When I moved to the monastery to begin the postulancy just over a month ago, I brought with me a sizable collection of mugs. Now those mugs, accumulated through my heavily-caffeinated years as a graduate student and social worker, have merged with the monastery's pool of mugs, drifting through the dishroom and people's bedrooms and lunch trays. It's kind of fun when I notice that the cup a college roommate gave me is now in the hands of a centenarian nun across the dining room, or when I'm surprised to reach into the cupboard and find that the first mug on the shelf was given to me by a beloved former client. It strikes me a little differently each time: that these things used to be mine, and are now everybody's.
This first month hasn't held all that many surprises, all things considered. And that's not too strange, since I've known this community and lived in pretty close proximity to it for years.
The things that I expected would be difficult for me are difficult. It's hard to be up and out of bed by 5:30 every weekday. It's hard to not have much in the way of funds. And as kind and understanding as my director is, it's hard for me, a 26 year old who's been quite self-sufficient for the last ten years, to ask permission to make plans that would take me outside the monastery during evening praise. My schedule, my money, my sense of what's an appropriate balance between prayer and work and recreation: all those things used to be mine alone. And now, they're a part of this community's. This is a big shift and it's hard and it's beautiful. And I just want to stay open throughout it, open to the wisdom that people are offering to me, open to the possibility that there could be a different way of life that's right for me.
But most of the time, I am just quite taken in by the things that I expected would be wonderful, which are pretty wonderful.
Before I entered, I was especially looking forward to beginning and ending each day with communal prayer. And while the reality is that sometimes you want to make other plans in the evening, and that it's tough to be ready for the day by morning praise at 6:30 a.m., praying the Liturgy of the Hours is one of the highlights of each day. I love that each morning at 6:30 a.m., whoever is prayer leader that day goes to the microphone and says, "Oh God, open my lips," and we all reply, "And my mouth shall declare your praise." Most mornings, those really are the first words I've said, and for a few moments, I get to live in the hope that each thing I do and say that day will give praise to God. I'm optimistic that at least some of them do.
I also love getting better acquainted with some of the Sisters who I haven't known as well up to now. This past week, I had the opportunity to spend some time with one of our oldest Sisters––the one who has been in this community for the longest, which is well over 70 years. She's almost completely blind, but, if she's steered by someone else, can walk down to chapel for prayer, join the community for supper in the dining room, and then walk back to her bedroom. With her regular helper out of town, there was a sign-up sheet placed on a community bulletin board to make sure that she'd still be able to be guided through her evening routine. I signed up for one evening's worth of turns, and was surprised to find myself nervous as I walked down the hall to introduce myself to her. She was incredibly patient with me as I steered her along, telling me nicely when I was walking too fast, and later that night, laughing at my shaky efforts to remove her hearing aids before bed. It was a poignant moment: she's the oldest in rank and I'm the youngest in rank, and for a few hours that day, we were a team, working together.
Another night last week, I was sitting out on the deck, alone in the chilly late spring dusk, having a little crying jag because my parents had to put our 16 year old lab to sleep. I was feeling very far away from my family and also very aware that my decision to enter here, as much as it's been a good thing for me, has brought them a lot of sorrow. A Sister stuck her head out the door to tell me it wasn't warm enough for me to be sitting outside and, seeing my poor swollen face and red eyes, immediately came and sat down next to me. She heard me out and asked all the right questions. When I finished, and finally realized that she must be cold, we stepped back inside and I thanked her for listening. "Oh, of course," she said. "You're my little sister." It is wonderful to think that the struggles that used to be mine alone are now shared, and that the difficulties that will come in the future will be shared, too.
It's also beautiful to know that the goal of being in this community is not simply being in this community. We uphold each other, we pray together, and these things are good in and of themselves, but they're not the whole picture. This life is about being open to the world, sharing Benedictine peace and hospitality with others. On Thursday, I went to the hearing of a woman in the county jail who attends the Sunday services we provide. She'd asked me a few weeks ago if one of us could be present in court when she went before the judge, since her family all lives out of state and couldn't support her, and I was able to, thanks to the compassion of my boss. Her lawyer told the judge that she was turning over a new leaf, getting a spiritual practice and developing a reputation as a reliable part of her faith community in jail, and she added that a Benedictine Sister, who knew that she's faithful to attending services, was present in court. It was a humbling moment, to realize that I've become even a tiny part of this group of women bent on being a healing presence and prophetic witness for peace, working for justice. All the praying, all the lectio, all the hours spent in silence, or in discomfort... all of this, I hope, adds up to something that makes some difference in the world, for people who are much more on their own than I am.
So. I am here in this community, at least for now. Trying to merge these little threads of my life into the tapestry of all these women, of the broader community, of the world. Struggling sometimes. Mostly just thrilled to have the chance.
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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.