Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Psalms Shape Our Bones

At the monastery when we pray every day we make sure that our infirm sisters are included. Even the ones who are quite elderly who have dementia or other disabilities participate with us in prayer. From my place in chapel I always look at one particular sister across from me. She is well into her 90’s and doesn’t track very well. Nonetheless she always has her Office (prayer) book and the sister assigned to sit next to her keeps turning the pages so she can keep up.

Is she consciously aware of what we are praying at any given moment? I doubt it. But after 60-70 years of praying the Psalms every day, multiple times a day, I think she is praying on a different level.

The Psalms shape and mold us. We probably aren’t aware of it, but day after day, year after year, we pray these ancient prayers, these cries to God, and we are changed. The prayers of the Psalmist become our prayers. Deep cries of anguish, shouts of joy, marvelous recitations of God’s works and the history of God’s people, echo through centuries, through countless monasteries and countless lives.

The Psalms are real, uncensored prayer. Nothing is left out or hidden. These aren’t the prayers of “nice” people or even a “nice” God. They are raw, blunt, angry and earthy. They are good prayers for nuns. They remind us that we are more than our public persona, more than the image of docile, sweet, uncomplaining women praying quietly with beatific smiles on our faces.

The Psalms call us to a prayer of deep honesty and radical awareness. They help us to name the pain when God seems to be lost. They give us words of the indescribable joy of the awareness of God’s love and faithfulness. The Psalms express our primal anger at the injustice that corrodes our society and kills the vulnerable.

Are we aware of the power of the Psalms as we pray them day after day, when we are distracted or sick or tired? No, not really. Often they are no more than the air we breathe, words we mouth while our minds are elsewhere, thinking about the days tasks, worrying about the coughing sister next to us or wondering who the guests are across the aisle. Eventually we will be unaware of the power of the Psalms as we are also one of the sisters physically present but no longer able to consciously follow along.

But somehow in these words is the Word. Together we pray the Psalms that Jesus prayed, the words that he heard in the synagogue, the words of his anguish on the cross. The Psalms are words that reflect the lived experience of God, they aren’t theology, they aren’t doctrine, they are prayers of faith in the midst of the daily struggle of existence. They are prayers on an incarnational faith, of faith become flesh and living among us. The Psalms are the prayers of the God who lives among us, they shaped the bones of Jesus, they shape our bones. The words, the Word, sinks deep into our being until even at the end of our life, when someone has to turn the pages of Office book for us, they are still re-making and molding us in faith.

Friday, February 20, 2009


62 The twelfth step of humility is that a monk always manifests humility in his bearing no less than in his heart...65 and constantly say in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with downcast eyes: Lord, I am a sinner, not worthy to look up to heaven (Luke 18:13).

67 Now, therefore, after ascending all these steps of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear (1 John 4:18). 68 Through this love, all that he once performed with dread, he will now begin to observe without effort, as though naturally, from habit, 69 no longer out of fear of hell, but out of love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.

RB 7:62-69

I want to skip over the twelfth step of humility and go right to the top of the ladder. All the talk of judgment is off-putting, feeling guilty, beating my breast, saying I am a sinner. I want to say “I’ve worked way too hard to give up my self-esteem, let’s skip to the nice part.” But of course as soon as I say that I have to admit that frankly I’m lazy, I want all the wonderful feelings and benefits without any work. I want what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” I want God to do all the work in me and I just stand back and bask.

The earliest monastics knew on a deep level what it meant to rely on God’s grace. They knew they couldn’t earn salvation or humility or grace. But they also knew that they had to take responsibility for how they lived their lives and their faith. God is the cause and the source of our humility, but how do we show that God is working in our lives?

Benedict uses the story of the Publican and the Pharisee as an example of humility. The story of the Publican who cannot raise his eyes to heaven always hits me like a blow to the chest. What must it feel like, to have a great yawning chasm of emptiness in your deepest soul? To know you are so far from God that you can’t even look up, to be so far from holiness that you are afraid that you will be swallowed up in the ocean that is God.

And yet he is the one whose emptiness is filled with God. He had no ego, no complacency, no self-satisfaction to cover up the deep hunger and longing for God. The publican had looked into the abyss and not turned away.

