Sunday, August 30, 2009

Eating the Fruit of Another’s Obedience

There is an old story about the monk who was told to water a dry stick. For three years Abba John hauled water from a far away oasis in the desert and watered the stick. It took him most of the day, every day, to accomplish the task. At the end of three years the stick blossomed and the monk’s spiritual father took the fruit and showed it to the other monks saying “behold the fruit of obedience.”

To modern ears this story from the early desert monks of the 4th century sounds odd at best, ridiculous at worst, but the reality is that sometimes people we will never know will eat the fruit of our obedience.

Earlier this month we had the gift of hosting two sisters from our founding community in Sarnen, Switzerland. More than 125 years ago, two women none of us have ever known made decisions that still affect our lives. Worried about political unrest in Switzerland, Abbess Nicola Durrer decided to send sisters to start a new monastery in America. She chose Sr. Johanna Zumstein, who was only in her 20’s, to head this new endeavor. Apparently Johanna did not want to go. In our community history she is portrayed as weeping and hugging the convent walls in Sarnen before she leaves for America under obedience to the Abbess. This is poetic license, no one recorded exactly how she reacted, but it is clear that she only went because she was asked to by her Abbess.

Today, sixty sisters in far off America exist as the fruit of her obedience. For Johanna Zumstein going to America probably made as much sense as watering Abba John’s dead stick. She loved her community in Sarnen, her home country of Switzerland, and had no sense of adventure or desire to undertake a journey to a foreign country. But obedience means giving up our own ideas about what is possible, what we can do or want to do. In obedience we accept that sometimes we cannot live according to our own judgment.

In cenobitic, monastic life this often means taking jobs or assignments that we don’t want, don’t understand, and don’t think we can do. In families it may mean sacrificing for a spouse or children, doing what you would rather not do, sacrificing for the good of another. In obedience we give up that very fundamental sense of autonomy, that sense that we are in control of our own lives, and we submit to the choices that are not what we want, the choices we would not have made, all for a greater good.

When this obedience happens in faith, in a healthy community or family, it can become the source of miracles. In obedience we get out of the way and allow God to act in us and through us in the world. We no longer limit God to our vision of what is possible or what makes sense to us. In healthy obedience dried sticks blossom, a scared young woman plants the seeds of monasticism in a new land. When Abbess Pia and Sr. Rut Maria visited us this month we all had the chance to eat the fruit of obedience of a woman from 1882 whom none of us ever knew.

As we face difficult decisions in our lives, as we are called upon to do impossible things, when we feel like we are watering dried sticks, perhaps we need to think of the people who may eat the fruit of our obedience more than one hundred years from now.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Scholastica: The Heroine's Journey

I suppose it was an odd place for an epiphany. It was July in an abandoned Church just outside of Norcia, Italy. The Church is named after Scholastica, the twin sister of Benedict. According to tradition it is the site of Scholastica’s first monastery, on the site of their families country estate. About thirty of us Benedictine sisters from three continents stood under the old frescoes with scenes from the life of Benedict and Scholastica and renewed our monastic profession. As we had many years or only a few years before we recited the Suscipe, the Psalm verse used in the profession ceremony: “Receive me O Lord as you have promised that I may live, and disappoint me not in my hope.” We then promised once more to live our lives according to obedience, stability and fidelity to the monastic way of life.

In this place past and present merged for a moment. All of us represented the daughters of Scholastica, part of the company of women who have lived monastic life, like Scholastica, usually in humble, unsung, out of the way places for over 1500 years. We were a living manifestation of the always tenacious, often hidden face of women’s monasticism, monasticism that is about faithfulness to God in daily life.

The story of Benedict and Scholastica is perhaps the archetypal story of men’s and women’s monasticism. All we know of both Benedict and Scholastica comes from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, written not long after Benedict’s death in 547. In this story Benedict embodies many of the classic elements of the hero’s journey. After his birth to a wealthy family he goes to study in Rome. Repelled by the decadence of the city he flees to live a solitary, holy life in a cave in Subiaco. He is then asked to help a small community of monks who proceed to try to poison them when he tries to reform them. He leaves but again is called to be the founder of a new type of monasticism and to write the Rule that monastics follow to this day.

