Over the July 11 weekend, we elected a new prioress. It's hard to explain to those outside the monastic world quite how big a deal that is.
Prioress elections only come every five years, and they're the time that the community––the sisters who have made their final profession of vows, at least–– chooses its leader. The Rule of Benedict says that the prioress holds the place of Christ in the monastery; she's the spiritual head of the community, and she's also the person who has final say-so over just about everything. She appoints people to positions like Formation Director, Liturgist, Oblate Director, and lots of other roles. She has the power to shape a good deal of community life. And our current prioress is coming to the end of the second of her two possible terms (which she was just beginning the summer that I came to Erie for that fateful internship) so we knew going into the election that major change was coming.
I would like to tell you that I handled the uncertainty with a pious amount of grace and trust and faith, but I don't like to lie to you.
I'm not good with change; just a couple weeks ago I was moved to real tears when one of the oldest cars in our "fleet" got traded in for a newer one. And beyond simple attachment to the way things are, there was additional wrinkle that if you, like I, haven't taken final vows, you can't be part of the meetings to elect the new prioress. So the whole thing was shrouded in mystery. And the reality that these life-altering changes were going to happen completely outside my control––a reality you'd think I'd be accustomed to after all the life-altering changes that have been outside my control lately––made it worse. I bit all my fingernails off as the election weekend got close, and worried about lots of different contingencies, went to the preparation discussions where we shared hopes and concerns for the future and talked about articles we'd been asked to read, and I tried to let people know generally what direction I wanted us to move as a community. And I prayed. But mostly, I agonized.
But when the weekend arrived, I was almost too busy to worry much. The seven of us in initial formation spent those three days doing all the cooking for the community, including everything from early morning breakfasts to a multi-course Feast of Benedict supper, as our sisters met and discerned a few feet away. I, the nosiest person in the world, tried not to eavesdrop and to keep my speculation to a minimum, and the intensity of just the physical labor of cooking for such a big group––we were moving heavy pots, getting blisters from running all over, burning ourselves on hot pans, slicing our fingers on the sharp lids of cans––was enough to take my mind off the proceedings, at least occasionally. It made me grateful for our kitchen staff and how easy they make our lives every day. And there were moments, too, when I found myself glad to have this work to do. "I'm doing this for the community," I thought, as I chopped carrots, as I carried overflowing buckets of kitchen scraps out to the compost heap. And the community, on the other side of the wall, was doing its work for me, for all of us; choosing the right person to lead us into the next five years. There was a little bit of mutuality, of common purpose, even in that experience of being separated, professed from unprofessed. Whatever we were doing, we were doing it for the whole Erie Benedictine community, not just the chapter members but those who will come later, not just Sisters but Oblates and friends and employees too.
Now, I'm probably largely able to look back on the experience with that rosy glow because the community elected Sister Stephanie, who has been my director since I entered, and who I think is an excellent person for the job. She's so well-respected and so wise and so known for emphasizing the importance of love––she'll do really well.
Does this experience of watching the community prayerfully move through weeks of preparation and come to consensus, rallying around a practical and caring person, make it easier for me to trust the Spirt? To accept the processes of community life? To stop worrying and fretting and wishing I could control just a few more things?
It should. But so far, my supply of trust is still low. It has something to do with the fact that five of our sisters have died since the pandemic started, all of them fairly quick and somewhat unexpected deaths (none of them, praise God, from COVID-19). And it has something to do with the difficulty of waiting to hear how Mary Lou's cancer is responding to her treatment. And with it's the stress of wondering who my new director will be, what her expectations will be for me if I follow my current plan to start the novitiate in the fall. And with hoping that I get to see my family sometime before I start a canonical year here in the monastery. And with worrying about my godchildren, whose lives have been thoroughly shaken up over the last several months but who keep marching forward, planning and executing youth-led demonstrations against climate change, figuring out how to fix the brakes on their bikes, learning their times tables.
I don't really know how to move through any of this–– through any of these sticky situations and complicated relationships, and through all the suspense and desire to embrace the people I love. It's never been more clear that everything is constantly changing, that even the people I look to for guidance have never encountered a time quite like this before.
I want to fast-forward to the end of this pandemic. To the next time I get to hug my mom. I want to rewind to a normal day last year, or four years ago, maybe. But you can't.
So instead I listen to the Sisters who tell me to take it one day at a time. Sometimes I simplify that further and take it an hour at a time, or ten seconds at a time. And I try to embrace the things that I know won't change in the coming months: the thick clouds over the lake; the sound of the psalm tones being played in chapel; my friends lending me murder mysteries; the tomatoes ripening in the sun; the basic structure of the monastic day.
It's the structure that helps. Some time back I tallied up the number of times I bow in an average day: between morning meditation and three prayer periods, it comes to about 15 bows, give or take a few. I was kind of impressed with that number––it seems like a lot of times to stop and have a moment of reverence. I don't know what's going to happen next or how my life will look in a few weeks, but today, and every day, fifteen times a day, I'll put my hands together and bend at the waist and try to think of how good this moment is. And that moment will carry me through to the next moment of awe and gratitude, whether it's a scheduled one or a spontaneous one. I don't trust much but I do trust that I'll have a lot to be reverent of.
I leave you with this well-known and well-loved poem by Chardin, which seems especially relevant now:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our God the benefit of believing
that God's hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
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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.