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.