Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Common Life

Community is a fact of Benedictine life. We are a defined group, choosing to live according to the Rule of Benedict, with a common purpose of seeking God. Do I feel that it works, that it helps me in my search for God? Yes. Do I find it easy? Sometimes, not always.

I had lived alone for a number of years before I entered the monastery, and I loved it. It's often said that women who enter are seeking community, but that wasn't really true for me. I felt called to to this place and this way of life, and the community kind of came with it. I don't think I'd ever thought about community, whether I wanted it or not, before I entered. I've been fortunate throughout my life to have mutually supportive relationships and I was very satisfied with what I had in that respect. I also loved having my own home and being able to spend time on my own.

I feel I ought to say now that coming to live in a large community (our motherhouse, where I live, houses about 140) was a huge adjustment, but it wasn't. I guess I just plunged in, and I felt accepted. I haven't always got everything right and I've discovered that the place is full of human beings! This means that we sometimes irritate one another, occasionally hurt one another or misjudge another's motives or actions; we don't always think the same way about things. Amazingly, however, we seem to live in a fair degree of harmony. I put this down to our common purpose of seeking God. Essentially, it seems that this common purpose is what marks out a monastic community from other types of community: the common endeavor focused on seeking God, the common life of prayer, the common table. We are cenobitic monastics, meaning we seek God together in the sense that our common life provides the framework for our seeking of God.

The rub of community life and of trying to understand the other (because you are going to have to keep on living with her - you can't go home and close the door on her) is a seminal part how monastic life can transform us. However, if living in community provides challenges, it also provides gifts. There is always someone to turn to for help and support, who can understand what you're experiencing and, because our life is directed essentially towards seeking God, we are able together to create a framework which helps each individual woman deepen her search. A phrase from the monk, Thomas Merton, has stayed with me. It's to the effect that Community is not about forced togetherness. At its best, I see it as an intentional gathering of like-minded people who, in the externals of background and interests, may be very different, but manage to channel their diversity so that each can contribute to the building of a unity of purpose: seeking God.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is a Latin phrase which translates as 'holy reading'. It occupies an essential place in Benedictine life. Benedictines rate all education, study and reading highly, but lectio divina (often referred to just as lectio) is a slow, meditative way of reading the scriptures or other holy text which concentrates on what the words are saying to me, personally, at this time, rather than on information or facts.

I have always loved reading so, when I came to our monastery as a visitor and had an opportunity to learn how to do lectio, I seized it. I wasn't disappointed. This was at the stage where I was thinking where I should go with my life and my introduction to lectio was one of the elements that helped me to understand how I was being called to monastic life.

Now, it's easy to keep doing something when you first start and are swept up on a tide of enthusiasm. The challenge came when I realized that I was supposed to do lectio every day, not as part of "class" with a definite meeting time. This meant finding a space in my busy day to sit and read a passage several times, prayerfully, trying not be distracted by what I needed to get done next. As I look back, it seems to me that the discipline of forming the habit of daily lectio has been as important as the activity itself. It becomes a means of setting aside time to be with God. The Rule of Benedict is about seeking God, and you simply can't do that if you don't have specific times in the day that are intentionally devoted to doing just that. This isn't to say that I don't find God in my interactions with people, because I do, both within the community and the world outside. Indeed, God is always present, but lectio, Eucharist, LoH and personal prayer are times when I deliberately make myself aware of the presence of God. In saying that time alone with and for God is necessary, I am not implying that it's the only thing that matters. Rather, it's about ensuring that our lives are fully integrated.

Just a final word, so you don't get the impression I'm now perfectly disciplined. I have days when my timetable goes haywire or I don't make the best choices about my priorities. I need help sometimes to keep focused. That's where community can be a gift. There's a sister who often asks me what my lectio today was. That spurs me on to make myself do it, not so much because I don't want to admit I didn't, but because it tells me somebody cares and that she cares because she knows that it matters.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Eucharist: Desire and Discipline

The Rule of Saint Benedict does not specify how frequently monastics should attend the Eucharist (Mass). Mostly it has not been an option to attend daily, and that holds true for many women's communities today. However, here at Saint Benedict's we are blessed to have priests come most days from Saint John's Abbey, located about six miles away, and to have the local parish church practically in our back yard.