This looking, honest acknowledgment of emptiness will allow him to be filled by God. It is like the story about the man who goes to see the guru. He excitedly tells the spiritual master everything that he is doing to meditate, fast, read Scripture, visit monasteries, and on and on. The guru asks the man if he wants some tea. The man says yes while continuing to talk about all he is doing. The guru pours tea into the cup and keeps pouring even after it overflows. The man finally notices and is alarmed, “what are you doing?” The guru tells him that he is like the cup, as long as he is so full of himself there will be no room for God.

Humility is the emptiness of the cup, the emptiness of the publican. Stripped down, bare and empty. To be humble is to be shed of the warm, comfortable, protective garments of self-control, entitlement, complacency, and knowledge. In humility we come to our absolute nakedness. When we are stripped, open, poor and exposed we can finally open our eyes. Then, for the first time, our eyes are opened and we find that we are back in the garden, walking with God in the cool of the evening.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Monasteries, Money and the Global Economy

I was driving home from a trip yesterday and I stopped at a store to buy underwear. It was a quick errand because I hate shopping. I have never liked shopping but I think my dislike has increased exponentially since I entered the monastery. When you spend most of your time in a rural monastery more than an hour’s drive from the nearest “big box” store, it is easy to feel overwhelmed when going confronted with thousands of square feet of “stuff,” aisles and aisles of “stuff,” most of which none of us really need. I managed to get my underwear pretty quickly, (OK, and some peanut M&M’s that weren’t on my shopping list.) But as I walked through the huge number of things for sale, and reflected on the stories of our economy crashing because not enough people are buying enough “stuff,” the sheer insanity of our situation struck me very forcefully.

We live in a world, not just a country, but a world, in which our standard of living is dictated by consumption. Apparently the global economic crisis worsens a large part of the problem is that ordinary people aren’t buying and consuming like they used to. Banks aren’t lending money, factories aren’t producing, people aren’t buying and our way of life and livelihoods are in jeopardy. Of course in the monastery this will affect us too. We are dependent of the salaries of our sisters, the revenue from people who attend retreats and contribute with their financial gifts.

As with many people these days money can be a struggle for us. Monasteries are self-supporting. We don’t receive any money from the Church, most of our income is from the salaries of sisters who work. Making sure there is enough money to the pay the bills is a on-going concern as it is for most people. But perhaps the biggest challenge of money in a monastic community is how to integrate it into our value system.

We’ve probably all experienced how easy it is to let money take over our lives. We can become obsessed with worries about whether there will be enough, obsessed with making more or managing what we have or spending it as fast as we can. Money can easily go from simply being a necessary part of life to something that consumes us.

In the monastery, though, money is about “we” and not about “me.” Our ideal, not always our reality, is that we all contribute equally to the common resources whether of time, talent, energy or money and in turn we receive what we need. This means that the members who can’t contribute as much because of age or health aren’t penalized. At the same time the sisters who have been given more energy or talent don’t automatically receive more. We all get what we need. We all work for the good of the whole community, not to accumulate more for ourselves.

We don’t keep the money we earn. It goes to the community, all earnings are shared. In turn we rely on the monastery for all our needs. Each sister gets an allowance each month to pay for basic personal expenses. Clothes, toiletries, entertainment, meals out, books, various incidental expenses, all come out of personal budget money. If a sister has any significant expenses the community will pay for them. Hospital bills, medications, business travel expenses, education, all come from community money.

This way of relating to money is a big shift when a woman enters community. In fact, as part of the ceremony of becoming a novice the woman turns over her car keys and checkbook (or these days ATM and credit cards) as a symbol of giving up her own money. She then has to sell her car and give up use of her personal money and investments as she enters further into the stage of becoming a member of the monastery.

All in all it’s a pretty radical system by the standards of most of the world. Most of us have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that money is the reward of hard work. We work hard to make money, accumulating more and more money is bound up with status, self-worth, our goals in life. But to come to a monastery means entering a world where money has very little personal meaning. Money is not longer personal, it is communal. We worry about money, but we worry about the bills for the elderly or sick sisters who are no longer capable of thinking about money. We worry about contributing to the whole community rather than whether our salary reflects our self worth. In the same way we learn to ask whether any expenditure is a “want” or a “need.” We rely on community for everything we need but we won’t get everything we want.

