Thursday, July 12, 2012

On the Altar

I'm both sad and happy to be writing be writing this last blog: sad because it is the last one, and happy because I have a sense of coming home as I reach this point in my life. I shall, however, be making a monthly contribution to our regular website blogs, so you can keep in touch there, if you'd like (www.sbm.osb.org). Also on the website, there will be a video clip of highlights of the profession Eucharist.

Well, July 11 was undoubtedly full of grace! During the past week, I'd been conscious of a nervous anticipation about making profession, but it was more about preparing for the ceremony and wanting it to be meaningful for  me and all those who attend, rather than about my choice. I was sure I was called by God when I entered in 2007. At first profession, in 2009, I was making a lifelong commitment in my heart, so my perpetual profession in 2012 is simply a confirmation of what I had already promised. Seeing perpetual profession in this light has enabled me to be fully present to each moment and to enjoy this very sacred time in my life.

So, what was the day like? I felt carried by the prayers of all those I knew to be praying for me and thinking about me wherever in the world they were. In the chapel, I felt entirely surrounded by good wishes, support and care. People, music, liturgy all conspired to lift my spirit toward the light. They didn't distract me at all; instead, they helped me to focus on God, and my experience was characterized by a sense of what I can best describe as sacred intimacy. At the same time, I was conscious that I was making profession in the name of the Church, which is something greater than individuals or single issues. In my profession, I consciously gave myself within, in the words of the Creed, "the one, holy, Catholic, apostolic Church" which Christ founded.

The highlights of the service were when I made the promises of stability, fidelity to the  monastic way of life (conversatio) and obedience, signed the profession document, sang the Suscipe ("Receive me, O God, as you have promised and I shall live/Do not disappoint me in my hope"), prostrated before the community to ask for their prayers, and was blessed and received by them. For me, however, the most profound experience was seeing the prioress lay my signed profession document on the altar where it remained throughout the sacrifice of the Mass, symbolizing how, in committing myself to monastic life, I had given myself over completely and unreservedly to God. Beyond that, I felt myself united with the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, which we celebrate in the Eucharist. I didn't have a moment of understanding the mysteries of the universe (the waters remain murky), but I did feel myself to be at one with divine unknowing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pascal's Dice

I think I must have accidentally deleted the original of this, published July 4, so here is a copy.

A week to go before profession. I feel centered. I don't know what the rest of my life will hold, but I feel assured that I am called to live in this community according to the Rule of St. Benedict. In the words of the psalmist, "I am confident and unafraid."

Being confident and unafraid is not the same as being unaware. I walk towards July 11 still in the understanding that I am choosing to do this freely, and in the knowledge that I could be getting it wrong. I don't mean getting it wrong at the level of making a mistake about doing what's best for me, but getting it wrong at the deeper level about the primacy of the search for ultimate meaning.

There are certain authors who write something which speaks to me profoundly, and however often I read it or think about what they wrote, it gives me a renewed sense of rightness, of having hit a primal truth. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French Catholic writer, philosopher, physicist and mathematician is one of these. In the Pensees, he speaks of how human beings are faced with a choice: to believe in God or not. Either God exists or God does not exist: there is no middle road. He likens our choice to a game of dice. The game is in play. You must bet, for or against God and, when you've placed your bet, everything, EVERYTHING hangs on the roll of the dice. That sums up how I feel at this moment. I am staking my whole life, for God, on the roll of the dice. I have no guarantees about the outcome. I am reaching for Infinite  but, because I am not infinite, I am always reaching forward into mystery and darkness. I am standing on the edge of a cliff and I understand I'm launching myself into darkness. To my great surprise, I don't feel anxious, I don't feel uncertain. On the contrary, I feel completely calm. The moment is at hand when I shall say a universal "YES!"

My resolve is firm, but it is also a great comfort to have the prayers of friends. I'd like to ask those of you who have been accompanying me on my journey to pray for me in these next days. You might be surprised at how large and diverse our "blog community" is. I have been. There have been over 3,000 hits since I started writing in January, coming from 36 countries across the globe. Thanks to all of you for listening and sharing my journey.

By the way, it might be Thursday next week (July 12) when I publish the last in the series. I think July 11 is going to be rather full ... of grace, I hope!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Personal Prayer

I have been somewhat putting off writing this blog, but there are only three more to go and I feel the moment is upon me. Personal prayer has, of course, been a vital part of my discernment. My difficulty is that that I don't have a method and I'm back in murky waters trying to convey anything about my personal prayer life. I don't have anything against methods, and I know many people find them helpful. For several years, I used to believe that if I could only find the right method a whole new world of certainty about divine mysteries would open up. I have, however, generally found myself either distracted by my consciousness of the method. Method thus became a barrier rather than assistance in my prayer life. The fact of needing a special method made prayer seem difficult.

