Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Monasteries: Schools of Middle-Age Meaning

An interesting thing happened somewhere along the line in recent monastic life. Monasteries seem to have become largely about middle-age. Most of the women who are attracted to our way of life are middle-aged. Most of our retreatants are middle-aged. Most of our oblates are middle-aged. If you throw in the employees and volunteers there might be a little more variety but it would still probably average out to middle age. What on earth is going on?

When most of our sisters entered St. Gertrude’s they were quite young, most of them teen-agers or at most young adults. A few of them still talk about being one of the “old” ones if they entered at the ripe old age of 28 or 29. Now today it is a popular topic to wonder what happened to young people entering community or participating in other ways. So what happened to our “chronological diversity?”

As with most questions it is dangerous to posit an easy or simple answer, but perhaps we have trouble seeing the possibility that just as monasteries have always done we are responding to the needs of the times. Monasteries have never been about just one type of ministry, one way of being community, one way of being monastic. The flexibility and adaptability of Benedictine life has been one of the keys to the survival of monasticism. In the Church prior to Vatican II there was a tremendous need for Catholic education. Young women came to religious life, to St. Gertrude’s, to engage in an important, clear, tangible ministry. If you were a young woman who came to our community in 1960 you pretty much knew that you would serve the Church as a teacher or a nurse. It was a commitment to a life that seemed clear, that had answers, that had a specific ministry, that was set apart from and even above that of other people. This promise would have a great appeal to young people. Youth is about certainty and answers. Heroic self-sacrifice for a common ideal is something that stirs deeply in young hearts.

So what happened? Sisters aged along with the incredible winds of change in the Church and life become less simple, the answers less clear, a depth of understanding and maturity began to be required that had not been before. Ministry became a broader concept than it had been and choices proliferated. Religious life began to speak to new needs, new callings, new hungers. And so the world needs the witness and ministry of monastic life today as much as it did fifty years ago, but witness is of a different kind.

Perhaps that is why we often seem over-run with the middle-aged. Middle-age is the fruitful, scary, disconcerting, exhilarating time of life when everything seems up for grabs. Unlike youth this is not a time of answers or trying on new identities. It is a time when the answers seem to dissolve in your hand like cotton candy on a hot day. Middle age is a time when the mountains of achievement have either been climbed or abandoned and it is time to go deeper, to go inside and look for answers that used to be outside. In middle-age is the time for reflection, questions, wondering, slowing down and evaluating. In the middle of life it is time to look for meaning.

This is where monasteries come in. What is a monastery about if not meaning: deep, profound, fundamental, essential meaning. What is my faith; how do I pray; who is God; how do I love; why do we suffer; the questions of meaning that were ignored and passed by blindly are now huge stumbling blocks that seem to loom suddenly out of nowhere and threaten to hurl us headlong into our fears. But what is the school for the middle-aged, the school of meaning?

Perhaps modern monasteries are the new schools for meaning for the middle-aged. Benedict called his monastery “a school of the Lord’s service” and this is really the same thing. When people come to a monastery they are able to ask and explore the important questions of their life. Monasteries are necessarily not about answers but they are about being able to ask and live with the questions. And wrestling with questions that have no answers is perhaps the hallmark of middle-age.
Looking around the monastery there are lots of middle-aged fellow travelers, people on a new journey to know God and their faith in a new way, people who are beginning to suspect that the old answers and certainties are never coming back. Here at the monastery we just stand by the door and welcome people to the first day at this new kind of school.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Prayer of the Monastic Elders

Recently one of our elder sisters has taken a turn for the worse and it is hard to see her become even more diminished. It struck me though, that all of our elders, despite their challenges, come to prayer with us every day, three times a day. They participate to the extent they are able and we help them participate.

They are an example of an important aspect of monastic prayer, it is prayer to the end, the prayer of endurance, the prayer that continues through diminishment, suffering and letting go. For these elders prayer has become the essence of prayer, it is simply being before God in the presence and with the support of community. For many of them it is now prayer beyond words and concepts, it is the prayer at its most simple and real.

Perhaps this kind of prayer is the ultimate fruit of monastic life. Most of us we are about being busy, priding ourselves on how much we are accomplishing and sometimes being secretly resentful of having to interrupt our day with the call to prayer. But this busyness is an illusion, we think that all this work is really accomplishing something, that we are the important people in the community. But that is the advantage of praying in the midst of community. Those of us who are (relatively!) young and active are allowed to see the example of those whose entire lives have become prayer. They don’t interrupt their days to pray, their being has become prayer.

Our culture tends not to value people who whom it considers marginal, people whose diminishment due to age or disability makes them unable to compete in our work and results centered society. But of course monasteries should be an alternative to that culture. Hopefully we can be at least a small witness to that ultimate, alternative society, the Reign of God. In this Reign of God it is not the obvious people who are central but instead the margins become the center. The people who come closest to manifesting this new society are not the ones with the most degrees, the most important titles or who get the most work done. In this little group of people struggling to make the Reign of God become manifest the people at the center are the ones who look like they are on the margins.

I have a ways to go before I really enter into this new reality. I would rather pray with all my distracted faculties, conscious and aware of what I am praying, or at least conscious of my distraction. There will probably come a time when my prayer is as simple as some of our sisters and someone else will take me to prayer as a new generation prays the same Psalms and the same prayers and someone I’ve never met will give me the Body of Christ. I’m not ready for that yet just as probably none of our sisters ever thought she would be ready. The prayer of diminishment, the prayer of simply being is something that usually comes gradually. And that is appropriate since God’s grace is something that works on us slowly and gradually and it transforms regardless of how hard we work and indeed grace transforms us at the deepest level when we are unable to either resist or cooperate with it. So this is the prayer of our elders, the prayer of presence, the prayer of simply being, the prayer of witness. And this is their gift to us, a gift that if we are all lucky, we too will one day experience.