Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some Thoughts as a Scholastic

People can reassure me all day long that they enjoy my writing; I still struggle to come up with anything to say about my life that I think would be broadly interesting. Everything I write feels pretty embarrassing to me. I don't say that to fish for compliments or ask for advice, but I guess to apologize for the long silence. 

But I thought you probably would like to know that I have taken the next step in my monastic formation. My novitiate year ended in late October, and last month, I made my first monastic profession, promising to live as a Benedictine Sister for the next three years, as I continue to discern whether to commit myself to this community, this way of life, forever. And I'm really happy. Happy to be continuing on this path, happy to have more ability to come and go from the monastery and be involved in ministry, just happy to be here. I loved my novitiate. But being a scholastic (the term, meaning "student," that we use for sisters in temporary profession) feels more like real life. Here I am, cooking something on Sunday nights to take to the office as my lunch for the week. Here I am, driving my godchildren to an appointment when their family needs the car. Here I am, at evening prayer with the Sisters who live in town. It's wonderful just feeling like a part of the wider world, in addition to being a part of the monastery community.

But there are a few things that are a little strange about this scholasticate.  And one of them is that I'm meeting a lot of people either for the first time, or for the first time since the pandemic started, and being introduced as a Benedictine Sister. And while I do love that, it's a social role with such outsized stereotypes and expectations that the idea of "Sister Jacqueline" can easily overshadow the reality of regular old Jacqueline. 

The first time I realized that this was happening came just a few days after I entered the community, when I was still a postulant, not even a canonical member yet. I was dropping by my godchildren's house, where I had spent plenty of time in the past just playing with the kids, helping with homework, combing out lice, bickering with their relatives, being my normal self. The kids were squabbling over something, and their great-uncle said to them, only kind of jokingly, "You better be good in front of her. She's got a direct line to God now." I was thrown and didn't really say anything, but the moment stayed with me. I remember jotting something in my journal that night like, "I want being a monastic to make me more connected to the world, but what if it ends up being a wall between me and other people?" 

That kind of interaction has only gotten more pronounced and more frequent now that I am an official, professed monastic, albeit one who's still in initial formation. Those who meet me only know me as "the young nun," an idea with a sweet, wholesome mystique around it that really has very little to do with my personality. People, even my family and old friends, now apologize for cursing in front of me. They're surprised to find out that I've spent a lot of summer evenings swimming with other Sisters, or that I enjoy having a whiskey or a beer with my friends. And when I run into a convenience store to pick up a pack of cigarettes for someone who needs them and doesn't have the money, I dread the thought that someone might recognize me as a Benedictine.

It's a tricky balance to strike, trying not to scandalize people who expect a certain level of piety from a Sister, trying to call myself to grow in the areas where I know I still have a long way to go, and also trying to broaden people's understanding of who nuns are (highly individual human beings) and what we like to do (mostly what everyone else does). I sometimes chafe at being referred to as "Sister," thinking that it's too formal, too churchy, but then I feel that it's important that people know this part of my identity, know that I've made a commitment to this group, to this particular way of life.

All of this kind of integration is a normal, essential part of being a scholastic. I have to learn what it means to me to be a Benedictine, to be a monastic, and learn whether that really is who I want to be. And I have to figure out what it means to engage in the world as that person. Every sister's way of being a Benedictine and being in the world is different. And it's going to take much more than just three years for me to find my own way. But I catch little glimpses of what I'd like my way to be as I watch the people around me.

For example, last week, I was walking across town at lunchtime with three other people, two Sisters and a good friend. A couple of men who looked to be living on the streets called out to Sister Rosanne, who was with us. She lives in town and is a fixture in the local community, walking all over the city at the age of 85, praying and talking to people who have very few other places to turn for help. The men stopped and talked to her, just chatting, joking around, teasing her that she was just as skinny after Thanksgiving as she had been before, and she was laughing and rolling her eyes at them, and passing them coupons for local fast food places. One said to me, "Sister Rosanne, she's my best friend."  

"Have a good day, Michael," she said to him as they went on their way. "I'll see you at the kitchen tonight."

And I thought, yes, being a nun doesn't have to be a barrier between me and others. And I hope I find a way to make it work for me.

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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.