Of Scholastica we know much less. She was consecrated as a virgin from childhood, living an enclosed life in community. In a famous section of Gregory’s life of Benedict she is presented as the one who knows the value of love over law. In this story Benedict and Scholastica were meeting together as they did once a year to discuss the spiritual life. When evening came Benedict insisted he had to leave, he could not stay out all night in violation of his own rule. He refused when Scholastica insisted he stay. Scholastica then lowered her head, cried and began to pray. As soon as she did a severe thunderstorm erupted, so severe that Benedict had to stay. Benedict rebuked her saying: "God forgive you, what have you done?" She answered him, "I desired you to stay, and you would not hear me; I have desired it of our good Lord, and he has granted my petition. Therefore if you can now depart, in God's name return to your monastery, and leave me here alone." And after that they spent the night in holy conversation.

So this is Scholastica, a woman who lived a life centered on God from childhood. She knew the value of relationships and the need to nurture relationships on a regular basis. She understood the need for rules and structures but she also knew rules and structures have to be flexible, they bend to suit the needs of people, people are not bent to serve the needs of the rule. Scholastica knew the power of prayer accompanied by tears and rooted in love. Scholastica may not have been the one who wrote the Rule, but she is the one who understood and lived its essence.

The story of Scholastica is the story of women’s monasticism. It is not the hero’s journey like Benedict, full of escapades in exotic places, battling the external forces of evil and returning triumphant. The story of Scholastica is the heroine’s journey, the women’s journey to holiness. Women’s lives are seldom documented and when they are they are usually the story of a more domestic holiness, the holiness of the ordinary, not the extraordinary.

Scholastica’s journey was one of experiencing ever deeper levels of holiness in the ordinariness of everyday life. She and her sisters probably did not travel much, no one thought their way of life important enough to document. Her life and the lives of most monastic women through history were lives in which domesticity begins to take on the divine. In the daily round of meals, prayer and work the ordinary is sanctified and becomes the means of transformation. God is present in the daily service of one another, in the common prayers. The daily grinding of personalities, weaknesses, bearing one another’s burdens becomes the raw material of transformation, the slow, un-ending process of being remade into the image and likeness of Christ.

Most of the monastic daughters of Scholastica have lived unknown lives. Their feats have not been extraordinary, seemingly they haven’t changed the world through lives of devotion in hidden places. But what they knew and what they lived is the reality that monastic life is about love, it is about relationships, it is about being transformed in our desire for God as we live lives grounded in the sanctity of the ordinary. Scholastica is a heroine for our day.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Did Benedict Go To Meetings?

Did Benedict go to meetings? I’ve always liked to think that in the Golden Age of monasticism, when Benedict was formulating his Rule, monastic life operated smoothly without the modern, interminable round of meetings, committees and consultations. I have a vision of a place where monks were able to spend uninterrupted time in prayer and focused on the spiritual life. In other words a vision far removed from the daily reality of modern monastic life.

The problem with this vision is that there are shadows of meetings lurking everywhere in the Rule. Much of the Rule is concerned with very nitty-gritty day to day concerns. How much food to serve in the lunch line; what makes a good business manager; what to do with guests; how to order the daily schedule are all topics that comprise multiple chapters. For many modern readers these chapters are the Benedictine equivalent of the “fly-over states.” Just as many people only know the center of our country while flying from one coast to another, in the same way many people in search of Benedictine spirituality tend to skip over the chapters on daily life. The reality is that some of the most profound insights are contained in these chapters and are probably the result of innumerable meetings and committees.

Benedict knew that life more often flounders on the details than on the big issues. Monks, whether in the 6th century or the 21st are more likely to grumble and murmur about the food and the housekeeping schedule than about the fine points of theology. The fine points of theology may require great Church councils but monastic life requires meetings.

