes the moment of God’s grace and presence. This daily reminder becomes a liberation if I don’t have to cling tightly to life then I may be able to loosen up and simply revel in the joy of this day. Carpe diem!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Everyday Life: Bread

You can always tell it is bread day around here. People tend to walk around sniffing the air with smiles on their faces. Fresh bread smells permeate the house and there are glimpses of loaves cooling in the bakery.

We bake all our own bread. At one point we were making at least 50 loaves a week. I know the number hasn’t gone down and may be going up. There is always white and wheat and sometimes a special herb bread or other exotic new types.

There is something deeply appropriate and right about a monastery baking bread. As a community we are centered on bread. Our entire way of life is about celebrating the bread of life, Jesus who dwells in our midst. We share the daily bread of the Eucharist and we attempt in our fumbling ways to become bread for one another. When we share our community life with so many people who come as retreatants, guests, volunteers and visitors, we share our physical bread in the meals we offer and we offer to all the bread of our lives and our presence.

Living monastic life is a lot like baking bread. It is harder than it looks, it takes time, there are always holes and mistakes and the bread has to be carefully tended so as not to get stale and become useless. A good community is also like good bread. It is simple, not fancy, ordinary, solid and wholesome. Both bread and community are things that are usually taken for granted but are fundamental to human life.

So as the new loaves come out of the oven they hold so much. In bread our bodies are fed. Bread is the life we know in Christ. In broken bread is our life which we give for others. Another bread day comes and goes but in it we are reminded of how extraordinary and how holy is the ordinary.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Everyday Life: God and Little Old Ladies

These days it seems like our chapel could double for a rehabilitation ward. We seem to have had a rash of injuries, surgeries and medical problems lately. The folks who are temporarily or permanently incapacitated seem to overwhelm those of us who are still relatively intact mentally and physically.

To some extent this is temporary, a number of people have problems that will heal pretty quickly, but the deeper reality is that we are an aging community. Like most monasteries and religious communities our average age keeps increasing and the number of women entering isn’t enough to replace those who die. On bad days it seems like we are becoming a retirement facility for little old ladies and there isn’t much of a future for our monastery.

But then I realize that God has a very special regard for little old ladies, in fact God frequently uses little old ladies to change the world. This is very much in keeping with God’s deeply strange sense of humor. God likes to turn things upside down and inside out. God seems to be averse to the idea of the “way things are supposed to be.” I mean any God who can save the world by allowing the Son to die a shameful death does not think in conventional ways.

So it fits that God uses little old ladies to shake up the world. Sarah was barren, she was old, she no longer even dreamt of having children and yet through Isaac a great nation was born. Hannah was a little feistier, she kept going to the Temple and railing at God, so full of longing that she sounded drunk when she prayed. Elizabeth was a woman vindicated, she knew shame and she knew the part she would play in bringing about a radical new world order. Anna saw her patience rewarded, decades of waiting in the Temple were fulfilled in the sight of the divine child.

These are the little old ladies who set the world upside down. Little old ladies who were barren in a society that judged the value of women according to how many male children they could bear. Little old ladies who had faith in God when they had nothing else. Little old ladies who knew that God uses what is little, and marginal and unexpected in the world to turn the world inside out.

So I look at our chapel, at all the little old ladies, at the motley crew that is our community, a community getting fewer, and frailer and older, and I rejoice. I rejoice because God has a special soft spot for little old ladies who are barren. I rejoice because God often chooses little old ladies who the world has written off to give birth to the new reality of God in the world. I rejoice and I begin to feel the stirring of birth pangs.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Laughing With God

Every day at Morning Prayer we have a brief Scripture reading. Yesterday was the account in Genesis of Abraham and Sarah entertaining three strangers who announce that Sarah will become pregnant and bear a son. Sarah, who is listening inside the tent laughs when she hears this. When the stranger asks Sarah why she laughed, she denies it but the stranger insists “Oh yes you did laugh.”

