Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Murky Waters

As I read through some of my past entries, I'm conscious that I keep repeating how I felt a sense of rightness and a certainty that God was calling me to monastic life. This is true. What is not true is that I have a hotline to God which means that I know, rationally and beyond doubt, what my next move is. I do not.

It is a common assumption that if a person says 'I believe', they are affirming that they know certain things about God and the divine, in the same way that they know that water is wet, blood red, etc. In reality, to say 'I believe' is to assent to the fact that I do not know, but that I accept that my experience, the essence of my being, tells me that there is something more, something beyond anything that I can comprehend. This is the basis of faith and because it is about what our minds can't comprehend,  we have necessarily launched ourselves into the dark, sailing in very murky waters.

I don't have an infallible answer about how to navigate the murky waters. Apologies. What I want to make clear is that there is nothing different about me; I don't have any kind of exclusive communication with God. Sometimes I can open myself suffciently to an awareness that gifts me with flashes of insight into something greater, but most of the time there is silence. I have faith, but I also doubt. If I didn't doubt, I couldn't have faith because faith is about trusting beyond my limits, beyond my own capacity for anything. When I was first letting in the idea of a religious vocation, the visual image that came to me was of myself standing on the edge of a cliff. I felt as if I was being asked to jump off that cliff into absolute darkness. I could not know what was in the darkness, where or whether I would land. If I chose to leap, I did so blindly, simply trusting that Something would be there in the darkness. There is.

Stylistically, it is tempting to leave ,"There is" as the final statement on this blog, and I could do so because my experience tells me it is so. It might, however, suggest that the water is no longer murky, that the endeavor is complete. Well, truth is the water is still murky, and I know I have a long way to go.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Leaving All

On August 24, 2007, I closed the door of my own home in England for the last time and journeyed further into a different life. I won't say it didn't feel momentous, because it did, but I also had a sense that it couldn't possibly be me who was doing this.

The time between becoming an affiliate and entering was very graced; I didn't realize how much at the time. I felt so at one with God that I floated through selling my house, disposing of my possessions, saying "goodbye" to people. [This is an aside, but I want to dispel here a myth that monasteries are out to take all your money instantly. I chose to sell my house; the monastery took no part in that decision. As a postulant, novice and in first profession, a woman does not use her own resources, learns by degrees to live depending entirely on the monastery; she does not relinquish ownership of her assets until making perpetual profession.] 

Back to the story: reality hit as I sat on the train taking me to London where I would catch my flight to the USA. I cried throughout the four-hour journey. I cried throughout the night in a lonely hotel room, and all the way on the plane from London to Minneapolis. However, I can't say that at any point I nearly changed my mind and turned back. I rested somewhere deep inside on the sense that God was leading me along this path and, although I wasn't enjoying it very much at present, it was still the right direction. That sense of rightness and peace permeated the first two months at Saint Benedict's, which were spent experiencing some extreme pangs of homesickness as I came to terms with the fact that I wasn't visiting here anymore. I wasn't visiting and then going home because this was home now.

My initial days at the monastey were, however, a very positive experience of community life. When I arrived from the airport, I was met by a sister who has consistently been a rock of support, greeted with great joy and love by the sisters with whom I would live for the next two years, and supported through the next two months with much care and sensitivity to how I was feeling. I was sad, but I wasn't unhappy, and I never felt alone.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Technical Terms

It is very easy when you live or work in a specialized environment to use terms routinely and forget that they may be new to others. I was made a aware of this recently when someone enquired whether as I was a sister, as I'm writing about the journey towards profession. The answer is that I am a sister, but I haven't made a 'forever' commitment as yet. So, I'm going to define the stages of the path to the 'forever' commitment. First, I'll take the opportunity to labor that point that it takes a very long time to become a fully-fledged Benedictine sister - five years minimum. This is the sequence in our monastery:
  • Affiliate - accepted for entry to the monastery but still lives regular life in the secular world (about 6-18 months).
  • Postulant - enters monastery, lives the monastic life but works part-time in a lay or community service job; begins classes related to monastic living (9-10 months).
  • Novice - deeper level of commitment; no outside work, limited community service; intensive study of monasticism, theology, scripture. Canon law requires that the novice does not leave the monastery for the whole year of what is called the canonical novitiate, except for certain defined activities. The novitiate may be extended for a second year but with fewer restrictions.
  • First Profession - the woman makes a commitment for a defined number of years (usually three); she lives alongside perpetually professed sisters, continues to study, and also works full-time either outside or within the community. After a minimum of three years, she can ask to make perpetual profession. This is the stage I am at, coming towards the end of my third year of first profession.
  • Perpetual Profession - the first professed sister and community discern together whether perpetual commitment is where the Spirit is leading. If that seems to be the case, then the prioress (the elected spiritual leader of the monastic community) grants the first-professed sister's request for perpetual monastic profession, which means the sister promises to live the rest of her life as a member of this Benedictine community, following the Rule of Saint Benedict (more about this another time).
You may have noticed that I haven't used the word 'vow'. This is because we now use the terms 'monastic profession' or 'monastic promises' when talking about our commitment.

