“Dear God, it is too much, what you ask of me. I was born in Michigan. Industrial grit and beach sand made my bones. I have my garden, my dogs, and the sunroom where I pray as I watch the changing light and leaves in autumn. I know its backwoods trails and little streams better than the shape of my mother’s face. I know where blackberries and wild apples ripen in secret, and where deer shelter on winter nights. I was going to retire at 65 and then volunteer. How can you ask me leave it all? Once I make this change, there will be no going back. I will be 60 soon. No one will hire me. There would be no work and no home to come back to.”
Oh, but the pull was too strong. All my life it had tugged at me. What would life be like as a Sister? Then my mother died and no longer needed my care. My work had become a burden, a daily exhaustion of spirit. The Spirit touched me and said, “Now is the time.” I thought, “What is keeping me from following your call? Only myself. You have never led me wrong. We will walk together on a new path, and it will work out all right.” And I recalled the saying, “If you want to hear the laughter of God, tell him your plans.”
So I took a week off, and drove hundreds of miles westward across the flats and mountains of the Upper Peninsula to Duluth; and as I turned into the drive the Spirit told me, “You are coming home.” Seven months later, my worldly goods distributed to the winds, my home and dogs in the hands of a new owner, I entered as a postulant.
I said, You have to make this work. I don’t know I was speaking to me or God. Six months after that I became a novice. Now a year has passed, and the end of my canonical year approaches. I contemplate the promises I will make to you when I make my first monastic profession.
The First Promise: Stability to this Community
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
When I arrived in Duluth that first February, I wanted to explore this area so I could place myself in the landscape, to know what lay north-south-east-west of here. Winter and the lack of a car stopped me. Instead I turned to explore the convoluted landscape of the inner spirit, and found it was vaster than Minnesota, deeper than Superior. I studied Liturgy and the basics of being a monastic, and learned I would change profoundly. On the outside, eighty acres of steep woodland must satisfy my need for rawer nature, and an occasional dog met in the woods is all that remains of living with animals. No more planning meals; the monastery kitchen would determine my diet.
Ruth, daughter-in-law to Naomi, must be my model: if I want to stay I must make a full commitment to this community. My time is no longer my own; it belongs to the monastery, and to God. The community’s work will be my work, and its future will be my future. I own my clothes, a few books, a camera, and the computer on which I type this meditation, but in a larger sense all I own and am, even my body, belongs to God. I thought this part would be hard; instead I feel unburdened, lighter than air.
So many Sisters whose names I struggled to learn! They were welcoming, but assessing. Will she fit in with us? Is she too old to change? I asked myself the same. By the time I made my request to continue, these women had become a second family, imperfect but loved. What must it be like, then, to live in Community for 60 years? To argue with and forgive another, over and over, each time drawing closer rather than drifting apart? How important it becomes to love even the ones who are difficult, to never give up on anyone. Each one is a gift that enriches our lives.
If it were too easy I probably would not stay. I want to work till I die, which my career would not allow or even make desirable. At the age when my friends are planning their retirement, I look for another beginning where I can try new wings. I know it won’t always be easy to live with others after being alone for forty years, but I will persevere with the help of God’s grace, along with common sense and humor. Because there are days when I must leave by the back door and take a long fast walk in the back woods, to let off steam and simmer down, so I can regain my sense of perspective and rejoin the community.
The Second Promise: Fidelity to the Monastic Way of Life
“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away. See, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
My new life fits me like clothing that is slightly too tight, but that I love and don’t want to exchange. For it to fit I must reduce the ‘fat’ in my life. I still long for Michigan, but that must go; in my dreams I still walk my garden. My house was alive with color and music, and my room here is so plain, white walls and curtains. Let it go. Put on the outward appearance of a Benedictine sister: dress simply, walk quietly, live in communal poverty, do not ask for exceptions, come to Office and Mass, and come to the communal table even when it is a struggle.
