Saturday, February 7, 2009
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.