There is something wonderful and deeply human about this passage. There is poor Sarah, old, barren and reconciled to being childless who hears this stranger who has come out of nowhere, tell her that her deepest desire is about to be filled. She just spontaneously bursts out in a wild guffaw, as if to say “oh yeah, right, tell me another one!”

But it gets worse. The stranger heard her. Not only that, he calls her on it. “Why did you laugh?” And there we see Sarah, probably still in the tent, with a wild, deer in the headlights look. No, no I didn’t laugh, wasn’t me. Like some little kid with her hand in the cookie jar the only thing she can think to do is deny that she laughed.

I certainly understand Sarah. When confronted with the strange, unexpected, deeply longed for, I’m also prone to laugh at the impossibility. I can receive what I long for with all my heart? That’s funny. Life doesn’t work that way and the absurdity is amusing.

But I wonder if we can look at Sarah and see absurdity and laughter transformed. What happens when we laugh with God’s angels and not at their absurd promises? God has a great sense of humor, a fact to which Sarah would attest when she did bear a son and named him Isaac, which means laughter. God is constantly pulling rabbits out of the divine hat. Stuttering murderers liberate their people from Egyptian slavery. Unmarried teenagers give birth to the Messiah. Impetuous fishermen become the foundation of a new People of God. God seems to delight in the unexpected, the impossible and incongruous.

Our natural reaction is like Sarah’s we laugh at the absurd impossibility of what God is proposing and then deny that we laughed at God’s plans. I suspect that what God wants us to do is to share a divine belly laugh. “Yes you can take your measly little gifts and change the world!” “Yes, God can take your greatest grief and sorrow and turn it into the deepest place of healing.” “Yes, God will do the absolutely impossible in your life and you will simply shake your head and laugh.” So where are the strangers, the unexpected messengers of God announcing something absurd in your life? Listen…and laugh.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mother Johanna: Lessons from the past

In honor of the celebration of our 100 years in Idaho we have been doing “table reading” during the noon meal. So far these have been selections from the Monastery’s official history, “On the Way” by the late Sr. Lucille Nachtscheim. We read 15 minute excerpts during dinner to give people a better sense of our history.

Even in an informal history the magnitude of events that lead three women from an enclosed monastery in Switzerland to travel to the wilds of the Washington and Idaho territories in the 1880’s is a compelling story. Due to the political conditions in Switzerland there was a possibility that their monastery could be suppressed, closed by the government authorities. In case this might happen the abbess decided to send three women to make a foundation, a new monastery, in the mission territory of the United States.

Our founding prioress, Mother Johanna Zumstein did not want to leave Switzerland and come to the United States. She didn’t find the prospect of being a missionary to America the least bit exciting and indeed she made it clear she didn’t want to go. Reading between the lines of history it is not clear she ever really adjusted to being in America although she never returned to Switzerland and is buried in our cemetery.

Perhaps that is the part I ponder. What would it be like to leave your country, community, language, way of life and go where you would rather not go, into an unknown and unknowable future. The cloistered monastic way of life that Mother Johanna knew would never be duplicated in America. It was a new land, a new way of being Benedictine and nothing would ever again be the same, known or settled again. For this woman who was only about thirty years old when she left her home monastery the future she was creating was unknown and frightening.

But perhaps Mother Johanna would recognize our situation after 100 years in Idaho. Our future is again unknown. We are fewer, older, the way monastic life “has always been” is no longer the reality. There aren’t large numbers of young women entering monastic life, there are fewer people to get the work done and carry out our mission. As we look at the future, new possibilities, there are probably those among us, who like Mother Johanna can’t imagine leaving this settled “home” and the way of life we have always known.

