Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some Thoughts on Entering the Monastery

Today I entered Mount Saint Benedict monastery as a postulant. I think I'd better tell you about it, while it's all still fresh. That's right: this blog post, for a change, will not deal in existential questions, but will just be a description, a chance for you to know, a little bit, what it felt like.

But how can I tell you what it felt like? 

I'll admit, there was more to it than just roses–– last night, even after living quite happily and contentedly in the monastery for a whole week, I felt a little edge of panic start to creep in. Sitting at the dinner table with two friends from undergrad who had each driven over 6 hours to come be with me, I thought, "What if I can't do this?" "What if it's a mistake?" "What if I haven't learned enough yet, thought this through enough yet, to make a good decision?" I just reminded myself that the postulancy is not the same as making vows. I still have lots of time to discern and change my mind and grow and change. But I won't have that time, I thought, if I don't let myself receive it.

Luckily, my good friend Sister Val threw a little party after supper, and after having a drink and telling a few stories, I was feeling better. And it was easy to fall asleep after sitting in meditation for 20 minutes with Sister Anne (my legs went totally numb and I got dizzy with my eyes closed as usual, but there was a moment or two of relative peace and clarity intermingled, and that makes it worth it). 

When I woke up this morning, I think the word for how I felt was "ready." It all just felt right, seemed to add up. Of course I'm here. Of course this is what I'm doing. Of course these women are my people. Of course. 

Meanwhile, one of my friends who was here from out of town got word that her only sister was in labor with her first child, a week ahead of her due date: the water had broken, the baby was on her way. New life! It all felt very symbolic and appropriate and joyful, and I was immensely grateful and not a little surprised that my friend stayed here in Erie long enough to see the actual rite of my entrance, rather than speeding back home to pack the hospital waiting room. (To flash forward a little bit, she did make it home to meet her beautiful, healthy niece––and, by coincidence, the baby and I share a name!)

There was so much beauty and joy packed into today. So many hugs. Dancing at the end of liturgy in the center of the chapel with all the usual dancing-at-the-end-of-liturgy suspects. A photoshoot (in which I mostly kept my eyes open) with people like Joan Chittister and the prioress and my friends who have somehow loved me and talked sense into me since I was a prickly sixteen-year-old-college freshman. Constantly being handed gifts and cards that are really too tender to write about. 

But if there's one moment I want to remember, it's standing outside in the doorway of the monastery with Sister Marilyn, the Vocations Director, watching through the glass doors as the community assembled in a semi-circle, waiting patiently, and then not-so-patiently, as Marilyn and I debated whether we should start early or on-time. I looked through that glass and saw those women: my co-workers, my friends, my inspirations, and I saw that they were looking back at me. And I knew that I got to join them. I walked up to them, I knocked on the door, they let me in, and they began to sing the first words of the Rule of Benedict. "Listen, my daughter, to the precepts of your teacher/Incline the ear of your heart."  We sang a few psalms and I heard them a little differently, there, standing before these women who were praying for me, promising to support me.

Then, fittingly, the prioress asked me, "Jacqueline, what do you seek?"

I had practiced this––drafted and re-drafted my answer a few times, recited it constantly under my breath for a few days––but when the moment came, my answer felt so spontaneous that I wondered if I was even saying what I'd memorized. Fortunately, video evidence confirmed that I did say what I meant to say: "I wish to seek God by following the monastic way of life, encouraged and accompanied by the women of this community." 

I am so lucky. I hope I never forget that. I hope I am able to live up to this goodness, this love, this welcome, this heritage.

The whole afternoon was filled with more embraces, more presents, cookies, a visit from my goddaughters and a tromp through the muddy woods. A Sister who is very near death held my hands and said to me, "There will be good times and bad times, but this is a good life. And God is with you. And I'm praying for you."  What more can I ask for?

There's one final thing that happened today that I want to tell you, a little God-moment. A year and a half ago, my friend Katrina, whom I met when she was on retreat in Erie during my 2015 summer internship, sent me a Christmas card and I never ever opened it. Who knows why? It must have come in a stack of bills that directed my attention from the sublime to the ridiculous. For whatever reason, I flung it into a box of keepsake stuff without even tearing at the envelope. Today, after all the hoopla, I was down in my bedroom, still in my dress but having shed my tights, putting up pictures on the walls, deciding what goes where. And I found that unopened envelope and I thought I'd better see what was in it. Inside the card was a print of a photograph, showing a big flourescent sign that reads, "Yes" in round, cheerful cursive. On the reverse side there was a poem my friend had written:

The humblest of words
When whispered
in the darkness,
gives way
to new life,
coaxes the jasmine open,
and turns acorn into oak."

Why did I open that card, read those words, today of all days? Who knows. But don't you love it?

It was a joyful day. They won't all be like this. But thank God for good days, for new life, for yeses, for muddy hikes, for wisdom, for the mystery of love. Thank God for whatever comes next. 

You can see photos of the rite of entrance here


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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.