Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some More Thoughts on Learning

I don't come from a family that put a whole lot of emphasis on grades. My parents were always pleasantly surprised by my academic triumphs, and unfazed by the C- math tests crumpled at the bottom of my backpack. What Mom and Dad did care about was the section of my report card where teachers could write their comments, and they were right to monitor that part carefully. They could never be sure what they'd find there: "Jacqueline was a pleasure to have in class," sometimes; other times, "Jacqueline spent the whole marking period staring out the window and fist-fighting her classmates." For one whole year of grade school, there were increasingly aggravated notes telling my parents that I refused to address adults by anything but their first names. But the one constant, over all those years of report cards, was the notation that I was "eager to learn." And that, at least in my parents' eyes, was virtue enough to cover a multitude of sins. 

I like to think I'm still eager to learn. I grapple with my flute lessons, never particularly motivated by the idea of improving, but always excited when my teacher shows me how to play a new note. And my coworkers tease me for some of the questions I ask them: "Who wrote the psalm tones and why are they numbered that way?" "Should I read all of Hildegard's Scivias if I have to talk about her life for 10 minutes?" "What is a cormorant?" My friend Val, laughing at how much trivia I have stored up, even as I have huge gaps in my practical knowledge, often reminds me, "The range between the things you know and the things you don't know is surprisingly vast." And I love that. I love that there's so much that I might still learn about. It's so fun to investigate all the details this wild, weird world. Sometimes it's hard for me to tear myself away from my computer at bed time because the Internet––containing, basically the sum-total of human knowledge––is a lot more interesting that the insides of my eyelids, and there's nothing like lying still in the dark to remind me of all the things I don't know about. 

But lately, I've been in the middle of a lot of learning that hasn't felt all that fun and exciting. I'm in what you might call a transitional time, a liminal season. Entering the monastery––soon!––is seeming like a more and more real possibility. Which is wonderful and exciting, and has been a long time in the making. I've been working on my application since July, and I haven't really been a slouch about it. And... this a cliché, but it's true: I'm learning a lot about myself through this process. I'm a pretty introspective person, I think, a person who wants to learn about myself but this application process has put that to the test a little bit.

After a whole lot of digging into my transcripts and calling up my pediatrician to get all my medical records and writing out an autobiography that the Vocation Director pleasantly, dryly, described as "very thorough," I ended up at the most educational part of the whole process two weeks ago: going all the way to Maryland for a two-day-long psychological evaluation that left no stone unturned. It is a very strange experience, this evaluation: You end up sitting on a Friday afternoon in a little conference room with three trained professionals, who each have spent a few hours asking you to review everything from your earliest memories, to your personal flaws, to your relatives' personalities, to your fantasies, to your sense of who God is, to any traumas you've undergone, and those professionals are now reading off to you an inventory of what's wrong with you and what's right with you. All of it is just good information to have, meant to help you understand who you are and what you need as you move into a new stage of life with a community of people around you. But it's not what you'd call comfortable. Especially since, as one of the psychologists noted, I have a tendency to "ruminate on my shortcomings." So for the last few weeks I've been trying to process that whole experience, with with my application's status now out of my hands. (A written report from the psychologists will come to me and the monastery any day now, and if the prioress, Formation Director, and Vocation Director don't see any major cause for concern when they review it, I can start planning to move to the monastery.)

And this waiting for the report has taught me plenty more about myself: how impatient I can be, how frustrated when things take longer than expected, how quick I am to catastrophize, how much time I spend picking fights. And learning all that is annoying, I keep complaining to my mentors and friends, because I want to be patient and relaxed and just calmly accepting that everything is unfolding according to some cosmic plan. They nod along reassuringly. I stay aggravated that I am not enlightened and unperturbed. I wonder if I'm going to be working on these same flaws my whole life. I wonder if there's something more interesting, less depressing, I could spend my time thinking about, than my own need for moral and spiritual growth.

Here's the thing: I want to stay curious, stay "eager to learn," stay teachable, stay aware of my ignorance... but not be so focused on my own boring self. But what does it mean to desire conversion of life when you're, at the moment, really tired of introspection? You need some pretty major self-awareness to embark on a life in community, a life of seeking God, a life of becoming humble, a life committed to conversatio. There's going to be a lot more learning about growth opportunities in the years to come.

I guess it's fitting that part of the answer to that came at the start of Lent, the season of growth and introspection and conversion. As so much wisdom does, it came from Sister Carolyn, when she gave me my ashes yesterday. We were sitting in her bedroom––I at the foot of her bed, she in her little yellow armchair, morning light glowing off the snow and brightening the whole room––and she told me, "Try to focus on your heart this Lent. Take a minute and think of what your heart needs, and pray to develop that." 

First, of course, the stream of critical answers came pouring though. I need to be less selfish. I need to be less controlling. I need to be less myopic.

But that wasn't how Carolyn had asked the question, I realized. She asked me what, inside of me, needs to be converted, and she asked it in the most loving, gentle way imagininable.

Maybe the answer to all of this lies, as it usually does, in compassion. In learning about who you are, not so you can scrutinize yourself, but so that you can find a healthy way to get the things your heart needs. It's about being curious and gentle, not about evaluating and interrogating. Maybe that's the key to staying the course. This course that I'm so glad, so lucky, to be on.

As the late, great poet Mary Oliver wrote:
Things take the time they take. Don’t
How many roads did St Augustine follow
before he became St. Augustine?


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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.