One happy day, the thought crossed my mind that there was God, all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, and here was little me, with none of those attributes, and exactly how hard was God going to make it for me? I steer clear of descriptions of God because our human perception and vocabulary can't describe the Infinite, but I do feel confident to say that God is not petty. This enables me to see my prayer life simply. Simplicity is the key. Everything about God is simple. We make the complications. We erect the barriers. Often that's a defence, because identifying complexity often means being able to argue that I would do what I think God is asking, but..., when God is actually suggesting simply that I DO IT.

This insight has really freed me in my personal prayer life. Sometimes I talk to God one on one (this includes complaining, asking, questioning, expressing gratitude, being angry, etc.); sometimes I just sit in silence and let whatever happpens happen: I let myself be in God. If my mind drifts, I offer the drift to God. In the last few years, I have re-discovered the value of devotional prayers, such as the rosary. I don't think God scores me on how I approach my prayer. I feel the important thing, as in so many aspects of life, is perseverance: keep on praying even when it's hard, when it's dry, when there is no answer. The purpose of my prayer is to help me enter more closely into the divine mystery and that means, frequently, praying into the darkness.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Obedience

I'm posting early because I shall be absent from my computer for a week doing some intensive study and reflection with my director. This means you will have about 10 days to ponder monastic obedience before my next post.

 It seems as if everyone has a view about what the promise of monastic obedience means. Usually it's seen as doing what you are told, and it's often implied that, in order to promise it, you have to be the kind of person who is unquestioning and quite happy to give up thinking for themselves. Well, it's not like that at all.

Firstly, it's important to see all the monastic promises as being made in the context of free will. As a consenting, adult person, I am choosing this life. I am choosing  to make these promises. I shall make them publicly on July 11, but every day of my life thereafter I shall be consciously recommitting myself to the choice and the promise. So, I am always freely obedient.

Secondly, monastic obedience isn't merely doing what you are told. It is not about being asked to suspend your intelligence and judgment. Essentially, it is about mutual listening. So, for example,  if you are asked to take on a new ministry, the question would only be put to you after the prioress or superior had prayerfully considered what the community needed and who might be the person to fulfill that need. The sister would then, in turn, be asked to discern the matter. The possibility exists to explain why you think this might not be a good fit, and to ask for it to be reconsidered. What I'm trying to show here is that monastic obedience is interactive and inter-personal. It's seminal to our life in community, which is underpinned by love and respect for the other. Therefore, it's not intended to negate anyone, but to enable the possibilities that flow from learning not to put ourselves first.

Finally, it's important to remember that, ultimately, our obedience is to God, and that always means taking a risk. In answering this call to make perpetual profession, I am certain that I am accepting an invitation from God and, in that sense, I think I'm right to do it. I'm right ... but in the dark. I don't know where it will lead, I don't know what the final outcome will be. But I am prepared to be obedient to it, trusting in God  that all shall be well: that through stability in the way of life, daily trying consciously to turn my life toward God (conversatio) and being obedient to what I hear God asking of me, I will become increasingly aware of the divine mystery permeating all creation.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Stability

Stability is the promise which roots us as monastics. It's important to realize what stability is NOT about: it is not about geographical stability (being rooted to the spot); it is not about becoming stagnant and resistant to change.
So, what is the underlying meaning of the promise of stability? When I make this promise, I will understand that I commit myself to a way of life which is ordered by the Rule of Benedict. I will commit myself to this community, following the Rule, under the prioress elected by the community. In making this commitment, I don't have a guarantee that I will never live anywhere other than the motherhouse at Saint Benedict's Monastery. I could be asked to serve elsewhere but, in doing so, I would remain stable in my commitment because I would be serving (under obedience) where the community felt I was most needed. My commitment isn't to the place, but to the community, the way of life and, ultimately, to God.