On a deeper level I am learning to ‘put on the mind of Christ’. Quiet the mind. Embrace silence, the root of all being. Drink deeply from Scripture. Meditate. Watch my thoughts and stop them before they become desires. Control my stories. Let go of the need to own things and embrace a spirit of poverty. Stop being the ego-driven center of my life; instead, seek out the good of others before my own good. Care deeply. Participate with my whole heart in communal life and the work of the Community. Take care of tools and of the earth, and of myself. Work for peace and justice. Welcome the stranger as I would welcome Christ. Experience, one by one, the twelve steps of humility, a lifetime of descent to reach God in the darkness.
I am learning to see chastity a gift that unleashes my energies to serve God. In this new life, what I give is myself, and what God give me back is also myself. Through Lectio and contemplation I am growing as a paschal person, learning to accept suffering, rejection, and misunderstanding with the same calmness and humility as I accept love and friendship. That is hard, but God is sending lots of practice my way.
I aim for a balance of prayer, work, study and conversatio, to live in imitation of Christ.
The Third Promise: Obedience
“Therefore we must prepare our hearts and our bodies to do battle under the holy obedience of His commands; and let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible.” RB Prologue
For forty years I worked under layers of authority: supervisor, director, Chief Pathologist and vice president. For the last ten years of my career I was a supervisor myself, entrusted with guiding the work and mentoring my coworkers. I learned how it feels to be responsible for the work of people who want to follow their own way.
There is always a reason for an order. Though I may have chafed under authority’s demands when I was young, I learned that cooperation with authority is essential to getting a project accomplished, peacefully, on time and within budget, while nurturing the minds, spirits and relationships of the workers. Obedience allows us to live with discipline and intention. We rid ourselves of willfulness and spiritual sloth, and become clay in God’s hands, to be molded into tools for God’s service.
All valid authority can be traced back to God, and flows from the Spirit. Obedience is the necessary first step for learning humility, to see myself as I truly am, uninflated by ego. This means to respect and follow the guides God placed over me. Benedict said that the third step of humility is reached when, “out of love of God, one obediently submits to a superior in imitation of the Lord.”
When a superior makes a request, Benedict says we “receive it as a divine command and do not delay in executing it”. When called by bell, prioress or another Sister, I obediently set aside whatever I am doing and hurry to obey, “without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or objection.” Attitude matters. The Rule calls me to obey with a willing and cheerful heart; if I respond grudgingly, “even though she fulfill the command yet her work will not be acceptable to God, who sees that her heart is murmuring”.
In the real world, of course, sometimes I disagree with an order. The Rule directs me to gently and respectfully discuss why it will not work, suggest an alternate action, come to a resolution, and then obey. It is a mark of humility to obey without murmuring or anger. I remember what it was like to implement an unpopular decision. Of the role of the Prioress, Benedict said, “Let the Abbess always bear in mind what a burden she has undertaken and to whom she will have to give an account of her stewardship, and let her know that her duty is rather to profit her sisters than to preside over them.”
Why should I obey when it may mean impossible, dull or fruitless labor? In monastic life, the fuller meaning of what we do is hidden. When I obey a superior willingly, without question, I become a little more humble, and each time it brings unexpected grace. Obeying when I don’t understand the whys and wherefores, and accepting a humble role in the story, fills me with joy because my action wasn’t driven by ego, but made out of love.
St. Paul captured the crux of the matter when he wrote to the Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” As a servant I no longer follow my own will, but Christ’s, and don’t need to know purpose and outcome. It is enough to obey. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
So, on August 31 at Evening Prayer, I will promise stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience, because I choose to live the Paschal Mystery. Jesus warns, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” It is difficult to empty myself and take on Christ, but it brings great joy. I no longer know what I will be doing in ten years, but I have taken the narrow gate and trust in Christ.
As I finish this a heavy fog has moved in off the Lake; the world is hidden and sound is muffled. It is an apt metaphor for my chosen life. As a community we may not see where we are going, we may stumble on the path at our feet, but we keep our eyes on the Cross; and that is enough for the day.