In our monastery one of the forms this takes is the weekly “house meeting.” This is a weekly gathering of the whole community for announcements, celebrations, discussion and input. After big events we discuss what went well and what could be improved. Everyone has a chance to share her wisdom and input on topics that may seem small but loom large such as the songs sung at liturgy, decoration of the dining room and care of guests. Announcements and reminders keep the small issues from becoming great issues. Turn off the map light in the car so that the next person doesn’t come out to a car with a dead battery. How late can someone take a bath without disturbing those early to bed? Thanks are offered for the many people who turned out to can one hundred boxes of donated fruit. These are little reminders, little issues and little thanks, but taken together they are the stuff that makes community thrive or fail.

Other meetings only involve a few people. Benedict understood that a group of people functions best if one person, guided by a Rule, is the final authority. But he also knew that collaboration is essential for people to live together and grow in holiness and maturity. And so consultation is continuous: discussions, opinion seeking, listening and feedback are always happening. It is a slow, ponderous process. It is easy to remember the quip: “meetings are places where minutes are taken and hours are wasted.” But even in the irritation and seeming interminable nature of meetings Benedict’s wisdom is reflected. We don’t go to God as individuals, we journey all together to everlasting life, and if we are to make this journey together in love we will probably have to have meetings to make sure we are traveling together with no one running ahead and no one left behind.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Welcome to the Next 100 Years!

Welcome to the Next Hundred Years!
That is what we feel like today at the Monastery after our great Grand Finale. We had about 350 people with us to celebrate in the chapel with a special Mass and then a reception out on the lawn. We had a sizable representation from the oblate community who came to help us celebrate and work.

Sisters from Sarnen
It was a very blessed day and week. It started on Wednesday when we greeted two of our sisters from San Andreas Kloster, Sarnen, Switzerland. It was from San Andreas that in 1882 three sisters journeyed to America to start a new foundation in the United States. This week, to celebrate 100 years in Cottonwood, Abbess Pia and Sr. Rut-Maria travelled here to join us. As they drove up we rolled out a red “carpet,” rang all the chapel bells and everyone in the community gathered in front of the main entrance to welcome them. We sang Edelweiss, Maria Zu Lieben and Sr. Clarissa welcomed them with a short speech in German.

During this week we have given our Swiss cousins lots of chances to experience our beautiful countryside including the Salmon River breaks, Heart of the Monster in Kamiah, Tolo Lake, Whitebird Hill and numerous other places. They have been delightful company, very appreciative and grateful for their time here and the chance to share our grand celebration.

Former Sisters Reunion
As part of our Centennial we have had lots of reunions. Recently there was a special day for former members of the oblate community to come and celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the oblate program as well as the Monastery Centennial. On Saturday we had a special day for former sisters, or as Clarissa called them “forever friends.” About two dozen former members, most of whom left in the 70’s through the 90’s, joined us for this special event.

A very touching highlight of their presence came on Sunday morning for prayer (which a certain unnamed oblate coordinator had forgotten she was in charge of). At the end of prayer after an introduction by Sr. Clarissa all the former members gathered in the center of chapel and two of them spoke very movingly about how much the St. Gertrude’s community still means to them and how they continue to feel a part of St. Gertrude’s. At their request they and the whole community sang “Dear Convent Home” and then the former sisters blessed the current community. It was definitely a three hankie event for almost everyone.

Centennial Mass
The Centennial Celebration Mass was yesterday in the chapel and the chapel was full but not packed and we were very happy so many people came to celebrate with us. Many of the oblate community were a great presence and help in making the event a success.

The Catholic Bishop of Boise, Mike Driscoll was our celebrant. The entrance procession was quite a site. Our former prioresses, Srs. Mary Marge and Mary Kay were candle bearers. The book of the Gospels was held by our oldest member of the monastery, Sr. Mercedes Martzen, accompanied by our newest member, Nov. Cindy Harris. They were also accompanied by our Swiss sisters, our brother monks, the abbots and former abbots from Jerome, St. Martin’s in Lacey, Washington, and Mt. Angel in Oregon who were concelebrants. Fr. Meinrad Schallberger, our former chaplain, was master of ceremonies. Several local clergy also joined us to celebrate. Sr. Clarissa joined the bishop and celebrants in the sanctuary. At several points the bishop incensed the assembled people and the book of the Gospel. In the back of the sanctuary members of two local choirs as well as our monastic schola were arranged and provided wonderful music for the celebration. With the vestments, habits, beautiful dresses, large bouquets of garden flowers, chapel decorations, choir accompaniment and wafting incense it was a very impressive set of sights, sounds and smells!