The monastic promises flow into one another. It isn't really accurate to view them separately because they are three aspects of one commitment: the search for God. My promise of stability means that I commit myself in the long term to living Benedictine monastic life. Far from that meaning I will not change, it means that I commit myself to a way of life which will me enable to grow and to become more aware of God as I live into the other promises of fidelity to the monastic way of life (conversatio) and obedience. One of the ways, I have found it most helpful to characterize stability is to look at it as stability of purpose. It's been noticeable to me in these weeks since I was accepted by Chapter that, with one or two blips, it's been a very good feeling to be this side the request, but that my life, as I live it out daily, hasn't changed markedly. This is reassuring because it affirms that I haven't simply been jumping through hoops these past five years: I've really been committing to living the way of life I'm going to live for the rest of my life. This doesn't guard me from the normal ups and downs of life. I'm still going to experience life as an ordinary person, with an ordinary person's reactions, but through all, however I am feeling, will run the thread of stability which roots me in my primary purpose in choosing this way of life: seeking God.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Inclusions

 As well as commitment to constant conversion and growth,  poverty and chastity are also included in the monastic promise of fidelity to the monastic way of life (conversatio). I've titled this blog Inclusions not just because these two aspects are included in the promise, but because they are often thought to be about issues of exclusion - what is given up or not done. In fact, both poverty and chastity are positives, not negatives; they are about choosing ways to live one's life which enable focus and growth in the search for God.

Monastic poverty is not about destitution. The Gospel does not tell us that it is a good thing to live in abject poverty. Indeed, destitution like this hampers the search for God because we become totally focused on our immediate physical needs. Monastic poverty has two aspects: moderation and common ownership. As you might expect of an aspect of conversatio, poverty is something you have to work at, to choose each day what is enough and what is surplus to need. Those choices are made in a context of complete dependency on the monastery for everything. So, for instance, those working in compensated employment outside the monastery do not take their own salary; it goes into a common pot from which each woman is given according to her need. It also means that not everyone receives exactly the same because each woman is an individual and needs vary. Monastic poverty is thus a way of ensuring that needs are met in a spirit of moderation and the community bond is enhanced because none of us owns anything privately and we each depend on the others for what we have.

Chastity is not the same as celibacy. A married couple is chastely married if they remain faithful to one another and to the marriage vows. Celibate chastity, which is what monastics promise, means that monastics don't marry and refrain from sexual activity. We don't make this promise in a spirit of negation, but as a positive choice to channel our sexual energy in a different way. We love and we have deep relationships. Healthy people need to love and be loved; healthy monastics are no different in this respect. The intention behind celibate chastity is not to stop us having friendships or establishing bonds of trust and love with others, but to enable an intentional focus on building a loving relationship with God. This, in turn, will fuel loving relationships with others and, at its finest, generate love for the whole of creation.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Gift of Gnats

I've recovered from last week's bout of feeling badly done to and I'm ready to start with some zest on my series of blogs about the monastic promises. I'm going to begin with the promise which is currently translated as "fidelity to the monastic way of life" and in the past as "conversion of life". In the Latin of Benedict's Rule, the phrase is "conversatio morum", which is difficult to render precisely. What is important to grasp is that it does not  imply a one-off conversion, but a repeated effort to change, to grow, to live more deeply into the mystery of God. I decided to begin with this promise because last week's blog is an example of conversatio (as it's often referred to) in action.

Let me explain. Conversatio is about taking the daily, the routine, all the events of our lives, big and small (mostly small) and allowing the Spirit to work through them to draw us closer to God. Living in community is difficult. Being a monastic is difficult. You are with people most of the time. They don't always behave as you'd prefer. You live under obedience which, as we'll see in the obedience blog, doesn't mean you are voiceless, but it does mean you have to be able to relinquish control and live fully, not grudgingly, into situations and with decisions that you would not necessarily have made. You can look at these situations and be irritated, like I was last week, or you can accept them and choose to allow yourself to let their hugeness go, see them in perspective and come to understand that, in the eyes of God, they are not significant. The events are not significant in themselves; how you respond is.

When I was novice and I was very exercised by a number of issues, a sister gave me this piece of advice: Monastic life is like walking through a cloud of gnats. If you stop to swat each gnat you will never get anywhere. You just have to keep walking through them. It's true. You have to keep your eyes fixed on the goal, which is God. You have to keep persevering toward that goal, and not be distracted from it by the gnats, which at times can form a thick cloud of "I don't likes" and "I don't agrees". It's also true, though, that if you keep walking, persevering, eventually it pays off and you realize, for a blessed moment, that you are actually making some headway, and the gnats are, in fact, opportunities for grace: the daily happenings which bring about your transformation, if you approach them right. That's the gift of gnats. Of course, a new set of gnats arrives and the process repeats... and repeats... and repeats...