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...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coffee Break

I'm not going to start on the monastic promises this week after all. I've been finding this period between being accepted for perpetual profession and actually making it rather unsettling. I very much want to profess, but I also want to feel on Cloud 9 about it, and I wasn't really feeling that. Life somehow seemed to be getting in the way, not big things, but not quite as I wanted it. In the back of my head a little voice kept whispering that these niggles were opportunities for grace, for transformation, for putting the needs of others before my own. In response a much louder voice shouted back, " I don't want these opportunities right now." The other day, I was feeling really quite down about things and I wanted someone to read my mind and make it right.

In this frame of mind, I enter the sisters' break room for my mid-morning break.
I pour a cup of coffee. A sister shares a piece about Easter by John Chrysostom. I feel better. I sit down. She compliments me on last week's blog. I tell her it feels different writing the blog now that my request to make perpetual profession has been accepted. It had become a discernment tool for a very specific purpose and now that purpose is fulfilled. I have things I can write about, but I'm experiencing a certain emptiness. She says, "Well, say that. Say it." So I am, and I feel better. It's not just to do with the blog (that's a symptom) but to do with my life situation, and I feel better for saying it. Another sisters says she works like a 'J' on the Myers Briggs, but she isn't really a 'J'. I'm surprised. I'm the same. I feel better. I say I have reservations about these personality tests because they can end up by putting people in boxes. One or two sisters agree. I feel better. Still on the subject of boxes, we talk about finding cardboard boxes to pack things in for an office move. I feel better. I put my cup in the dishwasher. A sister comments to me that she and I and a few others have the absurd gene, which is a gift, because it it helps you survive in community. Maybe we should start a group - Absurd Sisters? I feel better. I chat with another sister. I tell her some of my miseries. We start to laugh about it. I feel better.

Were these women reading my mind after all? Maybe these things that have loomed so large are, actually, pretty small? Maybe I can use them as opportunities for grace and transformation. Well, at least I could have a go and, as John Chrysostom tells me, just having a go is enough.

So, I want to end by saying "thank you" to the break room sisters for helping me rediscover my equilibrium. I'm looking forward to profession and I'm looking forward to life continuing to happen in the weeks leading up to July 11.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Promise, Profession and Perseverance

Two months until I make perpetual profession on July 11. There's a lot to do in terms of invitations, preparing for the practical details of the ceremony, really all the logistics of getting ready for any big celebration. There's also a deeper level of preparation which focuses on the promises I'll be making.

Until I started exploring Benedictine monasticism, I thought all religious orders made vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. However, monastics in the Benedictine tradition promise stability, obedience and fidelity to the monastic way of life. The latter includes, but is not limited to, poverty and chastity. In these next few weeks I'm going to share a little about what these promises mean.

Before reflecting on each specific promise, I want to say something about what it means to make these promises. Profession is a public expression of the personal commitment that I am making to God, to this community, and to this way of life as the means of seeking God. Profession is not a sacrament in the way that baptism or marriage would be regarded as a sacrament, but it is a solemn act made before God and before witnesses in which I declare my intention to give my life to God through living the three monastic promises. There are two important elements: making the promises and then living them. The promises are not a formula which a woman recites to gain admittance to a society, but the declaration of an intention to live a way of life for her whole life. Profession is a moment in time, but the intention contained in that moment is to persevere in seeking God into eternity.

It is going to be a challenge to distill each promise in the next few weeks, because they are not really separate: each links into the other. I have reflected on the promises a lot during my years at the monastery and my understanding has developed over time. I hope this will continue, so please don't take what I'm now going to say as the final word on the subject. However, it seems to me that the unifying force within the promises is love. Ultimately, each one helps us, if we persevere, to move away from putting ourselves first, and enables us to develop our capacity to love beyond ourselves

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What If...and Beyond

I can begin with good news! My request to make perpetual monastic profession was accepted by the Admissions Chapter. However, you probably won't be surprised to know that I don't dash these blogs off and post them immediately. They have, in fact, become part of my discernment. This is the fruit of the process at a moment of uncertainty, before the Chapter, but its essence still applies.

I used to view discernment as finding an answer to a particular question, but this discernment towards a lifelong commitment in perpetual profession is not that. Essentially, I have known my answer to the question "Do I want to profess?" from before I entered as a postulant. I feel called by God to this life. The key discernment question for me is not "Shall I stay living this life?"but "Why would I stay living this life?" I think it's probably been clear from previous posts that the reason I would stay is that my life here consistently, if slowly, draws me into a greater awareness of God, more deeply into the divine mystery. I imagine (and hope) that this "Why?" question will stay with me for the rest of my life, not in the sense that I would be questioning whether I should still be here but because reflecting on the  "Why?" of monastic life guards against falling into the trap of going through the motions, and helps one keep moving forward, going deeper, allowing transformation to happen.

What if, at this point, I was in the position of wanting to say "yes" but the community had said "no"? I didn't really anticipate that happening, but it's a good question because it put me into a position where I had to look at the possibility of not getting what I wanted, and ask where God would be in that scenario. I would, of course, have been very upset, but if I gently put my emotional response to one side, I am left with a set of four very simple propositions:
  • God would still be God
  • The world would still exist
  • I would still be me
  • God would still be in me and in the world
Understanding this is immensely liberating because it hones my awareness that the order of creation is not shaken if I don't get my own way, that I am not the center of the universe and, most importantly, that my trust in God, and my desire to seek Him, is not dependant on what happens to me. It is an understanding which enables me to pray, without reservation, that I can give myself fully and unreservedly to God whatever the unknown future brings.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Choosing and Risking

This post is, I suppose, one of my "asides",  because it's going to be about what's going on in my head and heart, rather than on a specific subject. It helps to write these sometimes because I don't want either you or me to begin to feel that everything is clear. It's not. The water remains murky.

The impetus for this blog is that I am coming up to an important milestone next week: the Admissions Chapter. This is when I will go before the whole community (over 200 sisters) to make my request for perpetual profession. I am apprehensive. I don't mind speaking in front of people and I'm sure this is what I want to do, so I'm not consumed by fear, but I am apprehensive. This is for two reasons. Firstly, although sisters have been very supportive to me, I have no control over what happens in the Chapter, and I'm very conscious that my life is in their hands and I have to trust, trust,trust...

Secondly, I have a very strong sense of taking my life in my own hands. I see myself as having walked down a road towards perpetual profession for the past five years and suddenly the road has forked. I'm standing right at the fork and I'm not compelled to go one way or the other. I can take the way to perpetual profession or the way to another life. Whichever road I take, I don't know what lies along it. Either way is a risk. I'm choosing the profession road. And I'm very conscious that I have a choice. I don't have to go this way. Everything in the past five years has signposted me to this road but, as I stand at the fork and look down it, it is completely dark and featureless and all I can do is trust. trust, trust...

I think I have cause to be apprehensive! Yet, I have to say that there is a certain peace in understanding that I'm taking a risk and choosing to take it with my eyes wide open.  I also understand that, ultimately, when I say I have to trust, it is not myself, or even my sisters, that I'm trusting, but the Holy Spirit working in us.