Every night at evening praise, the community sings the Magnificat, Mary's song that glorifies God for the miracle of her pregnancy, which will ultimately uplift all the lowly of the world. And each time we sing it, I'm struck by the lines, "You give your grace anew in every age to those who live in reverence all their lives."
What does it mean to live in reverence, I always ask myself. There are obvious answers, I guess: caring for the earth, offering hospitality and a listening ear, letting yourself be moved by the beauty of a piece of music or the lake, practicing nonviolence... But every night I wonder if I've lived in reverence that day. If there were opportunities I missed to be reverent. I can usually think of a few.
This summer we've had two major jubilee celebrations, one for sisters celebrating 25 and 50 years of vowed religious life, and one for sisters celebrating 60, 70, and even 75 years (!) as nuns. And as I watched those celebrations unfold, I thought again of those words from the Magnificat: "those who live in reverence all their lives." Spending twenty five years or seventy years working away at spiritual growth, running toward God, living day after day with women who can both uphold you and drive you nuts, trying your best to bring some kindness, peace, and justice into the world around you, is no small thing.
I've been a postulant for four months, and while I'm not sure I've made too terribly much progress in my spiritual journey so far, I can say that I've read a lot of books, spent a lot of time in prayer, had some truly formative conversations and started to recognize a few areas where I'll really need to improve in days to come. If those little steps can happen in a few short months, I cannot even begin to imagine what life has been like for our most senior sister, who just celebrated her 75th jubilee. You'd love her if you knew her: although she is completely blind, she still walks herself to chapel each day to pray with the community and seems to know every little thing that's happening in the house, the city, and the country.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting at the reception desk at the front door of the monastery when one of the sisters, walking with this jubilarian, said to me, "Jackie, tell Sister here how old you are." I told her and she burst into the most joyful laughter.
"I don't want to insult you, dear," she said, "but you're just a little baby! It's like having a baby at the reception desk! You have so much ahead of you!"
So I keep reminding myself that I am just starting out in this life. I am not as patient as I want to be yet, I am not as clear. I am not as thoughtful as I want to be yet, I am not as empathetic. There will, I hope, be time to develop all that. I hope that it will be through monasticism that I keep on progressing, hopefully even in this community.
Sometimes I do ask myself, What are you doing with your life? In the day-to-day, this choice I've made to live with this community and discern with them gets me waking up before dawn, spending about 6 hours a week in communal prayer, and working my old job but for no salary. Over the long term, if I decide to stay, I'll never have my own children, I'll always live in a small, very cold city far from my family, and I'll always live with people who I did not choose, "a sign that strangers can live together in God's love."
But there are many times when I don't need to ask myself what I'm doing at all. I watch my friend cut each another Sister's hair so carefully, making sure there's not a strand out of line. Against my more callous instincts, I help Sisters save a bunny rabbit with a hurt leg. I join in the hushed, emotional, awed prayer with the community at the deathbed of a Sister as she passes into eternity, and a few weeks later, stand with them again on the sidewalkwhere a murder has taken place, praying for peace and an end to violence. I join in the shuffle in the kitchen on a quiet Sunday afternoon, everyone making something fancy and time-consuming to share with friends or coworkers. My boss tells me of course it's fine to take a few days off of work for a civil disobedience protesting the treatment of refugees and immigrants. I watch the Sisters who are celebrating their jubilees renew their vows and stand in the middle of chapel singing the Suscipe: "Uphold me, O God, according to your word, and I shall live/and do not fail me in my hope," and think of how those words from the psalm were sung at their final vows and will be sung by the community at their funeral.
I suppose that all of that is what it means to live in reverence. I think that, if I keep praying and working at it, if I keep studying the good examples around me, I might be able to say, someday, that I was changed, that I was moved to be reverent for at least, a part of my life.
Or, as Mary Oliver says:
"My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever."
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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.