During the Mass our Swiss sisters decorated the altar. Then descendants of the John and Gertrude Uhlenkott family, who gave us the original land on which the monastery is built, brought up the gifts. These included Sr. Agnes Reichlin (daughter of Agnes Uhlenkott) and Sr. Emagene Warren (daughter of Vincent Uhlenkott).

After the Mass there was a reception on the front lawn with a special cake and a chance for everyone to visit and help us celebrate the great event.

Perhaps the best way to close the description is to quote the words of Sr. Clarissa in the booklet for Mass: “My hope is that the vision, heroism, ingenuity, faith and spirit of service that inspired our foremothers will continue to live and burn within us.” We can only add: Amen, may it be so!

Centennial and Conversatio
As I reflect on the incredible reality that the Monastery of St. Gertrude has been in Cottonwood for 100 years it seems that the key to understanding our perseverance is the idea of conversatio. In his Rule Benedict says that monastics are to profess “conversatio.” We translate this to mean “fidelity to the monastic way of life.” In other words every aspect of our life will be about seeking God in monastic life. We will persevere with the same group of people learning to bear one another’s burdens and learning what it means to have others bear ours. We will be obedient to the will of God as expressed in the Rule and the community even when it means going where we would rather not go and doing things we can’t even imagine we are capable of. We will do this day in and day out, year after year until death when we finally join our sisters on the hill who also professed conversatio and now are interceding for us as we struggle on this way.

None of the sisters who left Sarnen for America or even left Colton for Cottonwood is still with us. But their presence, their memory, their witness of living conversatio stays with us. They had no idea what the community would look like in 100 years or even if it would last 100 years. As we look forward we have no idea what the community will look like or even whether it will be here in 100 years. But like our foremothers we know that conversatio isn’t about achievement it is about faithfulness and love. Out of love for God, for one another, for the Church and the world we will persevere, faithful to the Gospel lived out in monastic life.

Whether anyone will be celebrating our bicentennial isn’t important. What is important is that all of us, cenobitic and oblate, our supporters, friends, members past, present and to come, have lived our lives of faith and integrity knowing that together “we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

As we give thanks for 100 years “at home in Idaho” we give special thanks for all who journey with us, for the great gift of their presence in our community.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Glorious and Triumphant, Humble and Enduring

To the casual tourist or even pilgrim at first glance Rome seems to be a giant museum of the baroque period. It almost seems as if there were a huge building spree in the 16th and 17th century and then somehow all the artists and architects collapsed from exhaustion and went elsewhere. It looks like there is a church on every corner in Rome, or even two to a corner, all filled chockablock with dense baroque art and architecture. In every church every inch of space is filled, literally from floor to ceiling with the intense, romantic art that reflects the values, taste and concerns of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation era. In the midst of this abundance of riches I began to feel as if I had entered into some parallel universe, a living history museum from the mid-17th century. Rome can easily seem like a singular monument to the phenomenon of the Church glorious and triumphant.

But gradually I noticed something else, evidence of the Church humble and enduring. In the nooks and crannies of numerous baroque monuments were testimonies to a deep, powerful contemporary faith that speaks to the needs of our hurting world. I saw this in little glimpses of the Catholic faith living and active in the midst of so much history.

* In a church with mosaics dating to the 6th century a couple was celebrating their marriage while tourists and pilgrims wandered in and out taking pictures as they quietly entered into the sacramental commitment of a lifetime.