Well, I think that completes the crib sheet of  technical terms. Next week, I'll continue with my journey.

Sister Karen Rose, OSB 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

An Easy Yoke

I returned to England in April, 2006, to live out, in my own surroundings, the idea of entering Saint Benedict's Monastery. The plan was that if I still felt the same in the fall, I would return to the monastery for a longer visit, living, praying and working as part of the sisters' community, rather than as part of Studium. For the first six weeks, despite the fact that it was genuinely good to be home, the only thing I wanted to do was get back to Saint Benedict's. I had a deep sense that this was where I needed to be to find the "something more" I'd been looking for.  I told very few people what I was considering. This was because I wanted to keep my mind open and not place myself in a position where I had to defend the decision to enter before I had fully made it.

I was also aware that I couldn't simply mark time in England. You may remember that I had given up my job before I came on my second visit to Studium. I had to construct a life I might go on living, which would feed and clothe me. If I didn't do this, I wouldn't be measuring my desire to enter against a real life. I look back now on this phase and am amazed at the grace that flowed. A collection of small jobs seemed to drop down in front of me, which paid my bills, but didn't commit me in ways that would make it difficult to spend three months later in the year living at the monastery.

Well, the result was that I constructed a very agreeable life that enabled to me to live simply, remaining in close contact with my friends and family, while giving me more time for God - just what I'd originally thought I wanted! So, by the time I returned to the monastery in September, 2006, I definitely came with an open mind and would, indeed, have been very glad to discover that I did not have a monastic vocation after all.

I was disappointed. I was so happy here right from the start. The life just seemed to fit. I recall being at Mass one day, about a week after I arrived, wondering if it could really be so easy, and the words, "My yoke is easy and my burden light" floated effortlessly across my mind. The result of the visit was that I started the formal process of requesting to enter, which is quite lengthy, and involved making another visit, for a month, around Easter 2007. It was at this stage that I was accepted as an affiliate, which means that my request to enter the monastery was granted, but that I continued living my regular life, in my own home, for another few months.

Sister Karen Rose, OSB

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hearing the Call

Last week, I recounted my final weeks of resisting hearing God's call. This week, I'm going to talk about what it felt like when God used a megaphone so I couldn't avoid hearing!

I had been at Saint Benedict's Monastery for nine weeks. In the tenth week, I felt that I had sorted out what I was going to do with my future. I was very grateful for the time I'd spent here, but looking forward to going home. I felt settled and then ... in conversation with a sister, I spoke about my beliefs and aspirations and she posed the question, "Have you ever spoken to the Director of Vocations?" I find it quite hard to describe what happened then. It was very gentle but it was as if something shattered in my mind and there was nothing between me and God. I didn't suddenly think, "Oh, yes, I want to be a nun!" Rather, it was like understanding very calmly that I had to go further, that I was being offered an opportunity that I shouldn't ignore.
Initially, I was in a frame of mind that said, "Yes, I'll go and talk about vocation, and if the Director says 'No', then it won't be my fault. I'll have gone as far as I can." In the days that followed, however, I started to feel very differently. The only way I can describe it is that I fell in love with God; I knew that the only way I could live out that love was to give my whole self to God, and that the way I was called to give my whole self was to enter the monastery. So, from hoping that the Director of Vocations would refuse me, I moved to hoping against hope that she would accept me. This was a really testing time for me because all I could do was put my life in God's hands and trust that all would be well. 

It was. When I met with the Director of Vocations, she agreed that there was something to explore. I'll talk more about that next week, but let me say now that it is not possible to think you'd like to join the monastery and just do it. I was certain on March 8, 2006 that this was what God was calling me to do. I know that I'm blessed to have remained certain through the following years, but I also know I'm blessed that it cannot be a hurried decision because moving through the stages of commitment has certainly been part of a movement towards God.

Sister Karen Rose, OSB