But Mother Johanna’s achievement came not from eagerness and a sense of adventure but her willingness to risk despite how she felt. The future wasn’t what she wanted, wasn’t what she had hoped for, and she suffered for it. Perhaps she is a model for all of us today who face the future with trepidation, without understanding why new ways are needed when the old ways seem fine. Johanna came to America because her community needed her to come to America. Today, 125 years later we still need people who can face the future and go where they would rather not go, sometimes confident only that God will need to do the work and provide the faith because they are so lacking. Johanna Zumstein will never be a saint, but perhaps she is our saint for reluctant people in troubled times.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Everyday Life: Table Conversation

1Reading will always accompany the meals of the brothers. The reader should not be the one who just happens to pick up the book, but someone who will read for a whole week, beginning on Sunday. 5Let there be complete silence. No whispering, no speaking—only the reader’s voice should be heard there. RB 38

At a conference I attended a sister from a very traditional, enclosed community was talking about table conversation in her monastery. “Sometimes I swear, if I hear one more sister talk about the cows I’m going to scream.” One of the ways her community supported itself was through raising cattle on its land. As a result the antics of the cows, which ones got out, recent births, deaths, prices, personalities and feeding habits, tended to dominate the dinner table conversation.

Personally, it was all I could do not to stand up and say “Yes! At last someone is talking about the problem of insipid supper conversations at monastic meals!” Up to that point I was afraid that ours was the only monastery with an abysmally low level of edifying conversation at meals. Of course it also shattered my illusions that perhaps at least at more contemplative monasteries members would somehow be imbued with a deeper level of spirituality and would live in a rarified atmosphere of profound conversations about God.

At our monastery we don’t talk about the cows, but there are times when I wonder whether talking about cows might be a scintillating change. We regularly talk about the weather of course. In fact we can manage to spend all of dinner comparing the precipitation this year and last year, the forecast for the coming week, the general accuracy of forecasts, whether the farmers need rain or sun or snow or anything else, and on and on and on.

Of course the weather is rivaled only by the popular topic of speculation about guests. Even in a monastery with frequent guests, and Benedict noted in his Rule that a monastery will never be without guests, the popular sport of wondering about guests never seems to lose its attraction. “So who is that woman over at the next table, is she a retreatant? a relative? a guest? where is she from? what does she do? how long will she be here? Even the barest piece of information can be stretched out into endless speculation with only a minimal need for actual facts.

I used to be deeply frustrated and not a little exasperated by the level of conversation. We are monastics, can’t we talk about something more profound or at least a little less trivial? But I also gradually came to notice what would happen when the same guests or retreatants whom we speculated about at length would begin to talk about their spiritual life at the supper table. People whom we didn’t know, who were only passing through, would sometimes share the most profound, intimate experiences of God’s work in their lives. Total strangers would begin sharing their deep loneliness, hunger for God, the joy of sensing a unity with the transcendent that they experienced in our chapel, on our hill, or in a spiritual direction conference. Strangely enough these conversations tended to be a little disturbing, somewhat voyeuristic, as if this guest had suddenly stripped naked or started talking about their intimate relationships with their spouse.

All of us have come to the monastery to seek God. In that sense those of us who are sisters are not unusual. Most people have a relationship with God, they go to Church, read Scripture, pray and believe in the basic tenants of faith. But at the same time, as monastics we profess to be different, we intentionally put God at the center of our life and orient our life around the unseen but absolutely real presence of God. This desire for God and our willingness to lead a life so different from most other people is what drives us, sets us apart, and is the guiding principle of our life. But this seeking God, centering our life around this quest, is also deeply, profoundly personal. For those of us who have professed celibacy it is the most intimate part of our life. To us God is not a matter of belief but of relationship, God is who we know and not simply what we believe. And unlike people who visit for a little while, that relationship is meant to be absolute and exclusive.