* One Saturday evening several of us went to an English liturgy in the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence. We were a rather motley crew of hot, sweaty, English speaking travelers celebrating the sacred mysteries at the site known to Michelangelo, Giotto, Donatello and others, as we celebrated the same sacrament that they did.

* In the Church of San Ambrogio in Rome, next to the relics of St. Polycarp, martyr of the 2nd century, was a small shrine to a contemporary, African, Trappist monk who has been beatified. There are still saints being made and honored in our midst.

* In a church that dates to one of the earliest “house churches” of Rome, which displayed a relic of pillar against which Jesus was scourged, the immigrant Filipino community in Rome has a vibrant, faith-filled parish.

* One evening we went to a church which also boasts a lineage from the earliest centuries and whose outside walls were lined with bits of marble inscriptions dating to the 4th century. Inside we went to a packed Vespers service of the San Egidio community, a contemporary faith community dedicated to helping the urban poor.

The monuments and history of Rome are amazing to see and a great way to appreciate the breadth and depth of our faith. But it is also challenging to see that our faith is not just the stuff of history and monuments, it is living, active, challenging and humbling to all of us who continue to strive to live the way Jesus called us to live.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Unexpected Encounters

Perhaps as Christians one of the most important questions we need to keep asking ourselves every day is where is Christ in our daily life? It is especially important because I’m not sure the answer is always obvious.

To be in Rome is to see how so many people have put so much incredible work and resources into building, decorating and maintaining many, many magnificent churches. Huge basilicas and even smaller neighborhood churches are intense displays of florid baroque art and architecture, the fruit of many people’s attempt to demonstrate their love of God and the Church.

It was a great gift to be part of many liturgies in these churches, to celebrate the presence of God in these places of beauty and history.

But in the midst of such beauty and expressions of worship another experience kept coming back to me and hasn’t left me alone.

We were staying with the Missionary Benedictine sisters in Rome a little way away from the more touristy areas. We would occasionally have afternoons off and I would walk along the bus route to a commercial area a few miles away. At one particular rather deserted intersection I was surprised to see a couple of women who appeared to be African. They were standing in this little used spot on the road, near some bushes, one with a parasol and both wearing clothes that would get them turned away from most churches. I admit I’ve been in Cottonwood a little too long because it took me a while to figure out that they were prostitutes.

I never spoke to them, I suspect we had neither a common language nor a common reality, so I simply smiled every time I walked by.

But the experience hasn’t left me. Is Christ present in the glorious, baroque churches and liturgies of Rome? Absolutely. But is he also present in the midst of women who are far from their homes with no options to support themselves except on street corners? Absolutely. Christ is present in the least of people as well as in the greatest buildings and liturgies.

I don’t know what the moral of this story is. Perhaps just that the real presence of Christ is not only in the sacrifice of the Mass but also in the most rejected and despised of society. Jesus didn’t just invite the nice people to his table, he invited all of us, and none of us is worthy. An unexpected encounter on a street corner in Rome was a good reminder for me to ask myself where I am seeing Christ and who I am inviting to my table.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

On These Bones

I had always wondered about Catholics and their obsession with relics, little bits of saints bones in elaborate containers which they seemed to worship. It was rather startling then, or perhaps simply the comeuppance of a former Baptist, that one of the most powerful experiences in Rome was visiting the “Scavi,” the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica that recently unearthed the original burial place of Peter.

Catholics have long claimed that Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” meant that the person of Peter was the foundation of the Church. Protestants of course have hastened to differ, asserting that it is Peter’s faith that Jesus was referring to. After seeing the excavations and hearing the story of how Peter was killed and where he was buried, it is clear that the distinction isn’t all that important.

As part of our pilgrimage in Rome we received a special tour of the excavations that are quite literally underneath the massive St. Peter’s Basilica. We descended several stories underneath the ground and heard how, beginning in the late 1930’s and continuing through the 1950’s Pope Pius XII started a program to excavate the earliest site of the tomb of St. Peter. According to tradition Peter was brought to Rome, imprisoned and finally crucified upside down at the Circus of Nero, the present site of St. Peter’s Square.

