Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Just Disparate Thoughts

Sorry about the hiatus.

I didn't know what to say about the COVID outbreak we had at the monastery, and then even after it was long past and we were all back on our feet, I still didn't know what to say. While those who know me in real life know I'm perfectly capable of sharing half-baked thoughts, I don't like to think of inflicting that kind of thing on the general public. When I write something on the blog, I like to think it might be interesting, not too self-indulgent, and coherent. But trying to clear those three hurdles has basically kept me tongue tied for 5 months, so I'm going to dispense with them and just give you a few little snippets from this mostly uneventful time in my life. Maybe you'll find it interesting, and if not, my feelings won't be hurt if you click away.

I am now just about halfway through my novitiate, the year of intensive prayer and study that comes before a sister can make temporary profession. As a novice, you don't go out to external ministries or to parties or on trips; you don't go home on visits; you're at the monastery pretty much all the time, observing and discerning and letting yourself be known by the other sisters. As a lifelong egghead, I kind of expected I'd spend the bulk of the year reading and engaging in quasi-academic pursuits. And if any kind of reputation about me would be forming in the minds of sisters who didn't know me too well before, I kind of figured it would be along the lines of: bookish, absentminded, curious, maybe a little over-educated. 

Well, I have spent a lot of time these last few months reading and writing. I do really like to study, and to keep my Hebrew in use. But the reputation I've gotten around the monastery has nothing to do with all that. Instead, I have really made a name for myself as a gifted maker of eggs.

It's the job of novices, see, to make a hot breakfast each morning for the sisters in the infirmary, a group which swelled in numbers after the virus outbreak. Each weekday, after morning praise, I roll my little cart of eggs and juice and breads up to the infirmary kitchen, and each Sister there gets an egg or two cooked to her liking. I don't consider it a particularly big deal, though occasionally it'll get a kind of hectic if a lot of them arrive at the table at once. But they LOVE those eggs. I hear about it all through the house now. At other meals, when they come to the main dining room, they're whispering to their tablemates, "Jackie makes good eggs. Jackie makes great eggs." If I walk by as their eating their lunch or dinner, they sigh and say, "I wish this was one of your eggs." Perfectly able bodied sisters ask me what the secret is, or if I'll make an egg for them so they'll see what the fuss is about.

I don't know what the fuss is about. I have no special method. But I have three guesses.

 1) The sheer quantity of butter I use to keep the eggs from sticking to the old pans. Butter, Julia Child says, makes everything better. It's not like I'm pouring melted butter out of the pan and onto the plate, but I'm sure they can pick up the taste. It saturates, you know.

2) The eggs are made the minute they sit down, and come out hot within a few minutes. When eggs are served in the main dining room, they're cooked in a big batch and then you come and get them as you go through the line. It's just not the same. The temperature isn't quite right and they get a little overdone by the time you get your serving. Mine are fresher. (I like this theory the best, since it means my method, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with the joy they get from the eggs. Believing that this is true frees me to experiment with techniques and to not obsess too much over presentation.)

3) The last theory is almost the same, but with a different inflection. Maybe they think the eggs are so good simply because they're made for them, right when they walk into the room, by an novice who wants them to look nice, and is desperate not to break the yolk. (Whenever I go to fry an egg, I think of those Buddhists who say they don't ring the bell but "invite it to sound," and I crack it with my knife while mentally "inviting it to open." This has reduced the percentage of broken yolks from 40% to 10%, so that's my cooking tip for you.) Maybe the attention I put into making the eggs--and of course the motives of the attention are not all pure: for every loving thought I have for the sisters as I make them their breakfasts, there's a thought like, "I don't want to hear her complain."--has a little of its own flavor, seeping into the eggs as much as the butter does.

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The other day, I was walking down the hall on the ground floor and saw one of our more whimsical Sisters looking lovingly out the window, gazing up at the then mostly bare branches of a tree. "Look at this little redhead," she said to me, pointing at a woodpecker. 

I stopped and looked for a few minutes and she told me that she came to that window just to see him, knowing that he would be there since it was 11 a.m. "He also comes to that branch around 2:15," she said.  And she went on telling me about the schedules of the various other birds and woodland creatures who are at home on our property. This really amazed me because I don't notice that kind of thing... or if I do, I would have no confidence that it was the same bird I was seeing each day. She seemed to have such intimate knowledge of these little beings. 