So I keep coming back to wonder what monastic values mean when our whole economy seems to be based on as many people as possible spending as much money as possible. When we live simply, with very little money are we contributing to the global economic crisis?

The answer to that question is probably best left up to people with a lot more background in economics than I have. But I do wonder whether in some very small way the monastic life is a microcosm of a radically different way to relate to money. Our attitude toward money is about “enough” and “need” rather than accumulating as much as possible. In the monastery this means that most of us don’t have much, but everyone has enough. What would happen if the world economy was like the monastery economy? No one would have big fancy living quarters, no one would have more food than anyone else, there wouldn’t be wild discrepancies in income. But everyone would know that their needs would be met, they would have a place to live, food and health care. Nothing fancy, nothing extra, nothing more than anyone else, but wouldn’t that mean that everyone would have enough? Maybe in our small way we are living out a new model of a more just society.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lessons of the Desert

For the last few weeks I’ve been teaching a class on the Desert Fathers and Mothers All of us who are monastic, cenobitic or oblate, indeed all of us who are Christian, are inheritors of the legacy of the early men and women who went to the desert to seek God.

Most of the written stories and sources of the early monastic movement take place in the desert. In the 4th century in Egypt large numbers of people went to the desert to devote themselves to a disciplined life of seeking God. Most of them lived as hermits or in informal groups as disciples of an experienced teacher, a wise abba (man) or amma (woman) who would guide them on the path of spirituality.

In Egypt at the time people thought the desert was a fearful, desolate place. No one lived there, it was a marginal place, it couldn’t grow crops, it didn’t have water. It was considered the domain of demons, a place of death. But within the space of a few years the influx of monks to the desert turned “the desert into a city” according to one famous quotation.

The geography of the desert is key to understanding not only the early monastic movement but also what it means to be a monastic today. The literal, physical desert is a symbol of the place where we are called to seek God. There are four key characteristics to the early monk’s experience of the desert. It was a place to practice spiritual disciplines without external distractions. Second, the desert was a liminal space, a boundary between death and life, the sacred and the demonic. In the desert the monks sought to escape the “world” the values of people who did not put God first in their lives. Finally, it is in the desert that the early monks confronted the forces that sought to keep them from God.

What is most important for us today is the symbolism of the desert. Most of us are not called to live in or even go to the physical desert. However we are all called to enter a deep, interior desert. The desert is the place in ourselves where we have to confront the forces and the parts of ourselves that keep us from being transformed, from knowing God deeply. The desert is where we need to be alone without the distractions that keep us from acknowledging our deepest hunger. The desert is the place without the supports that give us the illusion that we can rely on ourselves rather than God alone.

For most of these early monastics was the desert was the place of struggling with demons. The demons were the thoughts, compulsions, distractions that kept them from focusing totally on God. In the desert they couldn’t escape their demons; they had to confront them head on. The monks came to realize this was the work of a lifetime. The issues they struggled with: anger, lust, temptation, greed, gluttony and all the other powerful internal forces, did not vanish easily or quickly. The fight with these “demons” was the patient fight of a lifetime of discipline. But through perseverance and faith they experienced the love of God begin to gradually drive out the darkness in their lives.

What does it mean for us to go to the desert? Few of us are called to the heroic journey of the early monks. Most of us are called to seek “deserts” closer to home. Our “desert” means going to the internal places we would rather not go, to the parts of ourselves that lead us away from God. Perhaps it is the compulsions that keep us busy and distracted, maybe it is unhealed relationships that nag at us, it could be the parts of ourselves that we know are unhealthy but we don’t want to face. The reality is that the desert is quite close and we can take the early fathers and mothers as our guides to help us find God in the most unexpected places.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Challenges of Yesterday and Tomorrow

As part of our Centennial celebration, celebrating our presence in Idaho for 100 years, we are reading selections from our community history. The stories recount the challenges of founding a new monastic community in the “mission territory” of the Northwest starting in the 1880’s.

The stories are a chronicle of crises. In the latest installment the community, which wasn’t more than a dozen women, had four sisters die in the space of a couple of years. They needed to buy land for the convent and were faced with interest rates of 18%. In the next chapter we will hear about the priest who mounted a campaign of such slander and innuendo that they were finally forced to move out of town.

