Thursday, March 12, 2009

Across Continents and Centuries

What makes us Benedictines, across time, continents, cultures and languages? What are the fundamental similarities that unite people who have a made a commitment to live according to the guidelines set out by Benedict in Italy in the 6th century?
Recently our community had some new insights into the gift of unity amid diversity that characterizes monastic life.

Back in the 1930’s the Benedictine Sisters of St. Andrew’s Convent, Sarnen, Switzerland founded a new monastery in Cameroon, West Africa. That monastery is still there, now consisting entirely of women from Cameroon. The Benedictine Sisters of Sarnen previously founded our monastery in 1882. That makes us sisters or cousins perhaps, with the sisters in Cameroon.

Recently we became acquainted with our “cousins” for the first time. Sr. Josephine, the prioress of the Cameroon community stayed with us for four months, from October to February, working on her English so she could attend an education program in Rome next year. She lived and worked with us, taking informal classes from Srs. Evangela and Cecile and participating in all aspects of community life.

It was clear that many things separated us. The language of her community is French, and her country lives with the legacy of French colonialism. The complexities and challenges of English were formidable. One night at dishes one of the cooks had left an Avon catalogue. This lead to some very funny, and rather odd, discussions about Avon products amid our attempt to explain what “Avon calling!” means.

Her community still wears the habit. They are much smaller, consisting of about 12 members, and their average age is much lower than ours. Their challenges are those of the developing world, they don’t deal with the issue of “affluenza” and too many possessions that we have here. They only recently were able to get a consistent supply of clean water thanks to a non-profit organization from Switzerland. They have recently taken in several children who are orphans or whose families cannot care for them, including some with HIV.

But together we are monastics. We come together without fail to pray the Divine Office several times a day. We struggle with common issues of community life and the reality of people who cannot seem to live up to the standards we set. Sr. Josephine has been prioress for 12 years because they do not have enough people who can take over leadership just as we also face a dwindling pool of potential leaders. We all laughed together at the experience we have in common as Sr. Josephine showed the slides of their garden and beautiful carrots. Together we are united to our land. We shared the reality that every day and every meal dishes have to be washed. We resonated with the stories of how they try to come up with creative ways to support the monastery economically.

But there is much that ties us together. For all of us it is together that we seek God. Our monastic “family” stretches across continents and centuries. Together we trace our roots to Benedict and 6th century Italy. Together we claim as our motherhouse a group of women that dates to the 17th century in Switzerland. Our community is an expression of a time when European monasteries were sending missionaries to the new territory of the United States. Sr. Josephine’s community is part of monastic life from a new century on a new continent and a new way of being monastic. We don’t share the same language, the same culture or the same way of interpreting monastic life. But every day we come together to pray, every day we listen to the Rule of St. Benedict and Scripture, every day, for the rest of our lives we will live together and seek God. Together we are united in faith, in monastic life and the realization that we are bringing about the Reign of God in our midst and that transcends all our differences.

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