Earlier this month we had a volunteer come for a week who wanted to do a “cultural immersion experience” for a class she was taking. She thought it would be interesting to immerse herself in our monastery for a week. She had a very good time and was thoroughly immersed in weed pulling, dish washing, other chores as well prayer and community life.
It did make me want to stand back and take a look at what our particular culture is like. Those of us who live at the monastery day in and day out for years can easily lose perspective about how different and unique this culture really is. So I tried to think through what is really different about us, what would someone coming into this new culture notice?
Perhaps the first and most obvious thing is that we are a large, single-sex group living together permanently and voluntarily. There may be other places where large groups of women live together but it may not be voluntary, as in correctional institutions (!) or college dorms (are there still single-sex college dorms?) or perhaps military installations, which are not permanent. Here in the monastery we have a group of women who have chosen this way of life, who have committed to live with, love and learn from one another for the rest of their lives. The fact that we do this permanently and voluntarily means that we are open to being transformed by the experience of community. By living with others we have to face the reality of our own limitations mirrored in those we live with.
Whenever volunteers come they also get quickly thrown into the daily round of chores. When people are only coming for a couple of weeks as a volunteer there are a lot of jobs that won’t be able to do, but there is always a lot of common work. Hopefully new people see that in our culture everyone helps with the common work. There is no one who is too busy or too important to be excused from helping out with dishes, clean-up or the large projects that come along. Living in community is a matter of willingly pitching in and not grumbling about who is or is not shouldering her share. This is an area we struggle with, but perhaps our integrity lies in the struggle, continuing to try to get it right even when we know that we aren’t always measuring up.
Simplicity is another value that people will notice about our culture. We live together and share things in common. Everyone has the same size, small bedroom, which discourages the accumulation of “stuff.” All the money that each of us earns goes into the common pot to support the whole community. We each have a very minimal amount of personal spending money and rely on the community to meet our needs rather than remaining in control of our own money and property. Again, simplicity of life is a goal, not an accomplishment. “Stuff” has a way of accumulating in our lives, a creeping sense of entitlement is something that we always have to watch out for. But in a broader culture that seems obsessed with money, possessions, and control perhaps we can at least be a small witness of another way.
One of the things someone coming for a short period of time may not notice but is an integral part of our culture is how we make decisions. There is very little hierarchy in monastic life and a lot of collaboration. We live together very closely for long periods of time. As a result we try to make sure that everyone is consulted, heard and their needs and desires considered. One of the things that many people do notice about us is that we move slowly and only after interminable meetings! This is very true, but perhaps as a result when we do move we tend to have a maximum number of people invested in the decision and the outcome rather than having a substantial number of people disenchanted and disenfranchised. As our society seems to be increasingly polarized and unable to communicate the frustration of the slow moving monastic way may be an alternative that isn’t easy but offers a way for everyone to be part of decision making.
Among many differences that a new person will notice about our culture perhaps the most important is one that most people pick up on quite quickly. The whole day is ordered around prayer. The key parts of the schedule are the times for communal prayer. Other events revolve around the prayer times. Not only that, but it is expected that people will drop what they are doing and come to prayer when they hear the chimes. Work isn’t the priority, work can wait. The purpose of our life is prayer, seeking God together in community for the rest of our lives. The “interruption” of prayer in our daily schedule, at the times when we were just starting to accomplish something, is the wake-up call that hits us in the head three times a day. This interruption is what brings us back to our center, our purpose. We immerse ourselves in a culture that is about God, together we swim in the ocean of God.