When reading these accounts I always come back to the question: what allowed them to survive and thrive in such circumstances? The question that then follows is: 100 years later how will the community cope with today’s challenges?

The obvious answer for how they coped is that they were women of profound faith. That goes without saying. The clear depth and strength of their faith in the face of insurmountable odds is astounding. But plenty of people have faith and yet their communities did not survive. We are women of faith today, but that doesn’t mean that we will be here to celebrate our bicentennial in Idaho.

I wonder whether the key is that they had a sense of vision and excitement about the future. These women from Switzerland, from a Benedictine convent founded in the 17th century, knew that they were part of something new. They were missionaries to a foreign country and architects of a new way of being Benedictine. They were being called to serve the people of God, to be a witness of monastic life, in a whole new way.

Of course this wasn’t clear or obvious at the time. It is clear that Sr. Johanna, the head of the new community, didn’t want to give up the way things had been done in Switzerland. She struggled with trying to balance the demands of ministry and the requirements imposed by priests who did not understand their needs. But the needs of the times, for teachers and catechists in small, immigrant communities impelled them to keep struggling, to keep going.

The challenge of being called into an unknown future is our challenge today, also. We are no longer called to do what we did 100 years ago. The needs are different and it is still hard to give up doing things the way we always have. But the future is still exciting. There is a hunger and thirst for God consuming people today. The need for spirituality, for balance, for prayer, for simplicity is as great in our culture today as the need for Catholic education was for the sisters 100 years ago.

Looking into our future is as exciting, challenging and scary as it was for our foremothers. We can’t and won’t be the same kind of community we were 100 years ago anymore than the original three sisters could be the same kind of community they were in Switzerland. There will be grief in letting go of the past and intense growing pains into the future. But something new is being born even as something old will die. Monastic life is simply people living out the call of the Gospel in their particular time and place. Together we struggle to listen, to discern the new thing that God is doing in our lives and in our community. And even when the challenges seem insurmountable we stop, pause and remember that we are our mother’s daughters. We, too, are women charged with the exciting task of bringing about the Reign of God in new ways, new places, with new people as we journey into the future. Their strength is in our bones.


Among other jobs I am the volunteer director at the monastery. For about ten years now we have had people come and stay with us as volunteers. They help at various tasks in the monastery. Women live in the monastery and the men in one of the guest houses.

It wasn’t an easy program to start. It was something new, having people living and working with us who weren’t members of community. People were concerned about privacy issues, having people share our lives who weren’t part of us. There were fears and doubts as there always are with something new.

But now, ten years later, I don’t think we can imagine life without volunteers. We have had amazing women and men from all over the world from different backgrounds and experiences spend anywhere from a few days to a few years with us. The volunteers do everything from helping with housekeeping to answering phones and helping in the garden. In exchange they get to see monastic life as it is lived by one particular motley crew of women in rural Idaho.

It is an exchange that is helpful to all of us. The volunteers pretty quickly learn that nuns are quite human. Some are easier to get along with than others. We aren’t all perfect plaster statues. We struggle and fail like everyone else. The volunteers see that monastic life isn’t easy, it isn’t a matter of floating along in a cloud of prayer, it is hard work to live and pray together day after day and year after year.

In turn the sisters are able to see monastic life through the eyes of new people. We see that our way of life really is unique and that people appreciate the integrity of our struggle; they don’t expect us to be perfect. Volunteers give us the gift of spending time with amazing people who have a sense of adventure, who aren’t afraid to do something unique and different like spending a few weeks at a monastery. The volunteers are usually spiritual seekers, they know that God is speaking to them and they are searching for ways to listen. They are a good reminder to us that God speaks in many languages to various people but together we are trying to listen to the divine voice.

An image that is common in monastic history is that of the desert. Early monks went to the silence of the desert to escape the pull of the world’s values. In the desert they built oases, alternatives to the way of life they left behind, places where the search for God could be honored. Perhaps today in the cacophony and dryness of our secular, consumer culture, the monasteries are still oases. For a brief time our volunteers can glimpse what it is like to engage in the hard work of journeying together toward God. We welcome their company on the journey.