Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Justice, Monasticism and Nun Travel

Traveling when you are a member of a monastery is very different from traveling by yourself. Over the weekend about a dozen of us went to Seattle for a big Catholic women’s conference, eight sisters, a couple of oblates and employees. It was a wonderful conference with challenging speakers but mostly I am thinking about the phenomenon of nun travel.

Before I entered the monastery travel was always pretty straight-forward. I’d decide where I was going, make reservations, jump in the car and go. I got to decide when I’d leave, where I’d stay, what I’d eat, when I would go and leave and what I’d see along the way.

But now my days of unilateral decision making are long past. Even my days of sleeping in motel rooms are long past. When I lived alone the only criteria of decision making were my personal values. Since I have always been averse to spending money I would choose cheap motels. I love exotic food so that would determine a lot of meal choices, etc. etc.

Monastic travel is a very different story. It isn’t about how I want to travel. It is about how do we travel together. In the weeks leading up to the conference there were sign-up sheets and notes for those who had signed up. Multiple conversations and consultations were conducted about who would go with who. Plans were made and discussed about how to care for those who needed extra care and supervision. Multiple calls and e-mails and conversations were needed to round up enough places to stay in homes and apartments of sisters, friends and relatives. Cars had to be arranged and slips filled out and trips made to the business office to get money for travel expenses. And this was all just for a two conference a day’s drive away. And all that was just in order to get there.

The whole thing would probably look ridiculously complicated and inefficient to most outsiders used to making quick decisions without having to worry about resources. I suspect that even traveling with small children might not be as complicated as our way, noisier certainly, but at least with kids there are fewer meetings and no forms to fill out. However, the rather complicated, organic process of monastic travel has a lot to say about our values and our witness to a world in which a few have a lot and many don’t have enough.

The monastic way is about everyone getting what they need but not necessarily what they want. Every individual gives up a little bit so that resources can be stretched to let everyone have what they need. If everyone got to take her own car and stay in a nice hotel there wouldn’t be enough money or even cars for everyone to go to a conference like this. If, on the other hand, we all travel together, impose on our friends for housing, are careful about expenses, and help one another out, more people can go to a meaningful, life-giving conference.

The monastic way is not the predominant way of our culture. It is a way that emphasizes cooperation over competition, consensus over individualism. It certainly isn’t the quickest, most efficient way of doing things. But the monastic way works on smoothing down the rough edges we all have that come from wanting everything our way, instantly. Eventually it is possible to see that if everyone in the world is going to get what she needs it means the rest of us have to sacrifice a little bit. And so in our inefficient, sometimes frustrating way, our little monastic community models what a more just world might look like.

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