Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Living the Life

In the next weeks, I'm going to continue focusing on particular topics, rather than reverting to a chronological story of my vocation.This is because, when the the honeymoon time as a postulant was over, I started living into what it means to commit myself to this life. One of the things I've come to realize is that one keeps learning and going deeper but the issues themselves don't change. Helpful images that sisters has given me to describe this process are that it's like a spiral: you move upward, but you're also going round and round, or that it's like peeling an onion: you think you've learned something, then you find there's another skin to peel and you learn again.

In order for you to make sense of some of the topics I'll be dealing with, it will be helpful to have some insight into what living in the monastery is like. Contrary to popular perception, we do not float around all day meditating, undisturbed by normal activities like work or doing the laundry. Life in a monastery is very full. Our day is divided between prayer, work and recreation. Communal prayer, known as Liturgy of the Hours (LoH), is our central community act. Our prayer is rooted in scripture, particularly the psalms. Our regular schedule is to pray together three times a day (early morning, noon, evening), and to attend Mass. Health permitting, sisters work either in compensated positions outside the monastery or in some form of community service; this is because we have to pay the bills and keep the monastery functioning. Three meals a day are served in our refectory and joining together at the common table is important for us, relaxing and enjoying food and conversation. You may notice that the pronoun 'we' has come up a lot. This is significant because the basis of Benedictine living is community: we go to God together.

I wouldn't like you to get the impression that we are clones. Quite the reverse! There are many characters living in community and ideally we are all seeking God as our own authentic selves. This means that if a sister has a particular gift or talent she is encouraged to use it, but always for the good of the community. It means that we choose our own friends, but not in such a way that we exclude others. It means that we can be sociable or choose solitude, but always bearing in mind how our choice affects the community. It is difficult to achieve a position of perfect poise; in fact, I have discovered that failing to do so, and trying again, is an intrinsic part of monastic life. It is an aspect of perseverance which is essential to monastic living.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rule of Benedict

As Benedictines, we commit to living according to the Rule of St. Benedict, written in the sixth century. March 21 is St. Benedict's feast day, so it seems appropriate today to pose the question: Why would a woman living in 21st century America (or England), choose to live a life whose pattern was laid down by a man, in Italy, 1,500 years ago? I'm setting myself quite a challenge by trying to answer this in 250 words, but here goes...

Much of the Rule gives very practical instruction about how to live daily life. Fundamentally, it takes a holistic view of human beings (body, mind and spirit) through advocating a life of prayer, work, reading and adequate rest. Through the centuries, it has been adapted to suit the time and local conditions, something for which Benedict makes provision. However, there are underlying essentials which are as necessary and precious today as they were to Benedict's own community. It is these that I want to unravel.

For me, the first essential is that Benedict puts God as the primary focus, and seeking God as the essential activity in our lives. Secondly, all through the Rule, he calls us to be our authentic selves. Benedict's community is not about conformity, but about common purpose. The common purpose is seeking God, but each person does it as a unique individual. For Benedict, developing our authenticity comes through humility. By humility, he absolutely does NOT mean having a low opinion of ourselves or exhibiting false modesty. He means that we have to accept ourselves as the flawed human beings that we are, understand our total dependence on God, as opposed to ourselves or others, and understand that God loves us exactly as we are. As we come to develop this true understanding of ourselves, we become more and more able to accept the shortcomings of others, and not just tolerate them, but love them in all their humanness.

Of course, this doesn't happen overnight: it requires patience, perseverance and trust during dark times. It is achieved through struggle, and Benedict's practical "rules" for how we should conduct our lives are intended as a guide to help us manage the struggle. In future blogs I shall be reflecting on the practices of our daily life. Today, I'm content to realize that the reason the Rule calls me is because it grounds me, teaching me to love through humility, and to draw closer to God through loving.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Discerning Discernment

As a postulant, novice and woman in first profession, I have been in the stage of monastic life known as initial formation. This is the time when a woman learns about monastic life, in theory and in practice, and reflects on whether this really is what God is calling her to. In other words, it's a time of discernment: in this context, specifically religious discernement.

I'm going to be really honest and confess that, although I'd heard the term used many times, and understood its meaning, I wasn't really clear how I should actually do it. Were there definite steps, a protocol? How did I distinguish what God was telling me from what I merely fancied doing? Did other people know some secret method I didn't? I can say that over these years of initial formation, I have come to a deeper understanding of what discernment is (I had, in fact, being doing it for many years), but I have to warn you that we are back in murky water here, so please abandon any hope that I shall be offering an ABC guide!

What I can say about my call to monastic life is that when I let it in, it was the working of grace. My part was to choose to open myself sufficiently to allow grace to work in me. It seems to me that free will and choice are seminal to the discernment process. Making the choice to desire to desire to be open to God, and God's grace, is a prayer in itself, a prayer which will be answered. You don't have to do anything other than decide that you want the gift of an open heart. Actually, beyond that, you can't do anything because you're not in control. You can't seize the grace, earn or merit it; you part is to desire it and accept it when it's given. When it is, and you recognize in that inner part of your being that God is working in you, a practical help that I have found comes from a Jesuit discernment practice. Imagine the path you might be called to follow - does it feel like water dripping onto a hard rock and bouncing off, or does it feel like water dripping onto a sponge and being soaked up? If the latter, then it is probably the right path.

For me, entering the monastery has always felt like water soaking into a sponge. However, that doesn't mean that I don't get distracted and irritated by the difficulties that are part of daily living, and sometimes they make me feel I'd rather be a million miles away in some other life. At these times, I find it helpful to go back to the moment of enlightenment, when God felt so close and the call so clear,  and ask myself, "Has anything really happened that negates the truth of that moment?" No. So I dust myself down and keep going.

A final word: discernment is ultimately not about knowing, but about trusting

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When Hard Was Easy

The time between August 25, 2007, when I entered the monastery as a postulant, and July 6, 2008, when I was received into the novitiate, was a time of grace. I didn't recognize it then, but  as I look back over my nearly five years in the monastery, it stands out very clearly to me. For the first two months, I was homesick, which took me by surprise. It wasn't the first time I'd moved to a new place (even though this was further than ever before). I'd visited for long periods over the previous two years and had a lot of supportive relationships in the community. However, even feeling homesick was okay; sisters were so understanding and I had enough life experience to know that, if you just wait, it will pass. So, there was grace even in the homesickness.

At the two month point, I started simply to like the life. I knew in my head that I was doing a huge thing in entering, but inside me, it was easy because it just seemed right and natural. Going to community prayers three times a day - easy. Living with a group of women when I'd been happily living alone, settling into a new country and culture, changing from working in academia to working in housekeeping, giving up control of my life - all easy. I simply couldn't find anything that I didn't love about the life. And I just accepted it and supposed that it would go on being like that forever because I was the right person in the right place. 

I was not unreflective during this period, but it seemed to me (I now think both naively and arrogantly) that I had done this BIG THING in leaving my former life behind and that I was being rewarded for the sacrifice. I was here in this lovely life and now I was going to get on with seeking God undisturbed and untroubled.

Hard was easy through these months. One could say that I was unrealistic, ignorant about what I was letting myself in for, and maybe I was, but I truly see this as a time of grace. The fact that it was easy allowed me to settle into the life without being distracted by the question, "Do I like it?' As I have lived more deeply (and less easily) into monastic life, it has seemd more and more certain to me that staying here, committing to the life, is not about likes and dislikes, but essentially about whether living it, in what turns out to be all  its messiness, is bringing me closer to God.