Since not everyone who reads this blog is Catholic, I'll  say a little about the Eucharist in the Catholic faith. Our belief is that when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, it becomes the true Body and Blood of Christ. It is not simply a remembrance or a symbol. Christ is really present on the altar: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. This great mystery of faith is called the Real Presence.

When I was converted to Roman Catholicism, belief in the Real Presence was central to my conversion experience. However, I have never previously lived a life where daily attendance at Eucharist was possible. In the years before I entered the monastery, however, my desire to attend Sunday Mass became deeper. Participating fed my sense of mystery and connection with the divine. Entering the monastery provided the opportunity to attend Mass and receive Communion every day. You might suppose I was pleased by that. Not so.

Now, I should say that we are not forced to attend daily, nor is it always possible. So, I had some freedom of choice here. Initially, I went most days but I started to feel that my longing for Communion was blunted  by the frequency, and so I would take "days off". Somehow, that never felt satisfactory. I couldn't find the perfect formula for number of attendances per week. This is where living as part of a community of women seeking God helped me to move on. Over the years (note, I grew slowly into my present position), I talked with various sisters about daily Eucharist and a recurrent theme seemed to be that if you discipline yourself to keep going, your desire to go grows deeper. I never made a conscious decision to begin going whenever it was possible, but somehow eased into it, and I'm finding they were right. I go whether I feel emotionally drawn to attend or not. It is an act of will, a choice which I now see as another way that I put my trust in God and give myself over to the path I've chosen to follow. Like so much in monastic life, it rarely yields a huge "high", but if I look back over the weeks and months, I see how my sense of Christ has deepened, and how the expectation that it will continue to deepen feeds my desire to attend.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Liturgy of the Hours

In my last post, I made the point that the Liturgy of the Hours (LoH) is our central community act, when three times a day we come together to pray. In this post, I'm going to explore what it feels like to commit to this and the effect that participating has on my spiritual life.

When I first started attending LoH, I thought it was wonderful, directly and perceptibly uplifting to me. It was like a fix three times a day. I have learned that this was part of the honeymoon. There are still times when a line suddenly strikes me from a psalm and seems to speak directly to me; times when our chanting seems to put me on another plane and I am drawn beyond myself; times when I become acutely conscious that not only am I bound together with my community in this activity, but that we are encompassing the whole world as we pray. These experiences are the ideals of what LoH should be. Would that it were always so!

On a bad day, I am distracted by things like pace, delivery, the scenery outside, my own thoughts, etc., etc. It is certainly not now the case that every time I attend LoH I have a good experience. So, why do I keep going? Well, after the initial delight wore off, it became a matter of choice, self-discipline and trust. I accepted that I was freely choosing to commit to this life and that LoH was an essential part of that commitment. Therefore, I had to discipline myself to attend, whether I wanted to or not. This is not as strange as it may seem. I recognized that in saying I felt called to this life, I was looking to be changed by it, to draw closer to God and I couldn't know if it would effect those things if I didn't live it fully. I guess that led to me to practice (practise, if you're English) the virtue of perseverance. I carry on going through dry times, trusting that I will finally reap a benefit in terms of my spiritual journey.

Unfortunately, I can't end by saying that I've had a great epiphany. I'm basically still persevering, but as I persevere, I am becoming dimly aware of being changed. Some of it is that the regular and frequent attendance at LoH has made God feel more pivotal in my life; I'm more conscious of the divine threading through the day, but beyond that is also a sense that I'm changed within, that I myself am threaded through the divine. I trust that, if I continue to persevere, I will continue to change, grow and draw closer to God.