We walked through an ancient necropolis, a city of the dead, with marble sacrophogi that contained the remains of people from the first centuries of the Church, both pagan and Christian. We heard the stories of how the first Christians hurriedly buried the remains of Peter and carefully, unobtrusively marked the spot where he lay so that his remains could be venerated by believers and not destroyed by the officials of the Empire. By the time of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity the first of several churches were built over the place where Peter was buried. Over the centuries and the building of ever more ornate churches the site of the original tomb was lost. After the 20th century excavations, layers and layers beneath the current main altar of the Basilica, remnants of the bones of Peter were discovered and reinterred in a clear container so that a glimpse of Peter’s relics can be seen.

This man and his faith is the foundation of our Church. A man of deep contradictions Peter left everything to follow Christ and then denied him not once but three times. This is the man who impulsively began following Jesus walking across the water and then began to sink in his doubt. Peter seems to be absent from the cross and then doesn’t understand the meaning of the empty tomb And yet this same Peter is the one who preaches the Gospel to the world and finally so threatens the power of the Roman Empire that he is brought to Rome in shackles to be crucified in the heart of the Empire.

The story of Peter is a story of transformation and redemption. It is the story of an ordinary, impulsive and sometimes cowardly man who kept picking himself up and going forward in faith. His is the story of a very unlikely person chosen by God to do extraordinary things. The story of Peter is of a man who gave up his very life for God. Peter’s story is our story. On Peter, this rickety, unstable and unexpected foundation, the power of the greatest empire known to history stumbled and fell. On this foundation we stand, just as limited and human, cowardly and clueless as Peter, and like Peter we are building a new reality, a new form of power which is the Reign of God.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Rome: Anxiety and Thanksgiving

Anxiety always seems like a good thing to escape from, but sometimes it may be a doorway to thanksgiving. In the incredibly hectic days since I returned from my Roman pilgrimage I’ve been trying to snatch moments to makes sense of the experience.

One characteristic of the trip both prior to and during my time in Italy, was anxiety. I’m not an adventurous, seasoned traveler. I’m a wimpy, fearful traveler. As a result I had a long, neurotic list of things I was worried about. I would lose my money and passport. I would get hopelessly lost in overseas airports. I wouldn’t be able to find a sufficient supply of chocolate and other scenarios too horrible to contemplate.

But I discovered that pilgrimage is about turning anxieties into blessings.
Being a pilgrim requires a healthy dose of humility: an awareness that you really don’t have a clue what you are doing and like Blanche DuBois you “always depend on the kindness of strangers.” Traveling takes lots of patience with yourself and with everyone else who is probably just as tired, sweaty and confused as you are.
And so I spent a lot of time pointing, smiling and (trying) to say “grazie.” I was at the mercy of people who spent most of their days having to deal graciously with clueless tourists, many of whom couldn’t seem to figure out why things weren’t exactly the way they were at home and why everyone in Italy didn’t speak English.

In my newly humble state I came to appreciate an infinite array of Italian gelato (ice cream) sellers who understood “chocolate” and “due euro” quite well. I appreciated a very Italian parade of efficient Vatican ushers who herded the cats/tourists to the proper places in the Vatican with great aplomb and panache. Even the Italian trains were amazingly efficient and the Italians demonstrated admirable sangfroid in the face of being squashed together with hot, sweaty people trying to decipher schedules, stops, tracks and whether there would be enough time to get some gelato (do you detect a pattern here?)

Perhaps the key to the transformation of anxieties into blessings is realizing that we aren’t in control. Most of us have “control issues,” we like to know what is going on, we want to feel like we can predict and decide what is going to happen in our life; anything less results in stress and panic. The perennial joke of course is that the key to spiritual growth is letting go of control and making room for listening and responding to God. Being on pilgrimage is a remedial, crash-course in this fundamental lesson. When you are in a strange place, off-balance and way out of your comfort zone it is time to take a deep breath and trust that God is present.

And then when we come home the trick is to continue to take deep breaths and remember what we learned on pilgrimage.