Benedict tells us in the Rule that we should order ourselves not by our age, not by our social status, but by the amount of time that we have spent in the monastic community. By that metric, I'm only the second "youngest" in our community of 89 women. But by the very human, unavoidable metric of chronological age, I am definitely the baby as a newly-minted 27 year old. We have a sister in her early thirties, and one in her forties, and a sizable cluster in their 50's and early 60's, but like most communities of women religious, the bulk of us are heavily concentrated in their 70's and 80's, with a few who are 90+.
People always want to know what it's like, being the youngest around here. "Do you feel like you're living in a nursing home?" they ask me. "What do you talk to the older sisters about?" "Do they patronize you?" "Do you drive them nuts?" "Do you understand each other's slang?" "Is it just non-stop wisdom that you're soaking up from them?" Sometimes people say things like, "It must be nice for the sisters to have a kid around here!" (That would be the wrong thing to say to me, if you're wondering.)
We have our generational differences, sure. It's hard for them to fathom what it was like for me to grow up with divorced parents, in a country that has been at war since I was in grade school, to never have known a world without cell phones or car radios or microwaves. It's hard for me to imagine their early years, and I'm always asking for stories about their time in community in the 1950's and 60's. Sometimes I talk too quietly, or too quickly, for them to fully catch what I'm saying, or I charge out into a freezing cold day with no mittens, no hat, no scarf, and they shiver just looking at me. Sometimes I'm relaxing with my elbows on the dinner table, or sitting with the bottoms of my shoes on a couch, or I'm picking at my cuticles, and they wonder if the world has totally lost its sense of etiquette.
But by and large, generational differences aren't so wildly important as they seem to be. We have a sense of a common purpose, for the most part, and our day-to-day lives all flow along the same lines in the monastery. For the most part, we like and love each other enough to overlook the foibles that come with being 27, or being 87.
I'll let you in on the secret of what is really hard about being one of few young people in the monastery: my Sisters get sick, and they die. And they'll keep on getting sick and dying.
There is, I've come to learn, something very beautiful about death itself. Since I entered community last April, four Sisters have died; three of them between December 21 and January 5. I've been present to vigil with three of them in their final moments, and have stood at the deathbeds of all four, and have joined with the other Sisters in all of our funeral observances––the memory services, wheeling the casket through the monastery one final time, praying the morning Liturgy of the Hours with the bodies in the center of chapel, the funeral Mass itself, and the burial. Each time, along with the sadness, there is a great sense of peace, of completion, of comfort in knowing that our Sister is now free from her suffering.
But still. ... They're gone. Traces of them linger around the monastery: the stories we'll always tell about them, the smells of their best recipes wafting from the kitchen, a portrait of them drawn by a fellow postulant on display. It's an incredible mystery, and one that I can't seem to step away from yet, as though if I just think about it a little bit harder, I'll be able to understand where it is that they've gone, these women whose holiness and constancy helped to weave together the tapestry of life here for decades.
I am not particularly worried about the stability of our community in the future, although I know we'll have our share of hard transitions, difficult decisions to make. (Standard caveat: if I am still here well into the future.) However many changes lie ahead, there will always be people who want to center their lives in seeking God in the company of others, and so monastic life will continue. But I do worry about the losses that stand ahead of us, the years that are not just coming but already here, when I'll have to say goodbye to the women who are shaping me and pointing me toward God.
Loss has always been a part of this kind of life, I know. The Sisters who came before me buried their friends and mentors, too. But because of that darned age difference, there is a particular sorrow in knowing that the bulk of my community will not be here when I am middle-aged. I'm so jealous of Sisters who, at their silver or golden jubilees, could look across the chapel and thank their novice director, still alive and proud of the person they became. My friends who are in their 60's and 70's now––where will they be in twenty years, when I'm 47? And who will I turn to for guidance, then? And who will tell me to get my elbows off the table and put on snow boots? Other friends and mentors and younger Sisters will come along, I bet. Life will be "changed, not ended." But still, it's a painful thing to consider.
At the same time, I do profess a Christian faith. I believe in the communion of saints. I say, every Easter, that death has lost its sting, has been swallowed up in Christ's victory over the grave. I don't know if that means that our loved ones are "looking down on us," answering me when I plead with them to help me find my keys or to give me the patience and compassion I need to get through the day. (Maybe that is what it means! Those prayers do seem to be answered, sometimes miraculously.) Maybe it means something a little bit more abstract, but no less real.
A few months ago, I was telling someone about the alcove at the monastery where we keep furniture and mattresses that are currently not being used. It's called "Anselm's Attic," and I was explaining that "it's named after our sister, Anselm..." and getting into the story of her connection to it. One of the 70-something Sisters broke into the conversation with a big smile. "Do you know how much it means," she said, "to hear you say, 'our sister, Anslem,' when she died before you were born or thought of? To know that you know something about her, remember her, talk about her?"
That is a part of intergenerational life, I suppose. I do feel a real sense of kinship with the women who came long before me, whose names and tiny fragments of their stories are all that are known to me. It's not that I think that they were purely perfect, icons that I won't ever live up to: some, I know, were troubled, or short-tempered, or immature, just like I can be. But like my Sisters who are here with me today, they shared a common purpose with me, and they worked hard to lay a strong foundation for the life we have at the monastery now. I draw strength from the stories of what they had to overcome, the difficulties they faced and the ways they managed to make life fun and meaningful. Those Sisters do feel present to me. And I hope that the ones I have here now will still feel like a part of this community decades from now. I think they will, as long as we keep listening to each other, as long as they keep sharing their stories with me so generously, as long as, some day in the future, I'm able to tell some new seeker here about the vibrant women who came before her, about their faith, about the God they were seeking.
As usual, the psalms say it best:
"I will sing of your love, O God;
through all generations,
I will proclaim your faithfulness.
Of this I am sure
that your love lasts forever,
your faithfulness is firmly established." (Ps. 89)
"We heard for ourselves, O God,
all that you did in days past;
those before us have told us the story." (Ps. 44)
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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.