"Did you name him?" I asked. 

"No," she said, sounding genuinely surprised. "He doesn't belong to me."

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I have a new obsession that's developed. It started during the worst of the COVID outbreak, when if you wanted to take a walk, you had to go outside, to avoid any possibility of spreading the virus. That went double for me, since I actually had the virus and was not feeling too great. There was this fever that didn't break for over a week, joint aches, and what seemed like an almost impenetrable bad mood.

In an effort to keep myself from lashing out at the other people quarantining on the guest wing, including those who were taking such good care of us sickos, I would take incredibly long walks through our woods, clipping away at the multiflora rose bushes and wild grapevines that, for probably about twenty years, have been growing like mad in the forest, draped in wild patterns over the trees like silly string, threatening to drag them all down and leave the woods one big impassible thicket of thorns and vines. I don't know if I could have identified wild grape vine or multiflora rose before this January... maybe I could have guessed correctly, maybe someone had told me about them before. But I did not have the intimacy with them that I do now: the curved thorns of the roses that distinguish them from common roses, the thunk that the grape vines make when you clip them and they swing through the air, colliding with the trees around them like a piece of heavy rope, the bright berries of the roses that have to be collected and kept from falling onto the earth so that you don't end up with a million more bushes, the way that cut grape vines weep when the weather warms up and there's water in the trunk. Even though I've become fixated on freeing the forest from these plants--even now, I'm out there an hour a day with long handle clippers--I also find myself really respecting them. They just want to live, like all the rest of us beings just want to live, and they are so good at it, so tenacious, so fiercely protective of themselves. The tendrils of the grape vines and the thorns of the roses have this way of hooking into the spirals of my hair, trapping me in the brambles like Abraham's ram, hoisted by the scalp like Absalom. It can be quite an ordeal to escape.

Maybe this is too obvious a metaphor but it still fascinates me: When I am caught on one or more thorns, when they're wrapped up in my hair or piercing through the leg of my jeans and biting into my skin, there's a natural impulse to jerk away. It feels like if there's something sharp, something that's trapping me, I've got to pull away as quickly and forcefully as possible. And the thing is, that doesn't actually work. The way the thorns are shaped, you can't get away from them by pulling, unless you're okay with them tearing your clothes or your skin. You can only get out by moving closer to them, so that the fibers they've caught can get unhooked. You can only get free by getting nearer to that sharp, painful thing, not by resisting it or running from it.

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The willow babies continue to grow in their little pots. A few didn't survive the planting process, but most have, sending out new shoots and hopefully strengthening their roots. I visit them every morning, read them a poem or two, and gently jostle them. One of the sisters told me that you can simulate the wind and rain and birds and insects landing on them by just shaking the branches a little bit. They seem to like it so far. I can't believe they've survived all this, the windstorm that took the tree down and all my very uneven, uninformed care for them. But something in them is just so alive.

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I miss a lot of things about my non-novitiate life, complicated of course by the pandemic. My family and friends, going out and sitting in a coffee shop, swimming in the ocean, picking my godchildren up from school. I know the limitations of my novice year are really nothing compared to the constraints that the older sisters had on them during their novitiates, but there's no point in comparing the two, I don't think. 

Sometimes it does feel like I've spent this year just kind of... sitting here. I have my little projects and a lot of time to reflect and hopefully grow as a person, but it's hard to explain exactly what I'm doing. At least, though, on a good day in my novitiate, I might notice and be grateful for the way that a sister offers to clear my dishes. I might be glad to be around the house talking to some of the Sisters who need a little company, and learn something new about them.  I might take a nap or read a novel in an afternoon. I try not to spin out about what this all means or what it's heading toward, try not to try to fragment the year, or my life in general, into teachable moments or disconnected stories. I try not to judge the people around me, or myself, and then fail at that and start trying again. I guess this is another job of novices: to try to accept the day as it comes, learning to be gentle with it, knowing that we don't control it, unable to busy ourselves and pull away from all the questions and problems it presents, hoping to find some life in it all.

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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.