Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some Thoughts on Community

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were laughing at the many variations in wording that pop up when a group of Benedictine Sisters, oblates, and friends pray together. 

During the Prayer of Jesus, for instance, most of us say, “Your name,” “Your kingdom,” and “Your will” but a few still use “Thy.” And most say, “Your Kingdom come,” but some of us, who are, perhaps, more intense about gender-inclusive language, say, “Your kin-dom,” or “Your Reign.” Then some people experiment with different phrasing around “lead us not into temptation,” since surely God isn’t setting traps to see if we’ll mess up.

And that’s just the Prayer of Jesus—you should hear all the different ways that people respond when the prioress says, “The Divine Assistance remains always with us.” The official response is, “And with our absent sisters,” but you’ll often hear people say, “with all those who are absent,” or “our absent sisters and brothers,” and plenty of other versions. And then you can only imagine the range of creative responses when, during Mass, we’re supposed to say, “O God, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…”

Anyway, my friend, Erin, and I were marveling at the diversity that comes out in these moments in the middle of prayer. “How does it all not fall apart?” she said.

Now, one of the reasons that I’m always dragging my feet about writing these blog posts is that I am loath to go on the record with a spiritual opinion or thought. It seems inevitable that in a few years, when I’m (hopefully) a little more mature and aware, I’ll disagree with that a lot of what seemed true and obvious to me at age twenty-six.

But, I thought a lot about what Erin said, and I’ll confess that I think I have an answer.

I told her, “It doesn’t all fall apart because, whatever words we’re saying, we all mean the same thing.” The words are such little things—for all that I believe wording matters, that gender-inclusive language is crucial, they’re not as important as being united in purpose. Whatever words we’re choosing, we’re praying for the same things.

When I first started talking to the Vocation Director at the monastery (which seems like it was fully one million years ago but was actually more like three and a half) she said something that I haven’t been able to shake ever since.

“There’s a sense,” she said, “that we’re all together. The Sister who ministers as a therapist at the VA, the Sisters who are college professors, the Sisters who have their ministry here at the Mount—we’re all in those rooms together, working for the same cause, supporting each other.” 

I remember being so drawn to that idea, even though I'm a pretty strong introvert.

I thought of the idea again this week, as I was thinking about the time, back in June, when I happened to be standing by when police officers handcuffed and arrested little Black children. I was remembering how upset I was afterwards, remembering how I’d asked a Sister, wobbly-voiced, “What if I’m not strong enough for this kind of justice work?”

I realize now that, of course, I’m not. I’m not strong enough for the sorrow I’m encountering in the people around me. And I’m not big enough to fully contain the joy and hope and mysteries that I encounter in the people around me, either.  But the beauty of community is that I don’t have to be. 

In the Creation story in Genesis, God looks down at Adam, perfectly safe in the Garden of Eden, and says, “It is not good for a human being to be alone.” And so God makes a woman––and so creates the ability for human connection, for relationships, for support.

So it’s not surprising that community most clearly here with Benedictine women. I know that if I’m staying at the office late, the Sisters who live downstairs will let me come to prayer and offer me a hot, homemade dinner. I know that if I’m worried about my goddaughters, there’s always a Sister who will hear me out, or offer the problem back to me with a different perspective, or if nothing else, tell me I’m doing a good job. I know which Oblates, Sisters, and friends will be willing to host a raucous dance party and who will come to shake out our joys and griefs for hours. I know that whenever I go to the local prison to offer a Sunday service, another Benedictine will be with me, so that if one of us needs to crouch on the bathroom floor with a new inmate who’s having a panic attack, the other one can keep facilitate shared lectio without missing a beat. None of those things—eating, dancing, ministry, child-rearing, worrying—are really supposed to be exclusively solitary activities anyway.

I suspect it’s the shared prayer that underlies all the rest of it. Like Erin and I talked about, we’re all terribly, wonderfully individual women. Each one has her own agendas, her own deeply-held principles and opinions, her own wounds and hopes. We don’t always get along and we certainly don’t all like each other. But we “mean the same thing.” We’re all praying and working for the same thing: for justice and peace and love and conversion of heart, whatever we may privately think that would look like. 

There’s something very powerful about saying the psalms and antiphons together, as the Sisters do, every single day. It’s one of the things that I most look forward to when I think about the possibility of entering the community. There’s something about reading in unison, pausing for breath at the same moments, facing each other across the chapel, knowing that hundreds more are in their homes and offices and hospital rooms, praying along in their own ways. But even though I’m seeing community and connection and the shared wish for peace most clearly here, I know it goes well beyond the Benedictines, well beyond the Catholic Church or Christianity. Sometimes you can just feel it. And thank God for that.

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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.