Last week our newest member, Sr. Wendy made her first monastic profession. It was a wonderful ceremony and celebration with her family and friends attending and with most members of the monastic community here for the event. This is such a significant event in the life of the community I always think it is worth reflecting on what it means for all of us.
In chapter 59 of the Rule Benedict gives both the criteria for admission to the monastery as well as the elements of the ceremony. First of all he makes the potential member wait. He wants to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God.” This is a process all communities still follow in some way or another. All of us are motivated by so many different things quite often we aren’t even conscious of what we want and why. For this reason all of us who have made a commitment have had to spend a lot of time waiting, discerning, sometimes struggling and wondering before we made our commitment.
Benedict says the new comer must be “eager for obedience, Opus Dei (common prayer) and oppobria (the challenges of daily life in community.) This means that the woman entering the monastery has to look at her motivation, why she wants to be part of a monastery. Does she seek an ideal world of prayer and spirituality without the challenges of messy daily life? Does she seek a community that will fill a deep-seated loneliness? Benedict is wary of motivations like that. He says the deep hearts longing needs to be about desiring the transformation that comes from obedience, from the hard work of dismantling our egocentricity and becoming open to God and others. We have to desire the Divine Office, coming and being attentive to common prayer multiple times a day and being present even when we are tired, distracted and irritated by the people around us. Do we truly desire the struggles of daily life with a group of people we didn’t choose? Are we willing to find God in the midst of the mundane and difficult and not just in moments of prayer and stillness?
These are the questions that we all have to ponder and work with before we make our commitment. We have to ask why we want to make profession, why do we want to live Benedictine spirituality in our daily life? More than that we have to keep asking these questions, keep looking at our motivation and commitment. A key part of this commitment is then stability, we remain with this community, this motley group of people. There will always be a better community down the road, another group of people, another monastery that does things better, where the people are nicer or more committed or whatever it is we are looking for. But Benedict says that the growth comes from staying in the same place, it comes from the daily rubbing up against reality and growing in the place where we were called.
For many of us in monastic life we have come to see the heart and essence of the monastic commitment in the “Suscipe,” the verses from the Psalm that sisters sing at their profession. In the Rule Benedict has the new member sing the Suscipe three times: “receive me O Lord as you have promised and I shall live, and disappointment not in my hope.”
The newcomer sings this verse at the end of a long period of waiting, discernment and testing. She has struggled with her call, with her own limitations and those of the community she is joining. She has finally decided to make the commitment, to live this Benedictine way for the rest of her life. In this context the Suscipe reflects the deep hearts longing that has brought her to the particular chapel and community where she will make her promise. The Suscipe is a plea to God. The newcomer does not come before God or community full of confidence and assurance, having crossed the finish line of the race. She stands before God and her sisters in a place of humility, of trust, ready to make a leap in the hope that the arms of God and her sisters will catch her. She comes before community and God knowing that she has no strength of her own but only that which comes from God, from her community. The verse comes from a depth of pleading rather than assurance. There is no entitlement in our profession or in our relationship with God. The Suscipe is about a naked trust and hope, it is about being stripped bare clothed only with the assurance of God’s presence and love and the strength of the group of people we promise to live with and serve.
Benedict has the community sing the Suscipe back to the newcomer. In this moment, which is profoundly moving for all of us who sing it as we remember our own profession, is the essence of what it means to be community. We welcome someone new into our midst, into our common journey of uncertainty and hope, the journey of the hard work of transformation, the journey through darkness into the heart of God. With the newcomer we stand not in strength and confidence but in the stunning realization that all we have and are comes from God. We enter into our frailty, our limitation, our hope in complete dependence on God. Our existence is dependent on God and not our own force of will and desire.
The ceremony continues, there are hugs and songs and claps and rejoicing. But as we leave the chapel all of us leave with the knowledge that as we welcome a new member in our midst we have also renewed our own commitment to live this way of life in the spirit of the Suscipe.
Congratulations Sr. Wendy!