When you’ve been in community for any period of time, you can tell who’s coming down the hall from as little as the sound of their footsteps. You come to know each person’s stride, the squeak of each one’s shoes, the tone of her humming, the volume of her breathing. There are sixty-some of us who live in this building, praying and working and eating and milling around together, every single day; we know each other. Little habits and mannerisms are easy to notice, and each person’s gifts––she knows the answer to all the crossword puzzle clues; she’s an artist; she can set a perfect table, she’s never said an unkind word about anyone––are quickly noticed. So are things like: she’s over-sensitive, she's always late, she’ll dominate a conversation.
Since the stay-at-home order went into effect, though, we’ve been called to know each other on a really different level. There was a certain intimacy already, but this is new: spending all day, every day together, when we’re all frightened, sorrowful, unmoored from our routines, and missing our friends, co-workers, and Sisters who live in town.
Some of what we're learning about each other are really not very deep things. We had a talent show and learned who’s an excellent hula-hooper, who’s a poet, whose musical skills are way beyond what we knew. We have a movie screening almost every day, ranging from educational videos on spirituality to dramas to heart-warming comedies, and it’s interesting to see which Sisters are drawn to which films.
And then there’s the experience of meals. We've started serving each other on the lunch and dinner lines, now, so that we aren’t all handling the serving utensils and breathing on the food. Now, when it’s your day to serve, you wear a mask and gloves as you ladle pasta or vegetables or chicken onto the plate of each Sister who comes through the line, trying to give her just what she would take for herself: the piece she wants, the size she wants, the ratio of broth to noodles in her soup that she wants. You would think this would also be a pretty not-too-deep thing––finding out who eats cauliflower and who doesn’t, who’s particular about fat on her meat and who isn’t, who’s eating two desserts every night and maybe shouldn’t be, and all that. But there is a certain vulnerability and kind of embarrassment that goes with having all your little food preferences known. As much as you may tell yourself, when you're the server, "When I come through the line tomorrow, I'm going to take whatever I'm given and be cheerful, and thank everyone, and not say things like, 'Oh, that spinach leaf is too wilted for me, could you take it out?'” when the moment comes, you almost certainly will ask for specific little things. So you have to face the fact that you’re not nearly as easy-going or polite as you like to tell yourself. And then there’s a challenge, when you’re serving, to be pleasant and nonjudgmental and not get annoyed when somebody doesn’t like the way you served, or doesn’t say, “please,” or “thank you.” It's a more intense way to be connecting with each other, and I do think that we’re coming to know each other better through it, but please God, don’t let me start thinking that “I know what So-and-So is like,” if she’s been irritable or short in these new interactions we’re having with each other.
Because the reality is, none of us are at our personal best right now. I know I’m not. Part of that is the mere fact of the pandemic, of course––just the experience of being cut off from regular life, and being so sad for the people who are sick and dying, including many people in my home state of New Jersey––but there’s more to it than that. I’m not particularly worried about my own health, but I live with people who are at an increased risk of complications and death from COVID-19, and if the virus gets into the house, I am afraid of losing many Sisters, very fast. And then there’s the fact that my godchildren are in an especially precarious situation (their own story to tell, someday) and because of the stay-at-home order, and because I live with such vulnerable people, I cannot go see them in person. Old Monk’s health is not what we wish it were, and I cannot go see her. I just have to sit here as all this unfolds, and try to learn from it.
So, I’m trying to take it as an incredible opportunity for discernment, a great help in my process of deciding if this is the way I want to live and the community I want to be a part of forever. Do I want to really know these women? And can I let them really know me? If our normal masks––not really artificial masks, just regular, superficial "let's make small talk, everything's fine" masks––are lost, too, what does that do to our relationship? Do I feel more drawn to be here, more connected, or less? I keep asking myself this, because if we can make it through this experience with grace, with openness to the Spirit, I can’t think of anything I wouldn’t be willing to weather here. And if this community can still love and support me as I burst into tears every now and then, and publicly bite my nails in the midst of a highly contagious pandemic, and snottily answer simple questions––if they can bear with me in this, which is the most acutely stressful and sad experience of my adult life to this point, then there won’t be much more I could ask for.
Most of the time, I'm not sure if I'm really able to move past the kind of daily intimacy that we have had here into what's deeper. I prefer to spend this time philosophizing about God, reading tear-jerker books, and obsessing about what I can and can't control, than really entering into conversations about how we're experiencing all this. But there was a moment this past week when I thought I saw a glimpse of what it could look like to really know each other. It didn't require any big talks about feelings or about what our fears or hopes were. It wasn't even a moment of learning about each other––it was just the fruit of a long, long relationship as sisters.
It was one of our Sisters' 94th birthday. She's the only one who is really so far into dementia that she cannot speak, that she seems to be in another world most of the time. She's been this way for years. But it was her birthday and so one of the other Sisters ordered her a present from the community, and I got to be there when it was given to her. It was a little light-up box with an picture of fish that rotates slowly around the box, so that you can sort of watch them "swim" any time it's plugged in. The giver of the gift kept saying, "I hope she'll like it, I think it's the kind of thing she'd like..." and I was thinking, pretty cynically, that she really would have no way of knowing since the Sister can't talk and rarely even makes eye contact. But here's the miracle: when the normally blank-faced birthday-woman got her present, she started to clap her hands and tap on the fish and smile so broadly that there was no mistaking her joy. The gift-giver hasn't had a back-and-forth conversation with her in years, but she's known her for close to seven decades, through all kinds of experiences. She knows how to reach the part of her that can experience that kind of delight. And she trusted that she would know if the sister liked the gift, that it would be clear to her one way or the other.
I suppose that's how we're all called to know each other in community: not just the good parts, not just the obvious parts, the sides of each other that are deep and hidden under normal circumstances.
I hope this way of life works out for me. This is a hard way to reach the kind of intimacy that we're challenged to find in community, but when I see moments like that, I think I'd like to know people that well. I think I'd like to be known that well. If I can stand it.
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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.