Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some Thoughts on Learning from Others

I should be updating this blog more often than I do. It’s not that I’m too busy, and it’s not that I’m too nervous— though I am busy and I’ll confess that every time I post an entry, I do feel pretty nervous for a day or two. I think the thing that stops me is that I keep waiting to be able to write about some neat, profound anecdote that leads me to a great big insight, something that will strike me as being worth telling people about.

Sounds like I’ve forgotten the point of this blog— didn’t I say in the very first post that I’m a beginner? Didn’t I say that this blog was to share with you all what happens to me and within me, and not to offer enlightenment? Oh well. Vanity, vanity.

Let me tell you some of the goings-on from the last few weeks, and you can draw your own conclusions from them:

This week, I graduated from learning the recorder to learning the flute. Though I’ve always really enjoyed music, I never took lessons growing up: instruments and tutoring were expensive. My parents, bless them, said they’d be happy to pay, but the catch was that I had to promise that I’d take my lessons seriously, and I was self-aware enough to admit that I probably wouldn’t. So the years passed, and I developed a lot of opinions about singers and musical genres, and went to a lot of concerts, and sang along with the radio, loudly, on a lot of car trips, all while maintaining the idea that “musical people,” (everyone from the kids in marching band to Stravinsky) had some raw material that I, and other “non-musical people,” lacked. I didn’t feel badly about it, but occasionally someone would say something like “in common time,” or “a minor key,” and I would wish that I had a better understanding of this part of life I loved.

When I moved out to Erie about ten months ago, I asked some sisters at the lunch table one Sunday if they knew anyone who would teach me just to read music. (I think this was prompted by embarrassment as I realized that I was often dramatically out of tune while singing the Magnificat in chapel.) Sister Jean, who’s taught all kinds of instruments to decades-worth of children, and is a gifted musician herself, offered to help out. I thought this was the kind of project that would take, maybe, one afternoon. But Jean was committed to helping me really understand and appreciate music, and has spent half an hour every week since last summer teaching me—having me practice on the piano, and then learn to play the recorder. I fumbled around week after week, a little anxious before every session. “My only goal in life is not disappointing Sister Jean; she’s been so good to me,” I told my friends as I agonized over my slow progress. She’d beam at me whenever I played something well, and when I bungled note after note, she’d say, cheerfully, “Try it again!” 

And then suddenly, something clicked, and now it doesn’t feel like much of a struggle to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Down at the Station.” And this week, Sister Jean gave me a flute to play with, new terrain to cover. Now, I don’t think I have much natural aptitude for music, but I don’t worry as much anymore about “raw material.” It’s just good to learn something, to struggle and make some progress. And I’m suddenly understanding the songs I hear on a different level, appreciating just a little bit more what it takes to write music and play it.

Now my question is, am I going to learn to show Jean’s patience and encouragement, week after week, month after month, to the people in my life who need it?

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A few weekends ago, I was maid-of-honor in the wedding of the woman who was my best friend in middle school. It was kind of a surreal experience, I have to admit, pinning the bridal veil into place on the head of the girl who invited me over for countless sleepovers. It was strange to stand beside her as she swore to always love this tall, young military man who calls her a nickname that none of us called her in our school days. I thought about how much we change over the course of a life, and admired the courage it must take to promise to stay with someone, to keep loving them, no matter how what happens. I marveled at the idea that she and I are now at an age where we can make those promises.

Then the following weekend, I watched one of the Sisters transfer her vows to the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, after spending decades with a community that had to close a few years ago. One by one, all the Sisters embraced her, welcomed her more deeply into this community where she’s been living for about two years.

All this got me thinking about vows, about permanence, about how frightening it is to promise yourself to someone or something in the face of so much mystery. Where do we ever find the strength to do it, I wondered.

Now, most of the time, the Sisters give me a lot of space in my discernment journey, a lot of room to figure things out for myself. But a few days after the vow-transferring ceremony, an older sister asked me what was holding me back from entering the community. “I’m still trying to figure things out,” I said.

“Honey,” she said, “you’re already a part of us. Entering––making it official––is just blessing it.”

Am I ever going to have that kind of wisdom? And will it be enough to stop my perseverating? 

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For pretty much the whole time that I’ve been working at Benetvision and Monasteries of the Heart, we’ve been planning the Joan Chittister Institute for Contemporary Spirituality, a summer program for young women in graduate school, or just recently out of it, who have studied religion, theology, or related fields. It’s very exciting. It’s also very stressful. Some of our staff is very detail-oriented by nature, and some of our staff has a lot of experience planning retreats and lessons, and then there’s me, who has neither. On Friday, I was feeling the pressure of knowing that we have six weeks til the Institute, and doubting my own abilities, and catastrophizing about the whole situation. I ended up nearly in tears, complaining to two of the other people on staff about how stressful it all was.

“If you need to step down, step down,” Mary Lou told me. “No one will think any less of you.”

It felt like a door had been opened in a tiny, dark room. “No, no,” I said. “I want to see it through.” And I meant it.

I don’t know if this program will be a success or not—and it’s still not something I feel particularly qualified to plan—but I have the freedom to choose to do it. And I have the support of the people I work with. And that makes an enormous difference.

When people turn to me for freedom, for support, will I have learned to offer it?

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Last night I went out onto the peninsula with my three little goddaughters, ages 8, 10, and almost-12. (She corrected me when I said 11.) We’d been together most of the day, working hard in the community garden on their block with Sister Anne, and playing in park after park. “We can play on the sand for a little bit,” I told them. It was a warm, bright, summer-like day––I’d already gotten sunburned in the garden—but the water temperature of Lake Erie was hovering around a goosebumps-inducing 40ºF.

“Can we put our toes in?” they asked. I told them they could, sure that they’d feel the chill and jump straight out. How could I have forgotten that they’re the perfect ages for splashing, unbothered, in frigid waves? 

They befriended the only other child on the beach, a little boy a year younger, and I watched them invent all kinds of games, getting wetter and wetter, roaring like skinny little animals. I checked, periodically, for blue lips, for swollen fingers, but they just rolled along, electric and blissful. For hours. No screens. No fighting. Not afraid of anything. We took a break to eat dinner and play on another playground, and came back to the beach to watch the sun set into the lake. They’d never been at the beach at sunset before, had never before seen all those magnificent colors spreading across the sky, the lake slowly swallowing the hot pink disc of the sun. I thought, if I can just give them this—if I can just give them a few quiet moments of sheer beauty—if I can just teach them to recognize and love a good thing—maybe it will make a difference for them. 

“Oh,” the ten year old sighed, unprompted, looking at the light. “Look how beautiful.”

As the sun sank under the horizon, the eight year old waved and yelled out, “Thank you! Thank you for today! Good night!”

Will I ever learn to be that sincere or that unpretentious?

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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.