Perhaps that is why we talk about the weather. It isn’t easy to talk about the deepest longings of your heart over mashed potatoes. It is hard to express your most profound sense of connectedness with God in the presence of people you see in the bathroom every day. Pouring out the most intimate details of your soul and then going to a meeting about a new list of house chores can be very disconcerting. We live in community, with one another, every day, day in and day out, year after year. We share virtually every aspect of our lives. Maybe that is why it is so hard to share the deepest parts of ourselves, I don’t know, but it helps me to understand why we may need to talk about the cows or the weather.

Benedict, who as always was very wise, mandated table reading in his monastery. A reader, someone who could “edify” the hearers and not just anyone who picked up a book, would read appropriate material at the meals and the monks would keep silence. We don’t do that anymore, we tend to think that this practice is detrimental to the building up of relationships in community. Perhaps. Our world certainly has little in common with Benedict’s. But Benedict also knew that the interior landscape of our heart is a very fragile place, this deep interior space where God comes to dwell cannot stand too much traffic, the heavy footprints, poking and prodding of expression, our relationship with God, grows best away from the forced intimacy of casual conversation.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


Epiphany is often portrayed as an odd, exotic sort of birthday party for Jesus. There are the foreign men in strange costumes with their camels and odd gifts. This seems to fit somehow with the Disney-esque picture of cute animals and the perfect family in the curiously antiseptic stable.

The point of Matthew’s Gospel though is much different. The wise men, the Magi from the East, are a disturbing, threatening presence to all who think they understand how God is working in the world.

The first to recognize and pay homage to the new King of the Jews are not Jews. The Magi are pagan magicians who do not know or recognize the God of Israel. For Matthew to have them come and pay obeisance to the infant Jesus was a deeply cutting statement that Jesus was not recognized by his own people.

And here is where we as modern people start to fall. If we see this point in historical context, in terms of Jews and Gentiles, we will miss the point if we wonder why those people backs then could have been so blind as to not recognize Jesus. Our problem is that it is always those people who don’t understand. We are never the ones to fail to see the point, to fail to recognize Christ in our midst.
Perhaps we would come closer to understanding the point Luke was making if we think of a group of people within our own Christian tradition who we strongly, fundamentally disagree with. Most of have some people whom we think are on the wrong track, who don’t understand or live out key Christian values.

Now, take that group of people and insert them into Matthew’s story in the role of the Magi. In other words, it is the people whom you most dislike, whose basic tenets of belief you question, they are the ones who are the ones who really recognize Christ.

It’s an insulting thought isn’t it? I think Matthew meant to be provocative. The Gospels are intended to shake us out of our easy complacency. The Gospels tell us that God will use whoever God chooses to proclaim the Good News of salvation to the world. God can even use the people outside our definition of what is proper faith in order to be a witness to those of who think we have the answers.

So maybe in this season we can be aware of the unexpected Wise Men in our lives who come in the guise of the most unlikely people bearing the gift of a new way to recognize the Christ in our midst.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Listen: The Journey Begins

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

Listen: God whispers, shouts, begs, pleads, commands and entices. Do you hear it? In the grating shallowness of a life increasingly limited and tasteless something beckons. Something more, something unseen that flees from your direct glance. Something darts about at the edge of your mind playing “catch me if you can.” Little tendrils of longing tickle and tease your soul. More, there must be more.

Listen: Tag, you’re it! Now, bitten, smitten and longing, you’re one of the holy fools and Godstruck, you’ve joined their ranks. Something has happened. Puzzling, unexpected and unlikely the journey begins. It is a journey of the heart, not the mind, a journey whose map is ridiculous whose destination is absurd.

Listen: Strange voices echo, reverberate and pull. Old words and voices of forgotten ancestors pull you to prayer and silence and places apart. Dream figures of people who dwell apart, dwellers in the soul’s desert, they whisper and entice you.

Listen: Somewhere (which is everywhere and nowhere) God chortles, the Divine Trickster has caught you and pulled you and dragged you into the depths. This is the God whose greatest delight is to know you are seeking because God is waiting to be found, there, hiding in plain sight.