There I was on Route 80, in the middle of nowhere, PA, hurtling toward home in Erie after my first visit home to my family since starting the postulancy, when the "check engine" light started blinking and the car slowed ominously. After a half-second of indecision (Could I possibly make it to the Mount like this? If I drove 50 miles an hour the whole rest of the way?) I decided to pull off the road at the exit that was just a few hundred feet ahead––the next exit not being for 26 miles––and miraculously, the car didn't completely shudder to a stop until I reached a mechanic shop a mile off the highway. But once the mechanic took a look at the car, he came back with a solemn face and told me I'd need a new engine... and it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2500. I thought of my dwindling bank account, which will be closed if/when I start the novitiate, and I thought of how just that morning I'd been hoping that God would let me know when the time was right to give up my own car and start depending completely on the community for transportation. With a very small inward groan, I said to the mechanic, "Well, would you buy it from me and use it for parts?"
And just like that, I was dispossessed of my car, a few hundred dollars richer, and stranded in rural Pennsylvannia without a clear picture of how I would make it back to the monastery.
I made a few phone calls––to my mother, to Sisters–– and worked out a plan; my friend Sister Val would be on her way to pick me up as soon as she got off of work, and would probably arrive around 8:30. I told her and my director that I'd walk up to a McDonald's a quarter mile from the mechanic shop and wait for her for the next five hours or so. My director, who was not wild about this plan, reminded me that I was in the same tiny town where two of our Sisters (biological sisters as well as Benedictines) had begun their adventure in religious life, and which their former community still lived in. "You might go to the Sisters of St. Cyril and Methodius to wait," she told me.
Not particularly feeling like throwing myself on the mercy of a bunch of strangers at that vulnerable juncture in my life, I said, "No thanks, I'm going to sit by myself at this McDonald's."
And I did, for a little bit. But then was a range of sublime and ridiculous reasons to go to this other community occured to me: there was the arrival of a busload of people who were coming back from some kind of evangelical conference and trying to save my poor soul, and the growing sense of wanting to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and the realization that I was going to get pretty hungry at that McDonald's (never having gone back to eating meat after Lent 2018, my options there were French fries and McFlurries). I scurried back to the mechanic and asked him to drive me to the convent of the SSCMs, and he obliged.
I walked up to the door and was buzzed in by a Sister receptionist, who seemed surprised to see me, a total stranger, arriving just in time to pray.
I tried to explain myself, saying something like, "I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm an Erie Benedictine, and I was––"
"An Erie Benedictine?" she said. "Like our Sisters Claire Marie and Lucia Marie?"
Claire and Lucia transferred from their community something like 40 years ago, but the recognition and the love and sense that they're "their" Sisters was as strong as if they'd never left at all.
"Yes," I said.
"Come right in and pray with us. You can explain over dinner!" she said. So they took me in and entertained me for hours, with great hospitality and a lot of talk about all the Sisters we knew in common.
Val and I didn't get home til after midnight, and I could have kissed the ground, I was so happy to have made it back safely.
It's been a little more than a month since then, and it's felt like there's been one metaphoric flashing check engine light after another for a lot of that time––no true crises, but a small crop of things demanding to my attention and concern: Old Monk's health; the looming, changing date for going to court after the civil disobedience action I participated in; a major case of writer's block; a few weekends in a row that were just jammed with community obligation; the fact that the world seems to be falling apart; a different level of awareness that my family is really far from Erie and my relationship with them has changed since I entered community. I have to keep asking myself, "Am I okay? Is this where I should be? Am I on the right track?"
And as far as I can tell, this rough patch a good thing, a part of what postulancy is for. Because life is going to be filled with these kinds of troubles, and I need to be able to tell if I handle them better in this monastic community than I would if I were somewhere else. And just as it was on Route 80, I keep finding myself welcomed in by Sisters and friends, who take me as I am, flustered, unprepared, unexpected as I may be. And I keep finding myself very eager to get to prayer, to be with the psalms and with a community of people who are seeking, and to praise God.
That day on the highway, it was easy to see God's goodness, and to feel that I was in exactly the right place. If the check engine light had started flashing a little bit further down the road... if I'd decided to keep driving... if the town I pulled off in didn't happen to have a community we had a connection with to turn to... if, if, if. Now that I'm just in the middle of some very ordinary time, with the challenges and joys that will always be ongoing, does it still feel like I'm on the path that God would put me on?
I think it does. It's hard to put into words exactly what it feels like to be at this stage in the journey, but I know that there's nothing else that seems to be calling to me, nowhere I'd rather be in the early morning or evening than at the Liturgy of the Hours, no other way of life that seems like it would make me more fulfilled or more close to God. I love these women. I love this life. I love what I am learning about monasticism. And still, I know it's good to keep an open mind, to keep my ears and heart open while I'm still in a time of discernment. For now, I'm just grateful to be here.
I've probably shared this William Stafford poem several times before, but I'll close with it again, because it's truer every time I return to it.
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
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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.